The second I step into Creative Growth one late Friday morning, I feel slightly elated. It may have something to do with the sunlight streaming through the ceiling windows of the wide-open space, a white-walled relative of the equally amazing (in an entirely different manner) Paramount Theatre a few blocks away. It may have something to do with the fact that almost 100 people are making art at the same time and instead of hearing snippy criticisms, I’m meeting a guy named Jorge Gomez, who likes to hug. Whatever it is, it isn’t an accident. A few hours later I read an excellent profile of Creative Growth by Cheryl Dunn in ANP Quarterly, and she describes the same overwhelming and singular sensation that comes with encountering "the ferocious energy of intense art-making and creative energy being mined from the deepest levels of human consciousness."
Since 1974, Creative Growth has served artists with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities. It’s the oldest and largest studio of its kind in the world. It has not only exerted a deep influence on today’s Bay Area visual art (to cite an immediate example, at least two other 2007 Goldie winners have connections to Creative Growth) but also been the home studio of artists such as George Kellogg, Dwight Mackintosh, Donald Mitchell, William Scott, and the late Judith Scott, each one distinctively visionary. Creative Growth and all of its artists, past and present, deserve the Lifetime Achievement Award, though the world has yet to catch up with what’s happening at 355 24th St. in downtown Oakland.
"Working in the midst of 150 living artists making things every day has been an incredible experience," Jennifer O’Neal, Creative Growth’s gallery director, says to me as we sit at a table within the gallery, which is connected to the space’s studio in a manner completely at odds with the sterile insularity of commercial art spots. "It’s art doing something very real. Art can be a privilege, and this place turns privilege on its ear."
In the seven years since Creative Growth’s executive director Tom di Maria arrived from the Berkeley Art Museum and the five years since O’Neal ventured over from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art the Creative Growth force field has extended across the country and around the world; for example, both the space and William Scott have had shows at New York’s White Columns gallery space, just two of at least a dozen such shows happening in different cities and countries this year. "William’s mother and sister traveled with him," O’Neal says, remembering Scott’s solo exhibition, every piece of which was sold. "Now, at the age of 40, he can start to take care of them."
Scott may or may not be at the studio the day I’m at Creative Growth. After admiring his fantastic paintings of San Francisco and the Bay Area since 2004, when local painter Timothy Buckwalter first told me about them, I’m a bit starstruck especially when Creative Growth teacher Spike Milliken (after waving hello to fellow practicing artist Tara Tucker) shows me some of Scott’s latest large-scale, increasingly intricate paintings of a penthouse-free Frisco, where sites such as Orlando Towers and Hallelujah Village thrive. "Check out the depth of feeling," Milliken says, pointing to the individually nuanced lights within the windows of a Scott-rendered building that looks uncannily like Fox Plaza. Ten minutes later I marvel at some enormous Frankenstein’s monster heads in the corner of a storage space. It turns out that Scott, who loves Halloween, made them.
Milliken gives me a whirlwind tour of Creative Growth, showing me Stanley Rexwinkle’s narratively complicated yet spare work, Chuck Nagle’s big sculptures, some dessert-themed art by the witty Terri Bowden, a T-shirt featuring John Martin’s drawing of a fly ("It might represent wildlife in his landscape"), and William Tyler’s ’50s-sensibility interiors. All of these people are featured in One Is Adam, One Is Superman: The Outsider Artists of Creative Growth (Chronicle Books), which pairs their pieces with deeply candid photo portraits by Leon Borensztein, but to see their art in person is something else entirely. I’m momentarily hypnotized by stacks and stacks of Mackintosh’s and Mitchell’s drawings. Then Milliken opens a drawer filled with the NECCO-shaded, gender-bending glam dandies of Aurie Ramirez, and I’m wowed once more.
"If we considered alcoholism a disability, there would be no more distinction between artists and artists with disabilities," Milliken says as we once again cross from the gallery back to the studio and check in with Nick Pagan as he works in Creative Growth’s ceramic space. That type of thought is one I’ve entertained often in recent years, after making art with many of the same materials found at Creative Growth played a huge role in digging me out of the depressive side of manic depression. Within the art world and the academy there has been a lot of writing about definitions of and responses to outsider art, but much of it usually makes me want to simply go straight to the source the art itself and to early texts such as Roger Cardinal’s sadly out-of-print 1972 book Outsider Art (Praeger), which engages with Jean Dubuffet and art brut while presenting pieces by Adolf Wölfli and others that cry out for color-plate treatment. Who is outside and who is inside, anyway?
Outside Creative Growth, many if not all of the space’s artists are treated like outsiders; inside Creative Growth they’re in touch with their selves in a manner that exposes the ignorance of increasingly automated urban ways of being. "Matthew Higgs has said something [in an article by Buckwalter] that stuck with me," O’Neal relates at the end of our conversation. "Creative Growth serves a 24-mile radius of persons with disabilities around the East Bay. If you were to take a compass and trace a similar circle around any urban center, you’d find that talent."
Get out your compass and start tracing.