by Tom di Maria and Catherine Nguyen
“Oakland is a sweet dark chocolate while San Francisco is the creamy milk chocolate city. It reminds me of a Hershey’s Symphony creamy milk chocolate bar–which comes in a king size.”
Like many of us, Creative Growth artist Gerone Spruill, has a soft spot for chocolate, specifically the 60% sweet dark variety. His brownies must have chocolate chips and peanuts. His beverage of choice? A chocolate milkshake. Though his love may be more deeply considered than the average sweet tooth, that unwavering affinity is also the driving force behind his artwork. Chronicling the street-smart adventures of his fantasy business enterprise, “Chocolate City of Oakland Records and Filmworks”, chocolate is also “a metaphor for the Afro-American culture” that exists in Gerone’s native city of Oakland.
This “chocolate city” has been the home to Creative Growth Art Center for over 40 years, offering artists with disabilities, like Gerone Spruill, a place to find his or her own creative voice. Creative Growth is the oldest and largest art center to serve this particular population, with more than 150 artists with developmental, physical and mental disabilities coming every week to a studio where they can explore the visual arts. From painting and drawing, to ceramics, woodwork and video animation, there is always a place at these tables for artists to share their aesthetic response to the world around them. Perhaps more importantly, though, these tables also provide a place for sharing a meal, telling stories, and simply being in each other’s company.
That sense of comfort, that feeling of “home” is highlighted every year in our annual Home show, this year entitled A Place at the Table. Home is a word that resonates with all of us. In many cultures it represents notions of security, family, and finding a community where you belong. A place at the table, in advocacy movements worldwide, not only signifies sharing a communal meal with family and friends, but speaks to full representation in society for those often disenfranchised or not fully recognized as full participants in our society.
For artists Paulino Martin and William Tyler, good friends and veritable creatures of habit, they routinely start their days musing about “secret” topics; their place at the table is one that never changes. William always opts for the Fig Newton or candy bar in the vending machine at break time and Paulino helps clean up the lunch room at one o’clock sharp. They end the day in the studio chatting together, just as they started it, waiting for the Paratransit shuttle bus or catching public transportation to go home.
A place at the table also naturally readies us for food! Food is a common theme for our artists. Like pop culture, its influence transcends disability and offers a pleasure that remedies everyday concerns and problems. It is something to dream about, to wish for, to enjoy.
Take for example, the work of Aurie Ramirez. Her spare and beautiful watercolor paintings transcend the ordinary, becoming surreal icons from a world the artist has decided to share with us. These are not merely daydreams, but a utopian fantasy built by Ramirez just as an architect constructs a new world. Her world includes smiling sandwiches and porcelain doll-faced forks and knives, but the work itself transcends being decorative, instead it becomes part of the artist’s design for living.
Consider Terri Bowden’s albino tinted ceramic fruit. Terri, an artist with visual impairment, recalls her albino friends from her early years at Light House for the Blind, and removes the fruit’s pigment as homage to these school friends. This strange fruit has counterpoints at the other end of the palette too, with the richly hued eggplants from John Mullins and Rosena Finisters’ work, which touches upon Southern Folk Art traditions. Her magnificently realized quilt speaks in a common language about sharing a meal and finding your community.
After coming to Creative Growth five days a week for over twenty years, artist John Martin, who often quips about “hot chili water”, has even started strolling in on Saturdays during our Youth Program to eat lunch or just hang out.
While the communal atmosphere of Creative Growth is clearly difficult to replace and something artists take pleasure in, sometimes it’s just time to eat. As artist Laura Jo Pierce offers, “Less talk, more eat. If you’re talkin’ you’re not eatin’!” In a low whisper she adds, “I dip my carrots in Ranch ‘cause I don’t like a naked salad, you know.”
The exhibition At the Table runs from Friday, May 2 until Friday, June 27, 2014.
355 – 24th street, Oakland
Tom di Maria has served as Creative Growth Art Center’s Director since 2000. As Director, he has worked to have Creative Growth’s artists with disabilities be recognized as leading contemporary artists by presenting their work in significant museums and galleries, and by positioning their work alongside noted academically trained artists and designers. He previously served as: Assistant Director of the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, at UC Berkeley; Executive Director of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; and Director of Development and Marketing at the San Francisco Film Society. He holds a B.F.A. from Rochester Institute of Technology, and a M.F.A. from Maryland Institute, College of Art, in film and photography. Tom is also an award-winning filmmaker, with short film awards from Sundance, Black Maria, Sinking Creek, National Educational Media, and New York Experimental film festivals.
Catherine Nguyen has been the Gallery Manager at Creative Growth since 2011. A Bay Area native, she received her BFA in Studio Art with a minor in Journalism in 2007 from New York University. Her studio concentration was in painting, printmaking and mixed media, though her creative energies have since transitioned into more of a curatorial practice since arriving at Creative Growth. Prior to that, she was the Director of Finance and Operations at White Columns, another non-profit organization and the oldest alternative art space in New York City.