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Works from artists with disabilities featured in historic exhibition in San Francisco


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: It's a center for art by artists with disabilities, which has the larger art world paying major attention.

Jeffrey Brown recently visited the San Francisco Bay Area for our ongoing look at health and the arts, part of our Canvas series.

Jeffrey Brown: A crowded exhibition at SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, known for showing works of leading contemporary artists, on display here, a large abstract painting by 43-year-old Joseph Alef.

Joseph Alef, Artist: It's a big thing. It's a big accomplishment in my life. And to see a painting like this, and to imagine how incredible I did, and it's wow. And it's just, I mean, amazing. It's just wow.

Jeffrey Brown: Also in the exhibition, Susan Janow.

You probably didn't expect that when you started 21 years ago.

Susan Janow, Artist: Mm-hmm.

Jeffrey Brown: No?

Susan Janow: No. (LAUGHTER) And here I am today doing exhibitions.

I can tell you, it was totally amazing.

Jeffrey Brown: Janow and Alef are among some 140 self-taught artists who call Creative Growth Arts Center in Oakland California their creative home.

Susan Janow: That's really awesome.

Jeffrey Brown: The organization celebrating its 50th year offers an open, light-filled space, supplies and instructors like Amy Keefer...

Amy Keefer, Creative Growth Arts Center: So, are these different kinds of cars or just different colors?

Jeffrey Brown: ... comradery and all-around support to people with developmental, mental and physical disabilities.

Executive director Tom Di Maria:

Tom Di Maria, Executive Director, Creative Growth Art Center: The idea of being an artist is often a privileged act. So I think, if we bring people into an artistic studio and say, you can be creative here, we will support you, you have materials, please tell us your story, please experiment, there's no right or wrong here, that's an incredible opportunity.

Jeffrey Brown: And you're saying these are people who often have been told the opposite?

Tom Di Maria: Yes. These are people who have been told the opposite.

And I think it's as simple as flipping the switch from, I don't want to hear from you to, I do want to hear from you. You can't contribute, you can be a major contributor. You're outside of culture, you're a cultural leader.

And I think those are important ideas.

Jeffrey Brown: Founded in 1974 by Elias Katz and Florence Ludins-Katz as part of a burgeoning disability rights movement, Creative Growth is one of three such organizations in the Bay Area alone, not a therapy or health center, but a working art studio for people making a variety of kinds of art, including, on this day, textiles for an upcoming annual fashion show.

Fifty-nine-year-old William Scott was using 3-D modeling software to help plan his next painting. He has autism...

William Scott, Artist: Oh, I should read a little.

Jeffrey Brown: ... and had prepared a statement for us.

William Scott: I feel happiness because I am a peacemaker. I feel very proud of my big mural in the museum SFMOMA.

Jeffrey Brown: Scott paints versions of himself, family members and others and alternative worlds. His 32-foot-long mural at the museum presents a reimagined San Francisco called Praise Frisco.

You're also looking at a different kind of city with no violence?

William Scott: That's right.

Jeffrey Brown: Uh-huh.

William Scott: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And how does the art let you do that?

William Scott: Because the art makes the real world, and making the real world.

Jeffrey Brown: The art makes the real world?

William Scott: It does. It makes the real world. That's why it does that. That's why I do that.

Jeffrey Brown: The museum exhibition is titled Creative Growth: The House That Art Built, with 80 works by 11 artists, including intricately layered works on paper by Dwight Mackintosh and Dan Miller, brightly colored paintings by Alice Wong and Ron Veasey, ceramics by John Martin.

Susan Janow, who has an intellectual disability, works in a variety of media, including video. In this one, she stares at the camera while posing questions in voice-over.

Susan Janow: When I first started going to Creative Growth, I found art and started drawing, and I just -- that was my calling.

Jeffrey Brown: Joseph Alef, who has autism, paints most days at Creative Growth.

Going to Creative Growth, that's been a very important part of your life.

Joseph Alef: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Why? Tell me, what do you get from it?

Joseph Alef: Just by going there and get my experience out and how I feel, and just imagine in how I feel in my heart and in my soul, and just paint.

Jeffrey Brown: Most striking now, the embrace of these artists by the mainstream art world, where a number of them, including William Scott, are in important collections and leading museums like SFMOMA and earning money for their work.

The museum, in fact, recently purchased more than 100 works by Creative Growth artists, and this exhibition is the start of a three-year partnership.

Katy Siegel is SFMOMA's research director. The hope for this first exhibition, she says:

Katy Siegel, Research Director, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Just to blow people away, overwhelm them with the evidence that these artists are incredibly important.

That said, going forward, I'm really most excited in a way about showing that art throughout the whole museum, putting it in the context of the larger collection, and showing these artists just like all the other great artists making great artwork in our collection.

Jeffrey Brown: So the idea for now has to be an exhibition dedicated to disabled artists, but eventually integrated?

Katy Siegel: Yes. I think museums have done a lot of gatekeeping over the years around who's a professional artist, and so the idea of having self-trained artists, having artists with differing abilities, having artists from different backgrounds, and judging people not by their certifications, but by their artwork.

Jeffrey Brown: Back at Creative Growth Arts Center, I asked executive director Tom Di Maria about this.

Are you asking people to come see this as the work of disabled artists...

Tom Di Maria: Right.

Jeffrey Brown: ... or are you asking them to come see the art?

Tom Di Maria: Yes, so that's the critical question. Is this a disabled art exhibition, or is it an exhibition by artists who have disabilities?

And we tend to lead with art, saying that, if the art is interesting, that's why it's in the museum. But there is a very important lived experience of the artist's disability and the culture of disability that's within the work.

Jeffrey Brown: That's the advocacy part.

Tom Di Maria: That's the advocacy part. And then, once that's happened, you can say, OK, the work is on the wall, and we're in the art world, and now we have something to say.

Jeffrey Brown: The magnitude of the museum exhibition brought plenty of emotion, including tears, as well as the support people told us they feel among a community of friends.

It all culminated, as every Friday afternoon, with a dance party, one more celebration of a special week in making and showing art.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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