Outsiders In

Outsiders In

Creative Growth Center in Oakland

For the folks at Oakland’s Creative Growth Center, making art is fun and freeing. But their work lets the world see places usually left in shadow.

By Timothy Buckwalter

In a spacious studio in rapidly gentrifying midtown Oakland, artist Gerone Spruill is working on a series of black and white drawings which illuminate, through text and image, the multi-faceted history of disco. As alive as the music itself, one work details the exploits of one of Spruill’s favorite group of that bygone era, Shalamar, and its famous frontwoman Jody Watley. On the side, Spruill is a DJ, spinning the music he loves–’70s and ’80s funk and hip-hop–music that topped the charts when he was barely out of grade school.

Across the room from Spruill is Dan Miller, wearing a helmet and working on paper. He is layering words and numbers upon themselves with so much energy and commitment they become almost an abstract painting, a beautiful mishmash of code and color. Over in the ceramics studio, Charles Nagle is finishing up a sculpture commission for a local photographer’s garden. The piece–which looks a bit like a cement cyclone–is very tactile. Perfect, because the photographer is blind and likes the feel of Nagle’s work.

Nearby, William Scott is reinventing the housing projects in his neighborhood of Hunters Point, adding a Disneyland-like amusement park and special housing for his beloved gospel choir. Scott’s urban renewal master plan–drawings and architectural models–will soon be shipped to New York for exhibition at one of Manhattan’s premier galleries, White Columns. White Columns recently hosted a solo exhibition by Scott’s colleague Aurie Ramirez, selling out most of her 70 watercolors which depict the exploits of a band of people who look like a hybrid of the Addams Family and KISS.

All of these painters and sculptors are either mentally or physically disabled, and are part of a group of more than 140 working artists from all parts of the Bay Area who share studio space at and are represented by Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center.

Many are on the verge of breaking

into the contemporary art world. Some, like Ramirez, are beginning to “mainstream,” moving out of their place in the “outsider” art scene, a subsection of the art world that deals in folk art or art made by isolated artists–think Henry Darger or Grandma Moses–into the contemporary art market. In recent years, collectors have flown from as far as Japan and Switzerland to visit the center. The artists’ work often features a concentrated quality that is quite popular in today’s art world. Jim Shaw, Tracy Emin, Matthew Barney, Chris Johanson, the list of acclaimed contemporary artists obsessed with something–their dreams, their sex lives, their bodies, their scuzzy friends–could go on for pages. Creative Growth’s artists have a few obsessions themselves, perhaps even more deeply-held than those of today’s art superstars, and they have been turning their interests into amazing bodies of art.

Creative Growth was founded more than 30 years ago by Elias and Florence Katz, both then in their 60s. Initially the couple simply handed out art supplies from their garage to recently-deinstitutionalized adults with an artistic bent. Over the years, Creative Growth Art Center grew into a studio program that is now open five full days per week, staffed by professional artists, and charged with assisting physically, mentally, and developmentally disabled adult artists as they explore their artistic potential.

Creative Growth is still clearly connected to a moment in the 1970s, when the Bay Area had a much more radical optimism and hope for social change than is evident today. Most of the staff have degrees in art, but none in any kind of therapy. The therapeutic value Creative Growth’s painters and sculptors find in their process is the same any other artist does. When an artist finishes a successful piece, he feels a little better because he put himself and his emotions and ideas out there, saying to the world, “this is me”–and the world listens.

Housed in a cavernous former car showroom, Creative Growth offers a painting area, a sculpture workshop, a ceramics studio with a kiln, a fiber arts section, and a gallery. At 9 a.m., artists begin lining up outside, waiting for their workday to begin. Soon after the doors open at 9:30, everyone settles into their work spaces. The building comes to life with a lively buzzing among friends, an occasional snicker, sporadic giggling, and the sound of music.

Heads turn and work stops when Creative Growth’s Executive Director arrives. Tom DiMaria, a youthful 42-year-old, is a combination protective older brother and starry-eyed dreamer. An artist teases, “Here comes the real troublemaker.” Another shows off the progress of his latest work, rattling off the numbers and words layered into it. DiMaria listens intently to all, jokes with a few, and always has something positive to say.

DiMaria wasn’t looking for a job five years ago when he walked into Creative Growth for the first time. He was the Assistant Director of the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum when he first stopped by out of curiosity.

“Seeing an artist without the ability to use words still trying to express herself to another person through sculpture made me realize how basic the need to communicate is to humanity,” DiMaria recalls. “It was amazing. I had never seen anything like it before.”

These moments of revelation are common to those who first encounter Creative Growth. Matthew Higgs, Director of White Columns–the New York gallery that recently exhibited Aurie Ramirez–used to run the gallery space at California College of Art. In 2001 he lived right around the corner from Creative Growth. “When I walked in, I was overwhelmed,” he recalls. “I think I was struck by this extraordinary model of cooperation. The working atmosphere was staggering. It really challenges your ideas of what constitutes self-taught, naive, or outsider art. Creative Growth has created a space and program where those terms no longer apply–an environment as substantial as an art or graduate school.”

