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Published Aug 28, 2017

Cedric Johnson pictured with his red mask, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, clay, fired to cone 05.

For more than 40 years, a community of artists with developmental disabilities working together at a non-profit in Oakland, California, has been shattering stereotypes by creating in-demand artwork that helps them make a living. Creative Growth Art Center’s program not only provides the artists with an income, but also decreases social isolation and increases self worth and self sufficiency. And the artists have total personal control and creative freedom with the work they produce.

In today’s post, an excerpt from the Ceramics Monthly archive, you’ll learn more about this wonderful community of artists. Happy Monday! - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

For over 40 years, the Creative Growth Art Center ( has focused on encouraging and supporting artists with disabilities by providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation, and nurturing a non-competitive, collaborative, and collective community of artists where both imaginative creativity and creative camaraderie blossom.

While the program is artist run and artist led, it does not, according to the director, Tom di Maria, “teach, guide, or steer people in one direction or another.” It does not offer therapy or instruction and it is not a drop-in center. There are no specific tasks, responsibilities, deadlines, or certain models of success and there are certainly no failures. In this non-competitive setting, the artists proceeding at their own pace in art-making are exercising total personal choice and personal control over their own work.

An Artistic Oasis

The center—thought to be the oldest exhibition space dedicated to the art of people with disabilities—is home to over 160 adult artists engaged in a range of artistic mediums: ceramics, collages, drawing, dressmaking, fiber arts, painting, photography, printmaking, rug making, tapestry, video animation, and woodworking. A variety of cultures, backgrounds, experiences, abilities, and disabilities are represented and many languages are spoken, though some artists do not speak or are unable to use language.

All of the artwork on display (and much of the work that is not on display) is for sale. Everyone here, even if they don’t sell anything, gets a quarterly check because there is a communal pool made up of proceeds from the sale of items priced at less than 25 dollars. This program not only provides the artists with an income, but also ensures that they receive recognition, encourages participation in a community while decreasing social isolation, and increases their sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency. Individuals who often have no access to complete self-expression and total creativity have been given an artistic oasis. And, the center’s safe and encouraging environment has made it possible for this community of creative individuals to reach out to the larger outside community and be accepted. Artwork fostered here has been the subject of articles, books, and films and has been included in numerous gallery shows, international collections, art fairs, and prominent museums throughout the world.

1 Ceramic pieces by a number of artists who work at the Creative Growth Art Center.2 Cedric Johnson’s ceramic tile, 17 in. (43 cm) in length, sculptor’s blend clay, fired to cone 05.

A Member Artist’s Perspective

3 Cedric Johnson’s blue mask, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, sculptor’s-blend clay, fired to cone 05.

Beanie-clad Cedric Johnson, a natural salesman, leads me through the studio and around the gallery, proudly showing me his work. Born in 1952, in Corpus Christi, Texas, Johnson has been creating a wide range of art forms at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland since 1980. Exuberant, extroverted, highly animated Johnson, who “always knew he wanted to be an artist,” works in a wide range of artistic formats—ceramics, sculpture, painting, drawing, textile work, and woodwork—there is very little he does not attempt. When he creates, which he does five days a week, ideas “come to him through his imagination, from what he sees around him in the studio, or from pictures,” according to Jessica Daniel, Creative Growth’s marketing and community development manager.

While their various disabilities lend significance to the Creative Growth artists’ creations, they, and their work, are not simply defined or limited by these disabilities. Looking at Johnson’s vibrant, glossy, Cubist-style, fantastical ceramic masks and clay whistles, and the artwork from many of the other artists working here, it becomes clear that he and his community of fellow self-taught artists are shattering stereotypes, creating works of distinction, and achieving recognition in today’s art world.


Topics: Ceramic Artists