An Art Center’s New Walls

Creative Growth Art Center gets a much-needed facelift for its Outsider Artists.

According to Whistler, “Art happens — no hovel is safe from it, no Prince may depend upon it, the vested intelligence cannot bring it about, and puny efforts to make it universal end in quaint comedy and coarse farce.” Creativity is indeed an unpredictable, anarchic force, and many artists resist regimentation. Outsider Artists, who come to art with little or no training or education, are perhaps the most independent. In the 1940s, the French painter Jean Dubuffet championed what he called Art Brut, raw art (i.e., unsocialized by culture): “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses — where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere — are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade. “

It’s not quite that simple anymore. The art of “the naive, the innocent, the self-taught, the visionary, the intuitive, the eccentric; the schizophrenic, the developmentally disabled, the psychotic, the obsessive, the compulsive,” to quote Robert Comings’ comprehensive roster, has been increasingly accepted by the mainstream. The alternately florid and funky depictions of fantasy worlds and extreme mental states find support and encouragement from collectors and museums. This year’s Outsider Art Fair in New York, for example, featured 34 galleries; Art Brut Connaissance and Diffusion preserves and protects untutored visionary art; a London-based international magazine, Raw Vision, discovers and promulgates new talent; and while Henry Darger, Howard Finster, Martin Ramirez, and Judith Scott are not yet household brands, their names are familiar to most art aficionados. We in the Bay Area are fortunate to have local institutions and galleries — and a collector base — that support such authentic and sometimes outré work.

Oakland’s Creative Growth, now in its 35th year, is one of these institutions. When California’s Lanterman-Petris-Short Act deinstitutionalized adults newly deemed capable of living independently, Dr. Elias Katz, a psychologist, and his wife Florence Ludins-Katz, an artist and art teacher, founded the first art center anywhere designed to serve developmentally disabled adults with artistic bents. Since 1974 it has served as a model for more than a dozen similar art centers in California (as has its younger Katz-founded sibling in nearby Richmond, NIAD, the National Institute of Art and Disabilities). Providing professional-quality art materials, equipment, and technical assistance, a safe workplace, and a social network or community of peers, it has helped create artists and art audiences, as well as artwork.

While the intuitive, imaginative art speaks for itself to viewers, showing it in the context it deserves has been another matter. In 1980, with the aid of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Creative Growth added a gallery space for the proper display of artworks that once lay stacked on the floor while their preoccupied creators moved obliviously on to their next projects. While that early gallery helped increase its artists’ visibility, it never quite escaped being seen stylistically as Nonprofit Makeshift, the walled-off, repurposed section of an auto body shop that it was. Two years ago that began to change when Director Tom di Maria embarked on an ambitious and successful campaign to renovate the entire building. After raising $1.3 million from generous members, donors, and grant foundations, with no government funding, Creative Growth brought in architect Anne Fougeron and Higuera Price Construction to create an environment that would accommodate both mission statement and quotidian realities. They added heating ducts and new mezzanine office space, improved access to elevator and kiln, and constructed a new professional-quality gallery space. The redone building is a spacious, light-filled delight for both artists and visitors, for whom watching art-making from the gallery doorway over the workspace and scanning the shelves for treasures in progress will be equally tempting.

New Walls is the gallery’s inaugural exhibition. Featuring work by eighteen artists, it’s a show with many voices and themes. Luis Aguilera draws simplified, colorful, rhythmic figures and birds inhabiting an ambiguous space. Ramon Avalos makes color-field drawings, with the same arcing gesture repeated in different colors, blending and interlacing. The drawings by Olga Bielma of simplified and isolated people, animals, flowers, and jewelry from books and magazines are both whimsical and mysterious. Terri Bowden paints rabbits on plywood cutouts; pink-eared, -eyed, and -footed, they’re at rest, yet poised for action. Kim Clark draws male heads: whether realistic portraits with odd devil’s horns, or quartets of imaginary figures set on a blue ground, they all have an Expressionist angular rhythm. Luis Estape’s pastel and marker cutout figures on wood, large-headed and small-limbed, are covered with stripes, diamonds, squares, and tiny people exacting obscure dramas. The colored pencil drawings of Sher-Ron Freeman depict dense fields of abstracted flowers. Vera Hollins’ cartoon-based tapestries depict a hatted dog, an impostor chicken in a birdbath, and eight men’s and women’s heads arrayed like comic mug shots. Interest in machines is evident in John Martin’s drawings of trucks and tractors and his sculptures of folding saws and Swiss Army knives. Dan Miller draws networks of repeated, superimposed words in different colors in pastel, marker, and watercolor; they’re partly abstract and partly verbal, like signage in a strange country. Chuck Nagle takes the ceramic pinch-pot to comic biomorphic extremes, building them into rubbery-looking tubes or tentacles. In Aurie Ramirez’s elegant ink and watercolor drawings, a fantasy world of mime-faced young women in Sgt. Pepper uniforms and Napoleoinic tricorns and top-hatted gentlemen prepare for drives in their futuristic lemon-shaped cars. Judith Scott’s three strange bundles are wrapped in yarn and string: cocoons, webs, or vascular systems. Joyful black people are the subject of William Scott’s masterful, strong paintings, whether they’re the Tough Gods in Good Spirits, Planet Patrolmen, citizens of Wholesome World, or the go-go girls of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. Dinah Shapiro creates ceramic statues shaped like roots or stalagmites inscribed with fairy-tale figures. Gerone Spruill draws album or CD covers with imaginary musicians (Milkjay, Jismo) in fezzes and starry yellow shades. William Tyler draws amiable-looking men surrounded by oceans of stripes and stippled dots and captions, alternating between stream-of-consciousness discursiveness and a mock-bureaucratic tone: “Sad days and sad nights,” “Banks and savings for men and women.” And Merritt Wallace creates colorful, chaotic drawings that mix game boards with maps, stadiums, and pinball machines.

New Walls is a heterogeneous mix, naturally, embodying the playful spirit that has presided at Creative Growth for more than three decades. While the renovated building in Oakland testifies to the organization’s importance as a regional center, its international reputation is being enhanced too, with the upcoming addition of Galerie Impaire (meaning “odd”) in Paris. The world’s first independent international art gallery run by an arts organization for the benefit of developmentally disabled artists worldwide will open June 11 at 47 rue de Lancry in the developing art neighborhood of the Tenth Arrondissement. The inaugural exhibition will include artists from the Bay Area, Japan, and New Zealand, along with photographs of outsider-disabled artists.


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