How a Revered Studio for Artists with Disabilities Is Surviving at a Distance

Before the coronavirus pandemic, some of Creative Growth’s artists—there are at present more than a hundred and fifty—had been going to the studio every day for nearly its entire history. When, on March 16th, six counties in California’s Bay Area ordered nonessential businesses to close and residents to shelter at home, the ecology that the space has nurtured over decades was disturbed overnight. Elizabeth Brodersen, the group’s executive director of little more than a year, told me that, in the days before the official shelter-at-home order, she and her colleagues—a staff of thirty-one—had recommended that older artists and others at high risk for the virus work at home, but many of them continued to show up anyway. “Some of our folks don’t really understand why it’s happening, or why they feel shunned,” Tom di Maria, who served as Creative Growth’s executive director for twenty years and is now its director of external relations, said. “People who live in the neighborhood will walk by and look in, and they don’t understand. That’s been a difficult dynamic to watch.”

Hall now spends her days at her sunny home in Oakland, where she lives with her twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Myeisha, who’s also her caregiver. Every day in April, Myeisha said, she told her mother to write on her calendar, “It is not safe to go outside yet.” Hall, who was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, speaks with a relaxed Southern accent and a humble, forthright style. “I need to get back there so I can finish doing what I gotta do,” she said. “I can’t sit up in no house.”

As their artists endure month after month of quarantine, Creative Growth faces an extreme version of the dilemmas that other arts organizations and educational institutions have struggled with during the pandemic: if your purpose is to foster the ideal conditions for learning and making things together, how do you proceed when those conditions are suddenly impossible? The studio has answered in ways inventive, nimble, and enlivening. As soon as Creative Growth shuttered, Brodersen said, “We just started calling everybody. That was the first thing: call the artists, find out what they’re doing, find out what they need, make sure they’re O.K. where they are, and let them know that we’re thinking about them.” Some artists didn’t have Internet access; others lacked computers. Creative Growth arranged for drop-offs of personalized supplies, including everything from paper and paints to embroidery hoops and rug-making tools. Hall has received a light box, clothing, textiles, and abundant sewing and drawing materials. “Staff members just stepped up and said, I’ll go to this house, I’ll go to that house,” Brodersen said.

The heart of Creative Growth’s response to the pandemic is a series of daily Zoom classes, where artists can release the flood of affection and frustration that would otherwise remain dammed up indoors. “Almost overnight,” Brodersen said, the staff developed a slate of programming that includes workshops devoted to poetry, watercolors, dance, textiles, yoga, sculpture, comics, and meditation, and tea time (“no art materials required. Join with your favorite tea, beverage, or nothing at all!”). If most Zoom meetings are characterized by distraction and unbridgeable distance, the Creative Growth workshops, which run from sixty to ninety minutes, are studies in focus, enthusiasm, and collaboration. Instructors prepare virtual field trips, readings, discussion questions, and time-lapse videos to demonstrate technique. Separate staff members provide real-time A.S.L. interpretation and closed captioning; staff can slip into breakout rooms with anyone having a hard time.

At the start of a recent session on landscape painting, each new face onscreen set off a chorus of greetings. The instructors, Meadow Presley and Veronica Rojas, had gone to great lengths to make the classes playful and inviting. Rojas, wearing pendulous earrings, appeared against a background image of the Kenai Fjords; Presley against a sun-bleached desert stippled with cacti. “I think we’re all getting better at this, huh?” Rojas said.

When the Zoom grid had grown to about thirty artists, Presley shared her screen and, using Google Arts & Culture, embarked on a virtual tour of America’s national parks. The class watched a volcano erupt in Hawaii and got a primer on hoodoos, the craggy spires of rock, at Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah. “Desert sky super cool,” the closed captioning read. The tour concluded in Seoul, at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, where Presley enthused over the work of Yoo Youngkuk, a twentieth-century painter who abstracted Korea’s undulant horizons into vivid shapes and planes. “What I really like about his landscapes is how simple they are,” Presley said, “and how he doesn’t necessarily use the colors that you see in reality.”

When the tour was finished, Rojas, using a time-lapse video, demonstrated a few rudimentary painting techniques: spraying the paper with water before adding paint, using salt crystals to soak up excess moisture, adding a horizon line. It was time to work.

