written by:
photos by:
February 26, 2009
Originally published in Smaller is Smarter
Curatorial manager Jennifer Strate O’Neal calls Creative Growth Art Center the “homestead” of a now-flourishing creative community in Oakland, California.
Jennifer Strate O’Neal stands in front of a print portfolio from 1985. The Diana Ross bust is by William Scott, whose self-portrait is on the floor, among works by Angela Archuleta, Dan Miller, and Donald Mitchell. The soft sculpture is by Judith Scott and the clay forms are by Charles Nagle.
Photo by 
1 / 4
Untitled, 2005, by Dan Miller
Photo by 
2 / 4
Untitled, 1989, by Judith Scott
Photo by 
3 / 4
New Fox Plaza, 2005, by William Scott
Photo by 
4 / 4
o neal jennifer portrait
Jennifer Strate O’Neal stands in front of a print portfolio from 1985. The Diana Ross bust is by William Scott, whose self-portrait is on the floor, among works by Angela Archuleta, Dan Miller, and Donald Mitchell. The soft sculpture is by Judith Scott and the clay forms are by Charles Nagle.

In the summer of 2004, Creative Growth Gallery opened the group show “I ♥ Music” without text on the walls. Visitors were flummoxed. While unorthodox for any gallery to hang work without attribution, Creative Growth’s choice was especially provocative as the show mixed artists with physical and developmental disabilities with professionals. Visitors wanted to know who made what. The point was: Is there a difference?

Creative Growth Art Center began in 1974 in the Oakland, California, living room of psychologist Elias Katz and educator Florence Ludins-Katz. With the belief that art is a universal means of expression, and one that people with disabilities could use to communicate and contribute to society, the pair provided art supplies and workspace to a handful of adults with disabilities. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Growth established a gallery in 1980; like the studio, it was the first of its kind.

For more than 20 years the studio and gallery have operated in concert out of a warehouse in Oakland’s Auto Row. Curatorial manager Jennifer Strate O’Neal calls it the “homestead” of a now-flourishing creative community. The studio itself has blossomed into a daily workshop for 148 artists working in mediums that range from pottery, weaving, and woodworking to film and painting. While writers and critics struggle to categorize the work, often settling on the quasi-archaic and potentially misleading term “outsider art,” the truth is that Creative Growth artists are a coterie in contact with both high and popular culture. Their studio is open to visitors, and they have access to working artists, as well as to a wide range of supplies and reference materials. When the day is done, about 80 percent of them go to group homes, where they socialize or watch TV, like anyone else. 

As gallery director, O’Neal feels it’s her responsibility to present “a window into the studio,” to inspire collectors to contextualize the work by showing it in other collections or environments. A former curatorial assistant for SFMOMA, O’Neal finds the fecundity at Creative Growth invigorating: “By the end of some afternoons the floor is so thick with art you can’t walk through here.” In contrast to her academic background, she says “it’s a luxury” to witness the artistic process and also to be part of the lives of people with disabilities. As executive director Tom di Maria puts it, “We’re turning the idea of developmental disability on its head with the art process. It is fundamentally important as an advocacy issue, but it’s also visually compelling—it challenges the art world to consider a whole new realm of visual interpretation.”

Creative Growth artists have received some of the art world’s greatest benedictions: reviews in the New York Times, purchases by public collections, and appearances at the NADA Art Fair, a satellite show of Art Basel Miami Beach. Recently, a single Judith Scott piece sold for $15,000. Thanks to the success of her solo exhibition at White Columns gallery in New York, Aurie Ramirez was able to afford an assistant to aid her with daily tasks. And when William Scott (no relation to Judith) came back from his nearly sold-out solo show at White Columns, he began calling himself an artist. As O’Neal points out, “For any creative person, there are artificial rules about when you can call yourself an artist—the moment you’re comfortable identifying yourself as one is a big deal.”

“Creative Growth is a nexus of contemporary culture,” says di Maria, “both in terms of how we’ve defined this neighborhood and how our artists are leading and inspiring academically trained artists.” While di Maria and O’Neal are aware that the work produced at Creative Growth is novel—the fickle art world’s most prized quality—they are happy to take advantage of opportunities for the artists’ sake; they also don’t mind if times change. “When you suggest that people with disabilities are going to make art that challenges you intellectually—that’s a radical notion,” says di Maria. He smiles and adds, “At least for now.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016