At Creative Growth, the artists sometimes work on each other’s projects. On a given day you may find an artist like William Tyler, who usually creates very intricate ink drawings of himself and his twin brother, taking a break from his portraits to lend a hand by hooking a rug based on a drawing by sculptor Louis Estape. After his coffee break from 10:30 to 10:45, Tyler rounds up a few dawdlers and shepherds them back to their pieces.

Anyone with a disability and an artistic bent is welcomed. The participating artists take their work seriously and so does Creative Growth. The staff meet regularly to review and discuss the progress of the artists, to encourage most and consider the futures of others who may not be suited for the business of art. Creative Growth does not force the artists to exhibit or sell their work. Only a handful choose to. The staff understand that not everything will be a masterpiece; that some of the artists want to work on only one painting a year, and after they finish they may not want anyone to see it. That’s what art is about: a huge exertion of energy and materials with no promise of gain or utility. Creative Growth asks only that its artists be seriously committed to exploring and fostering their talent. In essence, they are saying to their community of artists, “We’re in this together, so let’s not waste each other’s time.”

In 1987, Judith Scott, a 44-year-old woman with Down syndrome who had spent most of her life in an institution, was brought by her twin sister to Creative Growth. She spent the next 12 years producing highly original, three-dimensional sculpture–figurative pieces, most nearly as big as she was, tightly entwined in colorful strings and yarn. Doctors, early on, had misdiagnosed Scott as severely retarded when, in fact, she was mildly retarded and deaf. She had never been given the opportunity to learn to speak, yet she was creating work that could stand beside pieces made by contemporary artists working in the fiber arts movement. Scott was the subject of a retrospective in 2001 that traveled to Chicago, New York, Switzerland, and Tokyo. Two years later she died. Scott’s estate is now represented by Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York, but she is still mostly known in the “outsider” area of the art world.

The art world was not always as segmented as it is today. In the New York of the late 1940s and early ’50s, a visitor making the gallery rounds could expect to go into the Betty Parsons Gallery and see a show of rhythmic paintings by a young man named Jackson Pollock, then return the following month and discover a show of masks and carvings made by Indians of the Northwest. The art buzz at that time was Abstract Expressionism, a movement heavily influenced by Surrealism. And Surrealism took as one of its major influences works done by the mentally disabled, which the Surrealists felt represented a spontaneous working process and stream-of-consciousness thinking.

Which brings us back full circle. Contemporary artist Dave Muller–a Bay Area native who now lives in Los Angeles and was featured in the last Whitney Biennial–recently collaborated with the Creative Growth artists and owns a few of their works, which he calls “fascinating and amazing.”

“Everyone has kind of agreed upon what art should be,” Muller muses. “But my work is about drawing connections between things not sitting together, that cross over various boundaries. Creative Growth is refreshing because the artists seem to have no rules, yet they engage in contemporary art-making strategies.”

Gallery director Matthew Higgs explains his rationale for showing a Creative Growth artist. “With Aurie Ramirez’s work I felt an obligation to put it out in the world. A lot of artists and some major collectors bought her work. We were very respectful about explaining Ramirez’s condition [an autism that includes some symptoms of dyslexia], but we didn’t present her work as privileged or ‘outsider.’ And the response we had to her was equal to any exhibition I’ve curated in my 15 years. Most people thought of it as incredibly brilliant and fresh.

“There are all sorts of intelligence–book smarts, street smarts, athletic smarts,” Muller continues. “I believe it has been easier for the art market to take a minimalist approach, limiting what they accept, keeping the spotlight on a few artists and movements. But I feel that this is changing and Creative Growth is helping with that.”

Tom DiMaria takes it a little further saying, “The actions lead the ideas. When you see Creative Growth artists alongside another contemporary artist, it creates a context and leads people to the inevitable conclusion that our artists lead a contemporary life. A lot of younger working artists can relate to what they see as an honesty in our artists’ work.”

Obviously Creative Growth’s work with disabled artists has had a positive effect on the lives of its artists; some have been with the program for more than 15 years. As a result of her New York success, Aurie Ramirez was able to afford an assistant to help her take her medication and navigate the other daily chores of life.

As Matthew Higgs points out, Creative Growth’s international success only underscores a larger need. “What is daunting about the Art Center is that the bulk of the artists come from within a 15-mile radius, and within the group there are 15 to 20 really substantial, talented artists. If it weren’t for Creative Growth these artists would have no place to go, no place to show. We wouldn’t know about their work. Every large metropolitan area in the world probably has the same amount of untapped talent, and the sadness is that a massive amount of their work will never be seen.”

In 1996, SFMOMA mounted a show of the controversial late paintings by Willem DeKooning. The show created a stir nationally because it was revealed that DeKooning painted the mammoth works while he was suffering from a form of senility that mimicked Alzheimer’s disease. He had continued working into old age, but as a mentally disabled artist. Some of the works shown were from Bay Area collectors; others would soon end up in the museum’s collection. But the ground broken by the DeKooning show would remain untilled. Despite its international success, Creative Growth has no major collectors in the Bay Area.

Maybe the older generation of Bay Area collectors are just waiting for New York’s stamp of approval on Creative Growth Art Center. Well then, let the local feeding frenzy begin. l


Timothy Buckwalter, a painter represented by Rebecca Ibel Gallery, is married to author Nell Bernstein. They live with their twins, Nicholas and Ruby, in Albany. Buckwalter is The Monthly’s art critic.

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