Where Great Art Transcends Disability

Creative Growth first started in 1974 in the Oakland garage of Elias Katz, a clinical psychologist, and Florence Ludins-Katz, an artist and educator. During this time, people with developmental disabilities in California were first being deinstitutionalized. The founders felt art would help integrate patients back into society after being in an institution for so long. Creative Growth is the first and largest art center for artists with disabilities in the world. Prior to its creation, any artistic activity happened in an art room in a hospital. There had never been an art center whose mission was dedicated to art for and by people with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities.

Over time, the center grew. "We are noticing a generational shift," says Di Maria. "The older artists, having led an institutional life, want to be told where to have lunch and have more institutional behaviors. The younger artists come with modern expectations, seeing art as a career and wanting to see their work in a commercial gallery." Today, Creative Growth serves 162 artists, who regularly exhibit locally and internationally. The artists receive fifty percent of any money made off their work and the non-profit receives the other half -- the same cut as a commercial gallery. There's also a cooperative agreement: some money goes into a pot so that even if an artist does not sell anything, he or she still receives a monthly check. Everyone there is a working artist.

images-3.jpgJudy embraces one of her sculptures. [Leon Borensztein]

Art made by people with disabilities has been called "brut art," "raw art," "naïve art" and "outsider art." The term "outsider" art became the most popular term to refer to art made outside of an academic setting and outside of any relationship to art history. Entire galleries devote themselves to showcasing outsider art. But Creative Growth uses none of these terms.

"Discussing someone's diagnosis in relationship to their art is a delicate balance," says Di Maria. "You shouldn't like it just because it is made by someone with Cerebral Palsy or Down's Syndrome. You should love it and then find out who the artist is and their story." Most of the artist's biographies do not mention any disabilities.

"I don't call them 'outsider' because they have lived outside of society their whole lives," Di Maria adds. His tone always communicates immense respect for the artists he works with. "We don't like to reinforce them as being different, so we say 'contemporary artists.' They exhibit a unique voice and a unique vision not seen by other makers. This is what makes the work particularly interesting."

In terms of the future of Creative Growth, Di Maria says that the staff continues to consult on creating similar centers around the country and around the world. In fact, he has just returned from South Korea, having been invited by the government to assist with their transition from deinstitutionalization. "What they have in South Korea is like what we had in the 1950's," he says. "They have never done anything like Creative Growth before." In January, three Korean artists will be featured by Creative Growth at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City.

They also have plans to turn the entire center over to the artists themselves. "We want to empower them to own and operate their own facility," says Di Maria. Already some of the long-time artists with disabilities work as teaching assistants, at public events, and as curators and philanthropists.

In 2005, Judy passed away while asleep in Joyce's arms. Creative Growth and her art live on. Like all the artists at Creative Growth, and other similar centers in Baltimore, Chicago, New York, London, Paris , Switzerland, and elsewhere, Judy communicated her insider experiences through her art. Perhaps she is not so much an outsider but an insider, inviting the rest of us in.

Presented by

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky, Psy.D., is a community and clinical psychologist based in Hawaii and the Cook Islands. She teaches at Hawaii Pacific University and writes about health across different cultures.

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