he corner of 24th and Valdez in Uptown Oakland, where you’ll find the Creative Growth Art Center, is home to a lot of contradictions. Blocks of boarded-up businesses are punctuated by tall glass buildings, while kids in hand-me-downs sit at Lake Merritt picnics next to men in suits talking deliberately (and loudly) into their smartphones. Meanwhile, new boundaries and new obstacles related to subculture and accessibility spring up daily — but an unexpected subproduct of this change (at least in its current state) is a fusionist atmosphere where there is seemingly something for everyone in Oakland.
People often talk about the intersection of accessibility — in regards to subcultures, race and diversification — when discussing Oakland, yet accessibility for people with disabilities is an oft-neglected topic. There is one very special place in Oakland, however, creating a safe haven for people with disabilities. The Creative Growth Art Center provides free artistic space, materials and instruction for both adults and young adults with disabilities. It’s a professional gallery and art studio — think pottery wheels and drawing tables and a woodshop and miles of fabric and materials — housed in a warehouse, and all of the artists have some form of mental, physical or developmental disability.
To Julie Alvarado, studio manager, the center is much more than a place to make art — the pieces created there make a larger statement about ability and disability.
“The Creative Growth Art Center is not a place that produces and exhibits ‘disabled art,’ ” Alvarado said. “Instead it is simply art that is made by artists who have a disability.” In 1974, the husband and wife pair of Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz (Ludins-Katz was an artist and Katz was a psychologist) started Creative Growth in their garage. “In a moment where funding was cut, a lot of people were deinstitutionalized and taken out of these environments where they were taken care of,” said Jessica Daniel, marketing and community development manager at center. “(They were) kind of set free, and there was a sense of need for people to have a place to go, a community where people can find their voices and express themselves.” This need was filled by Creative Growth. More than 150 artists are served at the studio, with about 90 working on pieces each day. Similar to the way California’s public schools work, Creative Growth gets a certain amount of money from the state per head, Daniel explained. This public funding coupled with the fact that Creative Growth owns its building allows the center to stay open in an ever-changing Oakland. In addition to the studio space, there’s a gallery component of the building where art is curated and displayed in a professional setting.
Daniel also spoke about the process by which the art made at Creative Growth achieves success in the mainstream art world.
“You know, everybody wants to show their art and share their life, and it’s pretty special.”
“We exhibit (the artists’) work in our gallery as well as at international art fairs, and we represent them the way a regular gallery would represent any artist: getting them into museum collections, into the right kind of collections in general,” she said. Former Creative Growth artist Judith Scott, who was deaf and had Down syndrome, has sculptures currently showcased in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Collection de l’Art Brut in Switzerland and the Museum of Everything in London, among other collections.
Daniel describes Creative Growth’s annual fundraiser, a fashion show, as “a really great big celebration of everybody here,” and even on an average Thursday morning, Creative Growth seems like a celebration. As a guest in its studio, I was genuinely welcomed with open arms, with many artists coming over to say “hello” and show me their work. Monica, one of the artists who welcomed me wearing a necklace crafted out of bike reflectors, asked me if I have a bike. She was looking to add to her collection. Min showed me her pottery based on Minions: “If you’re into minions, go here! Yeah that’s mine, that’s mine!” To Rydell, another artist, Daniel called out, “You’re looking good in the corduroy!” Rydell responded, “New, that’s my new pants,” and Daniel warmly replied, “Looking good, I like the ‘all gray’ look too.” She turned to me and commented, “Yes, there are a lot of personalities here. I really get to know a lot of the artists. … It’s fantastic, the best thing about being here.”
Artists at Creative Growth are not static; there is a lot of collaboration and community engagement involved in the creation of a piece. Seeing the artists diligently at work, perched at tables and motioning to one another, it’s clear the impact that art makes on these their lives. “You know, everybody wants to show their art and share their life, and it’s pretty special,” said Daniel. Daniel said that this presents a great opportunity for the greater community to get involved — even college students can become members for $25 per year, and membership gives access to studio tours and discounted artwork. There are many tiers of prices for CG artwork, and by buying a piece from Creative Growth, you don’t only get a beautiful piece of art, but you also get to support a program that means so much to so many people. The openness and accessibility of CG is quite rare for an art studio, and Daniel commented on it: “You’ll often get to see (a piece of art) hanging on a wall, but here you get to see it in action, see that there is a lot of artistic practice, and that does result in a lot of beautiful art. So it’s a pretty special thing.”
In a world where there seems to be fewer and fewer opportunities and spaces for disabled people, Creative Growth is here to stay. Amid the contradictions of Oakland — pop-up beer gardens next to decrepit pawn shops, one of the lowest-ranked school systems in America neighboring a store that sells belts that will set you back $200 — there lies a much happier contradiction. That of a professional, sophisticated art studio using its resources not to cater to the pretentious, wealthy crowd, but instead showcasing the art of people whose voices might not be able to be found and heard otherwise.
Rebecca Hurwitz is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]