Ian W., a bespectacled young man who’s been part of the community arts program at Creative Clay for eight years, walks directly up to a reporter and asks “What’s your birthday?” When the answer is given, Ian says, without hesitation, “The same as Scarlett Johansson!” He turns and walks back to his seat.
Celebrity is Ian’s thing. The walls of the Creative Clay music room are decorated with old vinyl records that he’s carefully painted, one at a time, each depicting a different musical artist. He ticks off the names proudly – “that’s Katy Perry, that’s Carrie Underwood, Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block …” He knows them all, and can offer up, with precision, some fact or another about them.
As a vocational, educational and creative center for people with disabilities, Creative Clay has been an important part of St. Petersburg’s arts community for 24 years. The adult artists with neuro-differences are taught to present their work in festival and gallery settings. The ins and outs of the artistic experience, including sales and marketing. It’s not just “busy work” to occupy their time.
Executive director Kim Dohrman calls it “education through inclusion.” Socialization skills – via working within the Creative Clay community, and within the community at large – are part of the package. “They do this beautifully through the arts,” she says.
“When you think of all the populations that have been marginalized over history, any kind of minority you can think of, the back of the chain is people with disabilities. They’re still discriminated against today.” Creative Clay’s primary mission is to change that.
A 501c3 nonprofit, Creative Clay serves between 45 and 60 adults with developmental, physical or intellectual disabilities. There are numerous programs, in a cross-section of mediums, all involving hands-on participation from working, professional community artists.
“We’re all in this world together, and you’ve got to learn that at a young age,” Dohrman says. “That’s why we started a new summer camp. We flipped the model on its head for what we’re doing in the adult program. We only have two or three spots for a child with a disability; the rest of the kids are neuro-typical. From age 6, they can start coming here. And that has been the most beautiful thing.”
Perhaps Creative Clay’s most inspiring program, ArtLink is a one-on-one pairing of artist and student. It’s a mentorship, a collaboration, a partnership that works on both ends of the equation.
“Seeing people make connections to things, and gain new skills, and see the way that brings awareness to the power they already have with them – that I don’t feel is celebrated enough,” says artist Kinsey Rodriguez, whose ArtLink partner is 29-year-old Carla L.
“There are so many people with so many creative ideas and talents that just kind of get washed way in our society,” she says. “Their voices don’t get to be heard all the time. And art is a way of having a physical object that even if you’re not hearing what they’re saying, you’re going to see it at some point.”
Rodriguez is an art therapist who holds a Master’s from Hofstra University. She teaches art at the University of Tampa. She finds the most value in collaboration, she explains, and working so closely with Carla has been a great learning experience for them both.
“Carla has a physical disability, but mentally she’s all there,” Rodriguez explains. “And we’re almost the same age. She is very creative and driven, and talented. And a lot of times people don’t want to be patient and listen to you. Art is a way of saying ‘Hey, I’m here. And I have things to say and I’m smart, valuable and creative.’ All of those wonderful things.’”
Calan Ree’s ArtLink mentee is Marquise R., 33, whose specialty is fantastical action characters and comic book panels drawn with color pencils. He also paints, and has created a stop-motion animation film featuring several of his characters.
Lately. Marquise and Ree have been learning about folklore, and creating folkloric characters and totems. “We also ended up being inspired by dreams, which we didn’t see coming,” she explains. “But we started talking about dreams, and how he can remember certain ones really clearly. And how you can have this other life in your dreams.”
Ree is by profession a sculptor, working in contemporary ceramic and mixed media. “I’m more on the clay side, but Marquise likes clay too, so we’re going to have some ceramics. And he wanted to do one of his drawings as a wood cut-out, so we did that. It’s going to be one of the larger pieces.”
In fact, there’s so much going on at Creative Clay, its moniker doesn’t even begin to describe it. “When Creative Clay was founded, there were no clay centers in St. Pete,” explains Dohrman. “And now there are several. Because Creative Clay is known in the community, there was a little reluctance to change the name and re-brand. Re-branding’s a big process.”
And so the name continues to stick. “Some people like to say that we’re molding people through the arts,” Dohrman says. “Which I think is a little flowery, but I’ll take it.”
Both Carla and Marquise began in Creative Clay’s vocational Transitions program, for those age 18-23. Both chose to stay on and work in the adult community, which partners with the art departments at Eckerd College, St. Pete College and the University of South Florida to include Creative Clay artists at festivals and in gallery shows.
A curated ArtLink exhibition is planned for September at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.
Jody Bikoff, director of exhibitions, coordinates the center’s public outreach. She also curates Creative Clay’s in-house Good Folk gallery, which will be open during the Second Saturday ArtWalk Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. (the art is for sale; collectors consider it folk art, and several Creative Clay artists have made serious bucks over the years).
Opening Saturday is The Food Show, a collection of paintings, ceramics, sculpture and other in-house creations themed around the subject of food.
“Our artists are told about the shows coming up, and they can produce work in the studio,” explains Bikoff. “Then it comes to me, as teacher and curator, and I decide what can go in.”
This is where the vocational lessons learned come in handy. There are very specific guidelines about how the art is created, and presented – to get into the show, the rules must be followed. Rejection is a fact of artistic life that must be learned. “Most things do get in,” Bikoff smiles.
It’s exciting for the artists. “The art-making process, for any artist, enhances the person’s self-worth, and the feelings of being able to express something – that’s what art is – and it’s particularly important if you have people with disabilities, who can’t always express themselves verbally,” Bikoff adds. “What it creates for them is a way to create work, and to feel good about themselves.”
Feeling good about themselves is also a by-product for the professional artists, administrators and staff. When she arrived in 2007, and joined first as a volunteer and then as a teaching artist, Kim Dohrman knew she’d found her calling. And she hasn’t doubted that decision in 12 years.
“I fell in love with the spirit of the place, and the energy of the art-making that was happening,” she says. “And the idea that art can give your purpose and give you an outlet for your expression. Being an artist, there were times in my life when I feel like art saved me. Without it, what?”