Creative Growth Featured | More or Less Magazine | June 2018

The Mavericks

Bay Area nonprofit Creative Growth is a space that allows the artistic lives of people with developmental, mental and physical disabilities to thrive. More Or Less pays a visit to its workshops in northern California, as a cast of fans and collaborators model the vivid, handcrafted garments made by the organisation’s members.

Text by Alex Tieghi-Walker
Photography by Max Farago
Styling by Eliza Conlon

Nick wears jacket by Stephanie Hill; Ashley wears wrap by Lisa Craib

Nick wears jacket by Stephanie Hill; jeans by Christine Szeto; clogs, Nick’s own; Ashley wears wrap by Lisa Craib; boots by Peter Salsman

Nick wears shirt by Sherrie Aradanas; jeans by Cedric Johnson; Catalina wears T-shirt by Walter Baldwin; jeans by Lena Salk; Ashley wears jeans by Christine Szeto; top by Dinah Shapiro; clogs, Ashley’s own; Ruby wears top by Miguel Palacios; jeans by Juan Aguilera; waistcoat by Barbara Mealey; vintage shoes from Mercy Vintage

Imagine that you could live in a different world. What would you want it to be like? For the artists who practise at Creative Growth, their vision of reality may not be the commonly understood one – but by bringing the anomalous work of these artists into the mainstream, it might just encourage us all to think outside of our own established boxes 

For more than four decades, Creative Growth has functioned as a hothouse of rare human flowers, providing a safe and functional space for adult artists with developmental disabilities to thrive. Built upon distinctly northern Californian ideas such as grassroots involvement, creative collaboration and social change, Creative Growth has given disenfranchised people the tools, space and support to express themselves. Beyond the studio, it provides gallery representation, and a team of resident supervising artists aid in the meaningful development of each studio artist. Work from the artists has been placed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale; the success of these models has inspired the creation of more than 40 similar centres across the USA.

If art is experiential and draws on the motives and realities of its creators, then these artists are no different. Disconnected in no easily definable way from the world in which most of us live, the artists at Creative Growth are inventors and brilliant truth-seekers: beacons who have created their own light. Most of these artists work with no audience in mind; with normality redefined by their personal experience of the world, their imagination discovers new universes, and enables them to express ideas free of agenda or societal constraint.

The textile studio at Creative Growth is a hive of extraordinary energy and productivity. Here, a diverse group of artists are working on finalising clothes for the annual fashion show – now in its eighth year, and the focus of a lot of excitement for the artists. Some artists work in groups, others alone. Wheelchairs speed through the studio floor on superhighways, and every visitor to the studio is greeted by a thousand excited handshakes. 

Christine’s collection of clothing pieces are built of layers and layers of bright fibres, textiles and threads bound together in exquisite crochet. She had never worked on garments before, but three visits a week to the centre for 10 years have made her a gifted textiler. When asked how long it takes her to make one of her pieces, she replies “as long as I want, it doesn’t matter!” Peter also uses wool to create dresses that dance with colour. He was a mechanic for most of his life, so working with materials that require precise and careful dexterity is natural for him, and has opened up a creative release. “I started doing crochet two years ago and I’ve been kicking out stuff,” he explains. “I made a dress – it took four and a half months to crochet the whole thing. I’m starting to work with leather this year, too. I miss working on cars, but I enjoy this.” 

“Their work is being created for purely personal reasons.” 

Other artists work with less precision, inventing their own processes and techniques, but with equally fascinating results. “Most of our artists aren’t trained artists; they didn’t go to fashion school,” explains Jessica from Creative Growth. “They don’t have the references many artists work from – that’s why it’s so refreshing. Their work is being created for purely personal reasons.” 

Natascha, a gentle personality in the studio, was working on her wedding dress. “I painted the dress blue, do you like it? And then I’m going to make flowers for my head.” Layers of pleated silk and patterned fabric have been embroidered with streaks of rainbow brightness. She will be wearing the dress down the catwalk during the fashion show. 

It’s rare to walk into an art space and feel the buzz of synapses and hear the snap of hands-on materials like this, and not a single part of the studio is at rest. “I’ll wear this in the fashion show,” explains Lisa, who paints on to fabric in bold metallic colours. “I’ve done all the work, so of course I won’t let someone else wear it!” Juan, working next to Lisa, paints oversized, cartoonish flowers on to denim. Creative Growth is given so many clothes donations – including from Bay Area brands like Levi’s and Gap – that they became an obvious canvas for many of the artists. In turn, the interest in creating clothing and fashion at the centre is surging: last year, there were 250 guests at the fashion show, and 35 of the artists walked their clothes down the runway; this year, 700 guests and 52 artists will be involved. Other artists who didn’t necessarily want to work on garments have created large-scale puppets, or table centrepieces.

The process is welcoming, inclusive and unquestionably spotlights some extraordinary, hard-driving visual culture. Part of what is so fascinating about Christine and Peter, and the other artists at Creative Growth, is that what distinguishes them from fully integrated members of society is not what they are trying to prove or to achieve, but how they go about proving and achieving it. Many of the artists at Creative Growth have created a whole new language, one that is so much richer in vocabulary and expression. 

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Models: Jenna Garrett, Ruby Goldberg, Beth Kaplan, Ashley Munns, Nicholas O’Neill, Oona O’Neill, Catalina Weber-Sanguinetti. Make-up: Siobhan Furlong. Production: Sophie Trauberman.