FRENCHTOWN, New Jersey — Paige Donovan, a self-possessed 27-year-old artist, takes my hand and leads me to a flat file, where she shows me her latest artwork. There’s a carefully composed drawing of three skeletons in a landscape, a drawing of a mother and daughter embracing, and one of a square pink house with a chimney. I ask about the pattern of colored triangles on either side of the house. “I like painting landscapes,” she says. “It’s all the different leaves and flowers. I like summertime.” So do I. Donovan is a full-time artist working primarily in calligraphy ink. She shows and sells her work, gives workshops, and makes art nearly every day at the Center for Creative Works, a progressive art studio in Philadelphia for adults with developmental disabilities. ArtYard, a contemporary art center in Frenchtown, New Jersey, is featuring pieces by Donovan and 30 more artists, all of whom work in progressive art studios.
The model for what is called progressive studio practice began in 1974 at Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. In what would prove to be a revolutionary approach, founders Florence and Elias Katz provided professional studio space, materials, and assistance to adults with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. What the center’s staff did not do was tell the artists what to make, or how to make it. Over the span of months and years, many Creative Growth artists developed strong visual languages, created significant bodies of work, and attracted avid collectors. Perhaps the most recognized artist is Judith Scott, who was both profoundly deaf and had Down’s syndrome. After being institutionalized and considered ineducable for 35 years, Scott came to Creative Growth, where she flourished. Her work is in many museums, including MoMA, and she was chosen to represent the United States in the 2017 Venice Biennale. “There was something different about [Creative Growth’s] conception,” says Jill Kearney, “and as people were exposed to it, it really resonated.”
Kearney is curator of The Creative Commons: Progressive Studio Practice from the Creative Growth Art Center, LAND Gallery, and the Center for Creative Works at ArtYard. Large galleries feature works on paper, sculpture made of tinfoil, objects and wall pieces made of wood, short films, and other artworks. The show is remarkable, not just because the work is so good, but because what it represents is so new.
In the past and even today, people with developmental disabilities might be found making art in isolation at home, in hospitals, or other institutions. Sometimes their creation of artwork is encouraged, often it is not. For much of the 20th century, if their art was appreciated at all, it was by an art world which celebrated them as exceptional, and labeled them Outsider Artists. However, as this exhibition makes abundantly clear, artists with disabilities simply need access to facilities and materials to create their work, and the time to develop their styles. Some will thrive as artists, creating sought-after works. At the ArtYard opening alone, 33 pieces sold, ranging from hundreds to over a thousand dollars.
Some of the most sophisticated work in The Creative Commons is from Creative Growth. As the first studio of this type in the United States, it has worked with its artists the longest. There’s a display of oversized wooden tools by John Martin and a collection of fancy dress clothing created by Joseph Alef, Peter Salsman, Rosena Finister, Christine Szeto, and Casey Byrnes for the center’s annual fashion show, as well as four short films. Kearney describes the film Questions by Creative Growth artist Susan Janow as the anchor of the exhibition. A single shot of Janow, sitting silently, is accompanied by a soundtrack of her voice asking such questions as, “What shows are you in to?”; “What is special about the place you grew up?”; “How would you describe the color yellow to someone who is blind?”; and “Who knows you the best?” Kearney says she found the common human experience revealed in these existential and practical questions “just so touching and illuminating.”
The newest of the three studios represented in The Creative Commons is Philadelphia’s Center for Creative Works (CCW), which opened as a progressive art studio in 2010. The space had previously housed a “sheltered workshop,” where adults with disabilities did jobs such as stuffing envelopes and shredding paper. Artist Mary T. Bevlock, now 50, performed menial tasks for minimal pay for years. “It was almost like she was waiting forever for art to come to her,” says CCW’s director Lori Bartol. “And when we got here, she was just, ‘Bam!’ She dove in, she was completely dedicated to it. She loves being an artist, and so she found her style pretty quick.”
The immediacy and directness of the artwork at The Creative Commons draws the viewer in. “Anytime that you get to experience the world, especially through someone who has a really unique perspective,” says Bartol, “it’s rich.” Kearney adds that, “Contemporary artists live in a world of such profound self-consciousness, and with the burden of somehow having to reckon with the canon of western art. My feeling is that most of these artists are not burdened with that. … There’s a freedom and a kind of fearlessness that is very attractive and also inspiring.”
Progressive art studios provide these artists with opportunities not only to make work and to sell it, but to engage meaningfully as artists within their communities. It’s part of a wider movement to include neurodivergent voices in all aspects of society. The blog Disparate Minds provides essential reading material about neurodiversity and art, and keeps a list of progressive art studios around the country. Hopefully the list will continue to grow. The Creative Commons offers a thoughtful selection of work from three progressive studios including LAND Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, Creative Growth, and the Center for Creative Work. As the exhibition reveals, each of these studios has fostered the work of artists who are contributing to a richer, more open, and more diverse world for us all.
The Creative Commons: Progressive Studio Practice from the Creative Growth Art Center, LAND Gallery, and the Center for Creative Works continues at ArtYard (62 A Trenton Ave., Frenchtown, New Jersey) through April 14. The exhibition is curated by Jill Kearney.