Filmmaker Cheryl Dunn joins forces with Pharrell Williams to champion the transformative power of art in her Creative Growth series for i am OTHER.
The Creative Growth Art Center – a studio for adult artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities – is a tall-windowed, red-brick building in the heart of Oakland’s Uptown arts district. Founded in 1974 by psychologist Elias Katz and educator Florence Ludins-Katz, the studio supports artists who may otherwise sit on the fringe of society.
Street photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn stumbled upon the studio eight years ago and was so inspired by the “place, the people, and what I was learning about the basic pure desire and need for people to be creative,” she became a permanent fixture, curating exhibitions, organising benefits and documenting the stories unfolding around her.
Thanks to AllDayEveryday, an innovative creative agency that she’s collaborated with frequently, Cheryl’s footage of Creative Growth has found a like-minded platform in Pharrell Williams’ i am OTHER – a website and YouTube channel that champions individuality. We caught up with Cheryl a couple of months ago when the series launched to learn more about this transformative project.
What was your first experience of Creative Growth?
My first experience at Creative Growth was actually trying to go to their gallery that is adjacent to the art centre. One day I was returning to NY after a shoot in SF and I thought I would swing by. I walked into the studio space at 3pm when everyone is packing up and I entered this magical world of very unique, and inviting creative souls. Soon after my friend did a visiting artist project and invited me to make a film about her process. I have gone there every few months since then.
What made you decide to start documenting the artists there?
While doing the project that I mentioned above, the stencil project with artist Karen Kimmel, I just was so inspired by the place, the people, and what I was learning about the basic pure desire and need for people to be creative. Daily we would just look at each other in amazement over what someone just made, or what they said it was one epiphany after the other. When I finished that film I just knew there was so much here that needed to reach a larger audience and be shared. I continued to go back often and curated exhibitions of the work and did benefits and expedited collaborations with designers and others. When I saw first-hand the truly life-altering positive effects that art-making had on this population as far as engagement in a society that they are basically outsiders in, I just had to continue working to do what I could to spread the word.
How have the artists at Creative Growth enlightened you?
Well when you go there, you immediately have to check yourself. All the silly things that we all complain about become clearly so trivial. When you see someone non-verbal, or in a wheelchair or disabled in any way, navigating this very harsh world, you are reminded that little things are very big and small acts of kindness and simple things are usually the most rewarding if you get off the treadmill and take note. I continue to be enlightened by most every conversation I have with the artists there. They are familiar with me now and I can have very frank discussions. Recently I spoke to a lovely man who is blind, about his life. I don’t know if I have ever been able to say to someone, what is it like being blind. I can ask what it feels like being autistic. I think people are taught when they are kids not to stare at the kid in the wheelchair, but I discovered the opposite here. People want to be paid attention to.
How did Pharrell and AllDayEveryday come to know of and then get behind the project?
AllDay is a company that I have directed many projects with. They were approached by I am Other for some series ideas and Lucy Cooper, AllDay’s executive producer, knew I had all of this Creative Growth footage, spanning years, so we pitched this series. Also the artists at Creative Growth have made and continue to make super cool short films. There is a great film teacher there Michael Hall, who has produced with the artists, all manner of shorts such as puppet films, live action, green screen mixed with animated drawings. So with the verite pieces and the filmic work of the artists, I think together you really get a good picture into the Creative Growth world.
Why do you think I am OTHER is the perfect platform for the series and artists’ films?
Well Pharrell has a manifesto on the site. And this is one of his credo’s: “I am OTHER celebrates people who push society forward. The thinkers. The innovators. The outcasts. History has proven that it’s the rule-breakers who have the power to change the world.” He describes what his ideas of being “Other” are and this very closely describes what I have witnessed and experienced at Creative Growth.
Can you explain why you went for a Cinéma Vérité-style approach to the series?
Well that is an interesting question. Direct cinema is the style of documentary filmmaking that I prefer and practice. But at Creative Growth sometimes the artists stare straight into the camera like it is a window to the outside. TV plays a big role in the lives of many of the artists that attend Creative Growth – TV shows and celebrity are very often referenced in the work. So the idea of being filmed I think creates this kinship with the worlds they see on TV. I can try to be a fly on the wall, but in some cases the camera is totally addressed. This was just a natural thing that occurred and I did not try to direct it otherwise because I felt that it was informative to the portal qualities of the art itself, and then with me and the camera if you have limited ways to engage with society as a whole, those ways become more pronounced.
What do you hope people take away from seeing the films? Do you hope certain perceptions of disability are changed?
Absolutely. Human rights when it comes to disability are really behind the curve. Mental issues are frightening, yet most people have them. In NY every other person is in therapy, takes meds, etc. People are afraid of what they don’t know. I always hoped with this work, to humanise mental illness, present the amazing things and work I have experienced, to show mental capabilities within this population that far exceed my own, celebrate their uniqueness and incredible talents and just bring to light some unknowns because knowledge is the key to compassion. When you present truths through art, it is just easier for people to digest. People are totally unique creatures and instead of trying to make everyone “normal”, whatever that is, I think celebrating otherness is way more rewarding way to be .
Where would you like to see the project/your work with Creative Growth go from here?
I would love to continue with this series. I filmed for ten days in April and got out of the studio quite a bit. I even got to film in William Scott’s Baptist Church, a major subject of his work. I want to tell more of the back stories to unearth some deeper roots of the creative process. I just learn so much with each experience. I want to continue to study the human mind, the origins of creativity, autism, instinct, dreams, so many of these things are worked out through the art at Creative Growth, it’s incredible. I hope to also expand one artist’s story into a feature-length film down the road.