The art beat goes on at Creative Clay

Posted by Ms. Kerry Kriseman, Apr 22, 2021 0 comments

“The heartbeat of family is Creative Clay.”

For Member Artist Gina K., Creative Clay is more than the place she goes three times a week to create exhibit-worthy art that is sold online and in the Good Folk Gallery. “It broke my heart when Creative Clay closed,” Gina said. “That’s the truth.”

Creative Clay is in her heart.

On March 19, 2020, Creative Clay was forced to close its physical location and cease regular programming due to COVID-19. The St. Petersburg, Florida nonprofit’s two largest programs, Community Arts and the Art Around the World inclusive summer camp, were closed. Before COVID-19, Creative Clay’s Community Arts Program served 50 individuals with neuro-differences, ages 18 and older, Monday through Friday. A National Public Radio (NPR) story stated that individuals with disabilities are four times more likely to die from COVID related complications. “The high rate of death is disturbing, but it’s not surprising,” said Scott Landes, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Landes has been collecting data from state and private research groups and says people with developmental disabilities who live in group homes have some of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in the country. “They’re more likely—four times more likely, we’re showing—to actually contract COVID-19 than the general population,” he said, “and then if they do contract COVID-19, what we’re seeing is they’re about two times more likely to die from it.”

As many businesses reopened in late spring 2020, Creative Clay remained closed out of an abundance of caution to protect member artists. On May 1, 2020, with a grant from the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and a donation from Creative Clay board member Hal Freedman and his wife, Willi Rudowsky, Creative Clay Connects virtual classes launched. Donations from several other Creative Clay board members and donors helped fund individual artist kits and pay teaching artists.

“I felt really happy because I was able to do art on my own, and it meant that I got to do more art,” said Member Artist Marissa H. “The classes allowed me to expand my art-making abilities.”

“I was so happy and surprised to receive my own art pack,” said Member Artist Victoria P. Art packs included markers, sketchpads, colored pencils, and other supplies.

Creative Clay Member Artists in a Creative Clay Connects virtual art class show examples of works in progress.

Creative Clay’s 25-year history of serving individuals with neuro-differences includes many community partnerships, which provide opportunities for member artists to share their art with the community. The first sessions of Creative Clay Connects grew out of a commission from local partner Raymond James Financial. Member artists drew 170 portraits of Raymond James employees that were then gifted to their marketing staffers. “Our associates love displaying their art as a reminder of their recognition, a symbol of the creativity we strive to reflect in our work, as well as to celebrate our connection to the community,” said Mike White, Chief Marketing Officer at Raymond James.

Creative Clay Connects also gave members an opportunity to come together artistically in new ways. Local playwright and author Sheila Cowley invited the artists to participate in her play, Wordy. Artists also were invited to submit illustrations for Cowley’s upcoming children’s book, Splish Splash.

According to Cornell University’s 2017 Disability Report, people with disabilities experience joblessness, isolation, and abuse. Creative Clay’s programs address these problems by creating safe and inclusive spaces for members to produce and sell artwork. Creative Clay CEO Kim Dohrman was grateful for the timing of Creative Clay Connects: “Through this program and partnership, we create community, provide a sense of purpose, and a way for our artists to earn money.”

In August 2020, Creative Clay began Phase 1 of its reopening with its Pinellas County Schools Transition Program, serving students aged 18-22. It’s easy for the eight students to socially distance in Creative Clay’s 5,000-square-foot space. The Transition students hosted a socially distanced outdoor Friday Art Market in October 2020, featuring original art, live music, a food truck, and mandatory mask-wearing.

As the world moves toward a post-pandemic era, it’s unclear whether businesses and organizations will retain the practices they were forced to implement to save lives. Creative Clay looks forward to welcoming member artists back to its physical space mid-June. The nonprofit also has offered onsite COVID-19 vaccines for staff and member artists who still need them.

While many struggled with the lack of in-person connections, many Creative Clay members found that this method of learning suits them. “It’s amazing,” said Member Artist Hannah V. of the virtual classes. “I love getting together with everyone.”

The learning continues, as artists and staffers continue to meet challenges and embrace opportunities created by the pandemic. Creative Clay will continue to offer virtual classes indefinitely, “as it enables us to continue to work with those who are not yet able to return to in person,” said Dohrman. “Also, we are only returning to in-person at a 30% capacity, which means many of our artists who used to come five days a week to our program may only be able to come one or two days. By keeping our virtual classes going, they are able to blend those with the in-person classes.”

Through Creative Clay Connects, Creative Clay has honored its vision of arts access for all. While members haven’t been able to meet in person, it doesn’t mean they aren’t connecting. “My favorite part of the day is my friends at Creative Clay,” said Member Artist Candace N. “We are one big happy family.”

Creative Clay’s mission is to help people with disabilities achieve full and inclusive lives through access to the arts by providing expressive, educational, and vocational experiences. Creative Clay’s core program is its Community Arts Program, which serves 50-60 adult artists with neuro-differences each week. Through the implementation of additional offerings—such as the inclusive Art Around the World summer camp, Summer Studio for older teens and young adults, Artlink employment program, Creative Care Arts in Wellness outreach program, and its Pinellas County Schools’ partnership Transition program—individuals of all ages and abilities are mentored, taught, and empowered to become working artists who actively create, market, and sell their work. The result is that a formerly stigmatized population, through the art it makes and sells, demystifies stereotypes surrounding those with disabilities and creates a culture of acceptance throughout the community.

Follow Creative Clay on Facebook, on Instagram @creativeclaystpete, on Twitter @creativeclay, and on LinkedIn.

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