Teaching Approaches at Creativity Explored
In my article on Funding, I explored whether the high standard of artwork being produced at Creativity Explored was aiding marketing opportunities to help with fundraising. I argued that, although Creativity Explored evidently recognised that the process of making art is beneficial for participants, it was also greatly helpful for the programme to be able to demonstrate to funders that the artists were being challenged to develop their practice.
This focus on developing artists’ work was also strongly supported by teaching staff that viewed opportunities such as exhibitions, sales or licensing artwork that can come out of established work also benefiting participants.
This led me to explore the studio working environment and teaching methods at Creativity Explored and examine the impact that this focus on developing work can have on the artists. From my experience, it was clear that the unique working environment in the Creativity Explored studios fosters progressive teaching methods for working with people with developmental disabilities. However I also see this development as a result of the amount of time artists were able to spend in the studio meaning that some artists viewed coming to the programme similar to the routine of coming to work everyday. This meant that artists were able to build up skills and confidence to produce work at a high standard all with the support of professional studio teachers who have a background in contemporary art.
Creativity Explored Visual Arts Instructor Victor Cartagena asks me “who’s really enjoying the work?” Cartagena argues that the artists are not interested in “being famous” and that it is “the organisation, the visitors, the gallery, the buyer – they are the ones who really appreciate whatever’s coming out of it.” Cartagena also raises the point that some of the artists are perhaps only making art because they simply like coming to the project: “it’s a place where they love to be and art is part of that place and they go with that, they’re learning and enjoying but for me I think it’s the environment, the safety, the place to be”.
Although I strongly agree that the process of making should be central to an art programme’s ethos, particularly when working with artists who have shown no interest in exhibiting or selling work, it is undeniable that in some cases opportunities to develop, exhibit and sell has given certain artists confidence in their practice and motivation to continue. It has also changed the way that some artists and their families see themselves and consider what they’re doing at these projects as something which perhaps holds more value.
Looking at the success of one partnership that Creativity Explored have formed with a boutique hotel, Hotel G in San Francisco, through it’s licensing programme it is clear that new opportunities for artists outside of the studio can have fruitful results.
Hotel G incorporated Creativity Explored artwork throughout their interior design – from the walls with original paintings to the pillows on the sofas. This relationship thus led to some significant opportunities for Creativity Explored artists such as Richard Wright who was commissioned to create a large-scale painting for the hotel foyer.
Studio & Services Manager and Visual Arts Instructor E. Francis Kohler who has worked closely with Wright during his time at Creativity Explored and observed his development tells me that this commission has meant a great deal to Wright and has consequently impacted the way that his family see what art can be. Kohler tells me “when his piece sold, I think it was a pretty big chunk of change that came into his life and his family’s life really…it was really good for him and I think he felt super proud that he’s kind of contributing to the household.”
How does Creativity Explored successfully support artists in the development of their work?
Collaboration between tutor and artist
It was evident from observing the studio dynamic at Creativity Explored that the room for collaboration between student and teacher was significant. Cartagena sums it up nicely explaining, “they [the artists] are learning from professional artists, that’s why we’re there.” This focus on learning from the studio instructors has been crucial for the successful development of the artists and the organisation.
During my time at Creativity Explored, I observed artists Allura Fong and Makeya Kaiser working in collaboration with Visual Arts Instructor Veronica Graham to create video pieces. These films would not have been possible without Graham’s technical skills and direction, yet they are both in my opinion interesting ways for the artists to challenge how they see their work and open up different ways that an audience can interact with it.
With some artists attending the programme five days a week, the attitude in the studio is serious, with artists focused on developing and making work. Indeed, both the artists and staff seemed to treat their time in the studio in a job like fashion. Creativity Explored have recently supported one studio artist, Andrew Bixler, to become self-employed and start his own business. This was something the organisation had been working towards and hoped might be a fruitful avenue for more artists. However the process has proved to be more challenging than originally expected.
Creativity Explored Executive Director, Amy Taub, tells me that they initially decided to work with Bixler because he also had family support that could help the process of becoming self-employed. However the amount of financial help needed from the organisation proved demanding. Taub explains that they never intended to start “managing an artist’s money in any way” and it was a “surprise” to “realise how much support people may need to be able to not take all of the money out of that business because they want to go on a trip, whereas they may need that money to actually help support the business and understand that they have to pay taxes on whatever they take out.”
Yet Taub believes that the process was still useful for the organisation to “figure out what kind of support other artists may need”.
Relationships and community
“This is a powerful community and this is sort of a vehicle for a lot of the newcomers, the new artists… they might not have much confidence, they might not really be into art that much but I think this community helps them, kind of like the factory they start creating, they start feeling confident and then they might start selling, which happens to…most of them.”
– Paul Moshammer, Studio Manager/Visual Arts Instructor
Although the pilot project to support Bixler to become self employed proved to be more difficult than first thought, it reveals both the progressive attitude towards making work and indeed the appetite for taking risks at Creativity Explored.
Not only does the organisation teach and collaborate with the artists to move their work to the next stage, but they think creatively about how they can “loosen up” the artists and staff to create a collegiate, vibrant working atmosphere. Every Friday in the larger Creativity Explored studio, which used to be a dance hall, the tables are pushed aside and everyone who wants to, comes together and dances. This weekly event made me realise how strong the community is at Creativity Explored, a bond which is made stronger I think in part due to the fact the majority of the artists attend the studio at least 3 full days a week.
In my opinion, the amount of time spent in the studio together each week has meant that a family like relationship has developed between the studio instructors and the artists. Visual Arts Instructor Cartagena tells me “it’s the safe environment” that really helps artists develop, “we blend from the moment we cross that door”. Cartagena tells me that the community here “are a family, you can feel it, any one of them walking down the street feels they are not in a safe environment. You know they’ve been treated bad, they feel like people don’t really understand them, they feel outsiders The moment that they are inside, they feel home and they can do whatever they want, they can act the way they are and it’s normal for all of us.”
This familiarity between everyone working at Creativity Explored has enabled the studio instructors to work with the artists to develop their work in ways that a studio, which perhaps only sees the artists once a week, could never have.
Creativity Explored Executive Director, Amy Taub, explains that Creativity Explored has always encouraged the staff to “be creative about how they relate to each artist”. Taub gives an example about how one instructor, Gilles Combet, worked with a new artist, Valerie, who was initially only drawing “pills, coffee and some other things she eats for breakfast”. Combet was “talking with her one day and she growled” at him and “he growled back and they started growling at each other and then for a period of months, they got down on their knees and growled and then she opened up”. Taub tells me that Valerie is now an “adventurous artist” and she believes this was “because he related to her in a way that she could really relate to, which was different. This close relationship enabled him to guide Valerie in new directions and she has truly blossomed as an artist.
The experimental approach to teaching artists at Creativity Explored has clearly revealed that it is significant to have the time, space and ultimately imagination to break down boundaries between staff and artist in the studio.
From hearing Taub’s anecdotes it’s evident that the most important teaching method in this studio is to show the artists that they can truly be themselves. Taub explains, “it’s a way of totally accepting the artists for who they are and where they are, how they are, how they do things”. This is certainly an environment where one can make good art.