The Work Produced by Creative Growth’s artists represents everything I could hope for in art: it is simultaneously joyful, sincere, obsessive and puzzling and forcefully reminds me of why I remain committed to the potential of art to illuminate our lives.” ~ Mathew Higgs, Director and Chief Curator, White Columns, New York.
Screams, whistles and loud clapping fill the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland for the 8th annual Creative Growth fashion show. Forget New York, Paris, Milan and London fashion weeks where editors and bloggers sit politely evaluating designer’s collections as models walk devoid of smiles. Here is a place where the enthusiasm and delight wash over you and support for the artists reverberates from the walls. Many artists model their own creations and they are all ages and sizes. Some in wheel chairs, others dance and play to the crowd with no hint of shyness. There is a vitality in these designs that comes from unfettered creativity from the stunning hearts of artists whose developmental disabilities allow them to play without limits or rules. We tend to think that the more you know, the more successful you will be and most of the time that’s true, but there’s also a magic that happens when people try things they’ve never done before with no preconceptions about what something “should” be and these designs reflect the best of that kind of art.
Creative Growth was started by husband and wife Florence and Elias Katz. Florence, an artist and Elias, a psychologist created the organization in 1974 to serve artists with developmental and physical disabilities. They felt that art is a powerful way for people to connect and they wanted to give a place to the thousands of developmentally disabled released from state institutions under the Lanterman-Petris Short Act. It was a time when people with disabilities were being ignored by the system. In 1980 the space moved to a refurbished garage where it remains today, supported by 35 staff and tons of excited volunteers who find the work rewarding and transformational. Eight years ago, they began holding fashion shows as another way for their artists to share their creativity.
Mickey Boardman, Editorial Director of Paper Magazine was the MC this year and kicked things off with New York style getting the crowd laughing and excited to donate. It was a night to see real Bay Area style, which is true to its roots and about beautifully created artisanal clothing paired perfectly with designer pieces. Guests sported unique embroidered pieces from previous year’s shows and sipped delicious tequila cocktails in small glass bottles by Jessica Moncada who will soon be opening a bottled cocktail shop in Oakland named “Proof.”
This year’s show highlighted works by more than 50 Creative Growth artists (out of the 160 artists currently in residence), some of which were modeled by the artist and others that were modeled by Community Models. Costs for the show are covered by the generosity their sponsors, chief among them, Levis and Target. Levis donates denim jeans and jackets to be decorated. Target, Levis and other sponsors like the Museum of Ice Cream, cover the costs of the show so that all of the donations can go straight to covering art supplies for the center. Todd Waterbury, Chief Creative Officer of Target on what made the company decide to become a sponsor, “Target’s philosophy is inclusiveness. We want people to see that we represent everyone, and anyone creative can’t help but be moved by the work these artists are doing. Their creativity is open, authentic and inspirational.” With him was Caroline Wanga, Chief Inclusivity and Diversity Officer for Target dressed in stunning red African print and sheer organza pants (that she had made) and black Prada glasses.
Jessica Daniel, Communications and Partnership Manager and Becki Couch-Alvarado, Executive Director and Tom di Maria the Director, support the center with energy and enthusiasm and one rule which is “there are no rules.” I asked Jessica about this. No rules? None? I’m imagining how much time and effort most shows take. Do they start a year in advance? Do they have a dedicated team that directs each artist? The fashion garments from the show, are beautiful, unique and have obviously taken many hours to make, surely they took lots of planning? Jessica tells me, “Artist start on designs whenever they want, work in any media they want. Basically, our one rule is that there are no limits.” Wow. No rules and yet the show is a complete success year after year. The beautiful creations are immensely popular, with attendees nearly fighting over the clothes afterwards in the Creative Growth pop-up shop. I tried for several gorgeous pieces that would make a fashion blogger salivate but every time watched them snatched away just as my hand was reaching out. If I’d known competition would be so fierce I would have slammed some mocha java beforehand to speed up my reflexes.
Creative Growth is unique from other art organizations that work with people with disabilities. They don’t see their artists as any different from anyone else. Each artist becomes part of the family community and many become professional artists of note. The Creative Growth gallery is the oldest exhibition space dedicated to artwork made by those with disabilities and inside the space, they offer a variety of training in different art media: digital arts, knitting, ceramics, painting, textiles and wood shop. They offer a.m. and p.m. classes so that artists can explore all of the different media within the larger studio and find out what they enjoy doing. Each micro-studio is supported by staff who are also artists. To further support their artists, they promote their work at art fairs. Creative Growth works closely with the Diane Rosenstein Gallery in Los Angeles, and the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York as well as other galleries and museums in the US. Locally, in San Francisco, the 836M Gallery worked with them last year and MAC (Modern Appealing Clothing) started and run by Chris and Ben Ospital, one of the most respected clothing stores in the city, has long been a supporter, contributing and showcasing work in their store.
Dan Miller, whose paintings done in soft colors with scratchy lines are both powerful and ethereal, showed last year at the Venice Biennale and his work is collected by major art institutions around the world. The incredible fiber sculptures of Judith Scott (who passed away in 2005) also showed at the Venice Biennale and many of her works are still on the move in a traveling exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Previously, she’d had a show at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Creative Growths approach gives their artists dignity and respect as well as support and a voice, and, as is always the way when we invest in people, extends outwards to positively impact others. In this case, it’s often the lives of caregivers. Dan Miller’s sister, Cara Miller spoke at the show about how much it meant to her that CG gives her brother the kind of creativity and community that she can’t.
In addition to sponsors, Creative Growth is supported by a large number of volunteers and the community. Local Oakland and San Francisco consignment shops donate much of the clothing ensuring the pieces are of superb quality. Their visiting artists program is often the spark that creates “aha” moments for artists. Take John Hiltunen whose whimsical and charming collages are in high demand. He was in the fashion show for the first time with his wife this year. For a long time, he couldn’t find an art medium that he connected with, then one day a collage artist came to the center and something clicked. Judith Scott despite her current fame, also took awhile to find her medium but one day a visiting artist demonstrated wrapping techniques and she began making beautiful her beautiful sculptures that are now famous.
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