9:24am

Wed December 21, 2011
Arts & Culture

Art center gives voice to the Bay Area’s developmentally disabled

Art can be extraordinary. It can convey beauty ... imagination  ... and wonder. For some artists, it can literally communicate what their words cannot.

In Oakland, artists with developmental disabilities find a place to express themselves at the Creative Growth Art Center. But budget cuts to county and state social service programs are making it harder for them to pursue their artistic visions.

KALW’s Nicole Jones reports.

TOM DI MARIA: That’s a big painting, Barry. What color are you painting right now?

BARRY REAGAN: Blue.

DI MARIA: Blue? That’s my favorite color. Is that why you’re using blue?

REAGAN: Yeah.

DI MARIA: That’s what I thought you’d say, that’s a good answer.

NICOLE JONES: Tom di Maria is the director of Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. He’s talking with artist Barry Reagan.

DI MARIA: I think that’s one of the biggest paintings you’ve ever made. How big would you say it is?

REAGAN: Bigger than me and you.

DI MARIA: Yeah, it is bigger than me and you.

Di Maria and Reagan are standing in a huge studio with high ceilings. It’s got a wood shop and places to make textiles and mosaics. Beside them, artists sketch and paint at a long table.

The room is abuzz with artwork being made. This is the Creative Growth Studio and Gallery.

REAGAN: Would you buy it if it was on the market?

DI MARIA: Paulina says no.

REAGAN: Oh man.

DI MARIA: But you’re having fun doing it. That’s what you’re here for.

Reagan is one of 40 artists here today. One of the hundreds who have passed through Creative Growth’s doors. The studio for developmentally disabled artists was founded in the early 1970s, making it the first of its kind in the nation.

DI MARIA: We encourage creativity. There’s no right or wrong. We don’t tell people what to do and sometimes that’s a challenge – a big piece of paper with a pencil, you know essentially, that’s a really tough problem to solve, aesthetically. And we wait and we see what happens, and sort of phenomenal things do, particularly in a population that has often been told, they can’t contribute, they can’t be successful, they really have nothing to offer. People don’t want to hear what they have to say.

Here, they are recognized. Right now, the artists are mostly too immersed in their work to look up – the world is at their fingertips.

NATASHA HAELEN: I’m making flowers, I’m doing a cut. I cut a block here and here. I like it. I happy.

Natasha Haelen is sitting at a table gluing scraps of wood together to make geometric designs. Her final touch is painting spots on the wood, or in today’s case, painting flowers.

HAELEN: The bottom one, that’s mine. I did that.

People like Haelen used to be separated from society. Institutionalized. But in 1969, California lawmakers passed a bill that moved many people with developmental disabilities out of institutions and into community-based settings. Within the first decade of the bill’s passage, 21 non-profits, including Creative Growth started up in California.

DI MARIA: At that time our founders thought, “Well, what are these people going to do?” So they literally set up a folding table in their house and had people come. They put paint out, they believed in the transformative power of art, and people with disabilities becoming deinstitutionalized came there. And 38 years later, we now serve 162 artists with disabilities here in our Oakland studio every week.

But county and state budget cuts for health services affect what Creative Growth can provide. Di Maria says the recession has made it harder for an already vulnerable population to pay for transportation, housing and medicine. But the artists can get some extra cash by selling their work in the gallery next door. Prices run from $20 up to $1,000 during special fundraising events. Half of the proceeds go to the artist, the rest goes to Creative Growth.

DI MARIA: What kind of design and paintings to put on the bowls because they are really beautiful.

JUAN: Oh like hummingbirds, bees, flowers, lady bugs, and sometimes like horses, and sometimes fish too, because they make bubbles.

DI MARIA: And how do you feel if someone comes and takes one of your bowls home with them?

JUAN: Oh I feel lucky, very lucky. I say good luck.

DI MARIA: For me, the thing that amazes me is the power of believing in people and supporting them to be creative. And you take someone who has been institutionalized their whole life, without language, outside of society, and you put him or her in a situation and you say, “Tell me your story.”

The artists at Creative Growth are creating something much more than art to put on display – they’re also creating community. Every day, sitting side by side, they share laughter along with tubes of paint. And, at least in this setting, at this time, through their artwork, they can openly communicate with everyone.

In Oakland, I’m Nicole Jones, for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired July 13, 2011.

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