“We expect respect, and we expect them to pay attention. That’s a lot more than a lot of people have expected from them.”
— art teacher Erika Schultz
Todd tells me something I can’t understand. Amid his thick mumbles, all I can make out is something about a painting.
“He said he wants you to see his paintings at the Woolworth Walk,” explains his teacher, Erika Schultz, nodding at Todd that the message was understood. He watches her lips, gives a little nod of his own, and settles his hulking frame back down into his seat in the lunchroom. His intensity evaporates and his eyes settle on mine, seeking more information.
“I’ve seen your work, Todd,” I tell him. “It’s why I’m here.”
But that’s not entirely true. Todd is only one of the more than a dozen artists represented at the Woolworth Walk exhibit that has brought me to Creative Clay Inc., the local branch of a Florida-based nonprofit that works with special-needs clients. His work, as passionate and raw as his presence, is only part of the story.
The rest of the tale can be seen on the lunchroom’s walls, where dozens of crudely painted roosters crow and strut in frozen silence, their feathers more implied than directly stated. Their forms, while instantly recognizable, are rough-hewn things at best.
In its least-hyperbolized form, “outsider art” denotes folk art done by people living on the fringes of society — the developmentally disabled, the autistic, the brain-damaged and the mentally handicapped: in other words, the students at Creative Clay.
The market for such unabashedly honest art is sizable, and for all their disadvantages, Creative Clay students have proven to be some of WNC’s most prolific — and successful — artists. They produce everything from large text-and-figure pieces (their so-called “storyboards”) to hand-painted greeting cards, homemade pillows and tiny Christmas ornaments.
And each month, they collectively sell about$1,000 worth of art.
Beyond the basics
“When we first moved here, our walls were completely barren,” says Schultz, gesturing toward the dense, vertical columns of art that cover the walls in Creative Clay’s hallways. Each student gets a row, and they’re filled with pieces easily identifiable as landscapes, still lifes, portraits and abstracts. Some seem little more than collisions of crude, brightly colored shapes that occasionally create rough images of people and places.
Others, however, are unspeakably perfect things. One student’s self-portrait is hung at waist level near the doorway that leads to the clay-making room. It’s a giant, oval face done in blue-gray, the eyes — one tiny and squinting, the other huge and unfocused — overshadowing a lost, wispy smile.
“We try to show them the basics,” says Schultz. “We show them where to put the eyes, but they take that and do their own thing with it.
“We like to call ourselves an art college,” continues the teacher, who’s also assistant director of Creative Clay. “They are adults, and we treat them like they are adult students. We expect respect, and we expect them to pay attention. That’s a lot more than a lot of people have expected from them, and they respond to it.”
Unlike many art students, however, the artists in Creative Clay’s classes are actually making money.
Most of the proceeds from the sales go to the artists. Like other galleries, Woolworth Walk takes a cut for providing the display space, and Creative Clay takes a small fee to cover the cost of materials — but the students still end up with the lion’s share.
“It’s earning more than we ever imagined. And every one of our students have sold artwork through the Woolworth Walk exhibit,” Schultz reveals. “We provide them with an income. Every month, we’re giving them checks for up to $80 — and to them, that is a lot of money. It makes them a little more independent.”
Outsiders at work
The students sit more or less quietly around a large table in a room that serves both as classroom and studio space, wearing a smock or apron. Each student has a designated spot at the table, marked by a thick sheet of white paper bearing the artist’s name. Handfuls of brushes, tablets of paints and thick rolls of napkins are brought out, along with cups of water for cleaning off the brushes.
Today, the students are painting Christmas ornaments, carefully covering each one with thick layers of vivid reds and luminous blues. They listen to music as they work: a mix CD containing Waylon Jennings, Leftover Salmon and Phish’s cover of Will Smith’s hit “Gettin’ Jiggy with It.”
At one end, a young man named Jacob meticulously paints a detailed Christmas stocking. Already well known for his intricate studies of buildings and landscapes before he arrived at Creative Clay, Jacob’s work adorns the walls of Sheriff Bobby Medford’s office — a fact the artist will proudly discuss with the least amount of prompting.
Today, however, he’s totally focused on the task at hand. The stocking comes to life beneath his brush, the colors gleaming. When he’s finished, he sets it atop a large paper sheet to dry and starts working on another ornament — a rocking horse.
I try to talk to Jacob about what he’s doing, but he’s lost in his work. Across the room, Todd begins to talk — and one of the instructors tells me he’s referring to his girlfriend, a woman named Rosie who’s a frequent inspiration for his art. Todd is planning on buying her a necklace, the instructor tells me.
All attention turns Todd’s way.
And in a flash, a hand whips out from just beyond the table and snatches Jacob’s freshly painted stocking. There’s a deeply disconcerting howl as one of the students, a severely disabled girl, tries to stuff the ornament in her mouth.
The staff rushes to action. The ornament is taken. The girl’s hands are wiped free of paint. A sullen Jacob is comforted amid the unhappy girl’s howls, his careful painting job now covered with big smears.
For a moment, the room is tense.
And then Jacob starts to talk. His deferential stuttering is as hard to understand as Todd’s mumble. Slowly, however, his meaning becomes clear.
“That was a good one,” he says.
[The artists’ last names were withheld by request.]
Creative Clay’s student show is on permanent exhibit at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St.) in downtown Asheville. To learn more about Creative Clay’s programs and donation policy, call 658-8875 or check out www.creativeclay.org. For more information about Woolworth Walk, call 254-9234.