Celebrating a Vision

The novel An Anthropologist on Mars explores seven different tales focusing primarily on individuals with disabilities and how they perceive and flourish in the world that surrounds them. The very first tale Oliver Sacks explores is the tale of an artist who loses the ability to distinguish color after getting into an accident. At first, he only sees this as a complete devastation. The world is “wrong and disgusting”. Everything he once knew and was able to interpret is now different. Eventually he changes his perspective of this. He used his skill as an artist to express his frustrations and attempt to show others what it was like to live in his world. He finally reached a point where he couldn’t imagine living in a world surrounded by color, this had become his life. [1]

This artist that was described in the first tale Sacks told began his new life believing that he couldn’t fit into the social artistic norm anymore. He ended up proving himself wrong and using his disability to explore a new artistic realm. He was able to embrace his differences and find a way to fit them into the world. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is a gallery that exists that encompasses this state of mind. It is located at the SFO museum in San Francisco, California. The SFO museum was created in 1980 and is located in the San Francisco International Airport. The mission of the SFO museum is;

“…to provide a broad range of exhibitions and educational programs, collectively represent the diversity of human achievement, enrich the public experience, and differentiate SFO from other airports.”

The exhibition is called “Celebrating a Vision: Art and Disability”, and was opened in this institution in 2001. This was created by a couple in San Francisco, Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz. At the time of the initial creation of this project Elias was working as a staff psychologist and Florence was an artist. This project began by hosting a private art making event for artists with disabilities in their garage. In 1972 they expanded this project and established Creative Growth Art Center.

Creative Growth “serves artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities, providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation and a social atmosphere among peers.” [2]

The artists that work within this space are regarded as professionals, they are paid for

Judith and her twin sister Joyce at Creative Growth

the work they create and some are featured in local museums. An example of this is Judith Scott. She is known as the first artist with Down’s syndrome to have her art exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Judith’s twin sister brought her to Creative Growth where she was encouraged to express her emotions through art. After an initial amount of resistance to the program, Judith decided to express herself through sculptures. These sculptures embodied the life that Judith had led, and the hardships she had dealt with being a child with a disability in the 1950’s.


Judith’s story is one of the many inspiring stories that has come from this institution. There has been a multitude of terms established by others to refer to art created by individuals in this space. An article from The Atlantic that explored Judith’s story identified these words. These terms include; “brut art”, “naïve art”, “raw art” and “outsider art” As I read these terms I was turned off by them. Particularly the term “outsider art”. The article continued though with a quote from the director of Creative Growth saying:

“Discussing someone’s diagnosis in relationship to their art is a delicate balance,” says Di Maria. “You shouldn’t like it just because it is made by someone with Cerebral Palsy or Down’s Syndrome. You should love it and then find out who the artist is and their story.” Most of the artist’s biographies do not mention any disabilities. [3]

The leaders of this organization want their members to be regarded as artists and just as that. They aren’t aspiring to have them be looked upon as different because they have disabilities, but rather that they be looked upon as regular members of an artistic community. This institution is a wonderful step to a more inclusive and less assuming community. The allowance of emotional and artistic expression to be taken seriously and professionally is a grand progression in understanding each other in deeper ways than before. Incorporation of individuals of all walks of life in a variation of professions allows us to see the world in a more all-encompassing way. This institution/exhibition is one that inspires hope and understanding and I hope to see more like it in the future.

1 – Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (Vintage, 1996)

2 –  http://www.creativegrowth.org/category/news

3 – https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/where-great-art-transcends-disability/266184/

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