“I like this class the best because watercolor, it’s great for emotion,” Jason Jackson, a painter, said. “It’s great for releasing emotion.”

Monica Valentine, a blind artist, was making a large, elaborately textured purple cube—beaded sculpture is her signature medium. “Mel?” she said, raising her hand and addressing Mel Lister, one of four staff members on the call. “I have a question. Are you gonna bring me reflectors sometime?”

“Once we go back to Creative Growth,” Lister said, “of course, we’ll all bring each other presents. But we don’t know—”

“When is it gonna be open again, Mel?”

Cristina Moraes, who was interpreting the class in A.S.L., said, “We don’t know for sure yet, O.K.?”

“Yes. I miss the program, Cris,” Valentine said.

Soon the talk fell away, replaced by the ambient noise of people at work. Zoom calls sometimes make a pretense of insulation, each participant sealed in a makeshift “home office,” that contradiction in terms. Here, as everyone painted, domesticity permeated the scene. Lauren Dare, a painter and woodworker clad in purple overalls, drummed her hands on her lap. Someone burped. A glass clinked. Someone apologized for burping. (“S’cuse me.”) Valentine whistled while she worked on her cube. A brief exchange in Spanish flowed and ebbed. A landline rang. The thirty rooms onscreen had coalesced into a single place.

After about forty minutes of quiet, the artists held their paintings up one at a time so that the instructors could take screenshots. Dare had made an abstract rainbow, a maelstrom of prismatic color saturating the paper. Another artist had painted the hoodoos below a steep cliff, with a skewed perspective that reminded Presley of a Road Runner cartoon. Others evoked fish, mountains, windsurfers, sailboats, orchards, and volcanoes spewing gobs of lava, many of these in the distilled style of Youngkuk. Tanisha Warren, who makes textiles and drawings, was joined by her hamster, Charlie Brown; Warren showed a range of pink and blue mountains against an umber sky, where a fluorescent sun shone on a doghouse labelled “Dog House.”

“I love those shapes. They have movement,” Presley said. “The colors are amazing. I would do a whole series of these. Once this class ends, work, work, work, work, do more.”

“I have to do house chores, too, you know,” Warren said.

“Well, stop the house chores and start painting!”

Creative Growth’s artists have a resilience particular to those who move through the world with a disability. “Our people are so strong—they’ve been dismissed so often that they’ve found a way to survive,” di Maria told me, adding, “What many people right now are struggling with—‘What do you mean I can’t go to a restaurant? I can’t go to a birthday party?’—many of our people have grown up with that being the rule of their lives.” For older generations accustomed to life on the margins, reporting to the studio each day was a hard-won marker of autonomy. Many of them, di Maria explained, had grown up effectively sheltering in place. “They weren’t supposed to be in the world. They were supposed to be institutionalized, they were supposed to be in homes,” he said. “And the Creative Growth community offered them this other way out.”

Chandreve Clay is the executive director of Clear Creek Services, a nonprofit that runs several group homes for people with disabilities in the Bay Area. Three of her residents, including her aunt, Maureen, are Creative Growth artists. Before the pandemic, the trio would spend at least two hours on the bus every day commuting to the studio and back. All of them, Clay said, have registered its acute absence in their lives, asking her “every hour” when they’ll be able to go back. “Maureen announced to me on Saturday that she was going to program tomorrow,” Clay said. “And I’m like, ‘Sweetie, program’s closed, and tomorrow’s Sunday.’ ”

Another resident, Daniel Hamilton, has practiced with the group since 1975, longer than anyone else—longer, even, than the current studio has been in existence. Without access to the studio’s kiln, he can’t work with ceramics, which helped him release stress. “I had tried buying him modelling clay, and he just will not agree that that’s an acceptable substitute,” Clay said. He used to go visit his elderly mother most weekends; over the phone, Clay had tried to teach her to use Zoom or FaceTime—to no avail, leaving Hamilton without a way to see her. “It’s been very hard on him,” Clay said. “He wants nothing more than for me to take him to Jack in the Box, and he can’t even do that. He’s had the same coupon for the last three months.”

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