On ViewOakland Museum Of California
Into the Brightness: Artists from Creativity Explored, Creative Growth and NIAD
May 19, 2023–January 21, 2024
Elias Katz, a psychologist, and Florence Ludins-Katz, an artist and educator, moved to the Bay Area in 1966, when the disability rights movement was gaining traction. While activists in Berkeley fought for access to basic public services, the Katzes advocated for artistic creativity as a fundamental human right and identified a need for community programs to serve people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Over the next fifteen years, the Katzes opened three art studios: Creative Growth Art Center in Berkeley, which eventually moved to its present location in Oakland; Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development (NIAD) in nearby Richmond; and their third studio, Creativity Explored in San Francisco.
Into the Brightness: Artists from Creativity Explored, Creative Growth and NIAD brings together these studios for the first time in a celebration of the Katzs’ vision. The exhibition marks an important milestone in the way that the relationship between disability and creativity is presented to a wide public. Until recently, artists with disabilities have been understood as outsiders, anointed with rarefied access to creative impulses, often due to cognitive differences. Into the Brightness rejects the outsider-insider distinction and offers a model for how we might begin to recognize the historical importance of the studios and the significance of the artistic production they foster. While each studio developed its own identity, all three advanced the Katzs’ fundamental assertion that all people have the need and right to develop their own creative expression. Creativity doesn’t necessarily need to be taught, they believed, but simply given the right circumstances and support to develop. Into the Brightness demonstrates how artists now working at these studios still uphold the Katzs’ philosophy.
The art assembled in Into the Brightness is remarkably diverse in form and social in practice. Video portraits of artists who contributed to the show welcomed me as I entered the exhibition through a wide corridor. On the adjacent wall, I watched a panoramic video projection that documented the daily activities of the three studios. The first and largest gallery of the exhibition, simply titled “Welcome,” felt open and inviting, like walking into a studio filled with creative and collaborative energy. The large space is designed with no specific direction or guidance, encouraging visitors to follow their own interests and proceed with joy and curiosity. A playlist of some of the artists’ favorite songs signals the critical role of music in the studio environment. Tables and benches invite visitors to sit together and draw, look, and listen. Brightly colored textiles hang from wires strung above. Small drawings, paintings, and relief sculptures hang salon-style on a large wall. I sat for a while and studied the arrangement as a product of community collaboration—similar to the community mural hung nearby—and then focused on each individual piece as a result of a daily practice dedicated to individual expression.
Staying true to the Katzs’ approach to creativity, the work on display transcends any prescriptive rules about what art should look like. It includes sculpture, painting, drawings, textile, fashion, animation, video, and everything in between. Featuring more than eighty artists from the three studios, the exhibition conveys a strong sense of community identity while grounding the work in the individual experience of each artist. A long, brightly colored, woven shawl from 2023 by Casey Byrnes is draped over a dress form. In a video that plays next to it, Byrnes introduces himself in ASL and explains that he was sent to the Iowa School for the Deaf when he was two to fourteen years old. The school refused to let Byrnes sign, forcing him to sit on his hands and communicate orally. Now Byrnes identifies as deaf and queer. “I’m proud to share my culture,” he declares. By weaving textiles and designing clothes, Byrnes communicates and expresses himself in ways that an ableist approach to disability long denied him.
Into the Brightness emphasizes process; the objects on display are a product of collaboration in a supportive environment where artists are given the time to develop their own creativity and artistic vision. Tranesha Smith-Kilgore’s untitled work from 2023 consists of three stalactites of fabric that hang from high above and hover over a heap of material mounded below. To make the sculpture, Smith-Kilgore methodically tied bits of yarn and fabric around keys, beads, and other found objects over the course of several months. Its irregular and additive shape evokes the slow development of natural forms and asserts the patience and time necessary for artistic creativity to emerge.
The exhibition’s second section, “The World Around and Within,” offers a mix of impressions of everyday reality and imagined futures. Since 2014, Jesus Salas has produced Interior of the Bus, a daily practice of documenting his commute to NIAD. His map-like drawings record the regularity of his routine as well as the idiosyncratic yet significant changes that happen over a long period of time. A nearby display case shows a series of painted postcards created by the Mail Art Club that developed at Creativity Explored when their studio pivoted to material deliveries and online sessions during the pandemic. These practices foreground the human need for connection and consistency in an unpredictable and often alienating world.
“Language and Communication,” the exhibition’s third section, features artists who explore relationships between image and text. The artists included in this section navigate the demands of communication with remarkable creativity. Dan Miller’s body-length paper canvas, [work on paper--scroll] (2019), is a dense network of colorful acrylic and ink marks in which the boundaries between text and gestural brushstroke seem to disappear.
Other projects in this section explore how communication is deeply connected to one’s environment. Nicole Storm’s Our Sanctuary (2023) consists of abstract paintings in thin washes of blue, orange, and red on brown cardboard, freestanding cylinders, and posterboard of varying sizes that cover the surface of an alcoved space from floor to ceiling. Storm finds her material by searching the hallways and storage cabinets of Creative Growth, where she has practiced since 1995. To install the piece at the Oakland Museum, Storm laid down with her back on the floor and directed a museum staff member, who hovered above in a mechanical bucket, where to hang her work. She then painted and drew on the wall in between the separate parts to create a site-specific installation that conveys the artist’s profound sense of comfort with the artistic process.
“Nothing about us, without us,” is often invoked by activists as a mantra of the disability rights movement. In this spirit, artist advisory groups from each studio collaborated with the curators at the Oakland Museum to develop the exhibition’s themes, select the work, and design the exhibition. “Into the Brightness is about discovering our true selves,” Heather Edgar, whose paintings of brightly colored surreal landscapes appear in the exhibition, told me. “We need to be seen and heard.” The title also suggests a better future, in which the artistic practices of people with disabilities provide models for collaboration and the expression of creative joy.