John Martin, untitled (2017-18), ceramic, dimensions variable (photo Glen Helfand/Hyperallergic)

Creative Growth, the Oakland, California, studio for artists with intellectual, physical, and developmental disabilities, is beloved. Founded in 1974, with a hands-on, “creative community” approach, Creative Growth has become a national model in their field, and has brought artists ever-increasing exposure through art fairs and exhibitions. It is a resource, launching pad, and welcoming community center all in one. 

The John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is also a beloved institution that has consistently showcased and supported artists working outside of the mainstream art world. Kohler’s range of activities — galleries, an industrial strength residency program, and the groundbreaking Art Preserve museum of artist environments — form a cultural oasis in the Upper Midwest.

A mini-survey of works from Creative Growth makes perfect sense within the Kohler program, both being institutions with similar goals of fostering a broader range of art and artists. Creative! Growth! is curated by White Columns Director Matthew Higgs, an ardent, longtime supporter of the art studio. Billed as the first exhibition to consider Creative Growth’s nearly 50-year history, the show features extended wall text introducing founders Elias Katz and Florence Ludins-Katz and the politically and socially progressive context of 1970s Bay Area, which is home to two other centers for artists with disabilities, Creativity Explored in San Francisco and NIAD in Richmond. The show includes archival posters and historical photographs, while Katzs’ quotes touting their belief in “joy and fulfillment through creative self-expression” are emblazoned atop the perimeter of the gallery.

The context, disappointingly, ends there: Creative! Growth! seems to promise a more comprehensive historical view, but it is a compact showcase of work by artists who have produced work at Creative Growth since its inception. It does include some key works such as yarn-wrapped sculptures by the late Judith Scott, perhaps the most well-known and most collected Creative Growth artist. Also on view are William Scott’s (no relation) portraits of smiling couples and landscapes, along with a beige suit upon which he’s painted radiant faces, and the phrase “Inner Limits.”

Installation view, Creative! Growth! (2022), John Michael Kohler Arts Center; (foreground) William Scott untitled works (courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

Whereas much of the work is in traditional mediums of painting and sculpture, Susan Janow (whose videos and drawings are currently featured in a solo show at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art through December 4) offers time-based alternatives. Her two 10-minute black-and-white videos “untitled (Questions)” and “untitled (Answers),” both from 2018–2020, are probing standouts. The artist, dressed in a Tony the Tiger sweatshirt and unstructured blazer, asks probing questions (“At what age did you become an adult?”) and offers subjective answers. 

Janow’s monitors are installed on ungainly freestanding wall structures, which take up a conspicuous amount of gallery space. Workshop-style tables that showcase Judith Scott’s sculptures, I was told by a staff member, were intended to suggest the active nature of the Creative Growth workshops — a difficult thing to convey in a gallery setting. Any survey of Creative Growth requires focus on its community, but with little to no information on the artists (a few, but not all, of the artists get biographical and artistic inspiration notes on the Kohler website) that key angle remains opaque. 

There is, however, a window into Creative Growth’s culture in a three-channel video by filmmaker Cheryl Dunn who has been documenting the studio’s vibrant annual fashion show and fundraiser, Beyond Trend, for years. In the video, artists are shown dressed in vibrant, bedazzled, wearable art, and feeling as empowered as supermodels ready for the runway. In their behind-the-scenes moments, they exude creative spirit, and joy. It’s here that we see just how special Creative Growth really is.  

Installation view, Creative! Growth! (2022), John Michael Kohler Arts Center; Susan Janow, (from left) “untitled (Questions)” (2018–2020), video, 10:05 minutes; “untitled (Answers)” (2018–2020), video, 10:06 minutes (courtesy Creative Growth and John Michael Kohler Arts Center)
Dan Miller, untitled (2017), acrylic and ink on paper (courtesy Creative Growth and John Michael Kohler Arts Center)
Installation view, Creative! Growth! (2022), John Michael Kohler Arts Center; Nicole Storm, (from left) untitled (2022), acrylic on wood panel, 48 x 72 x 2 inches; untitled (2022), acrylic on wood panel, 48 x 72 x 2 inches (courtesy Creative Growth and John Michael Kohler Arts Center)
Installation view, Creative! Growth! (2022), John Michael Kohler Arts Center; (foreground) Judith Scott untitled sculptures (photo Glen Helfand/Hyperallergic)
Installation view, Creative! Growth! (2022), John Michael Kohler Arts Center (photo Glen Helfand/Hyperallergic)

Editor’s note: Travel to and accommodations were provided by John Michael Kohler Art Center in connection with the exhibition.

Creative! Growth! continues at the John Michael Kohler Art Center (608 New York Ave, Sheboygan, Wisconsin) through May 19, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Matthew Higgs.

Glen Helfand is a writer and curator based in Oakland, CA. He’s Chair of the Graduate Curatorial Practice program at California College of the Arts, San Francisco.