Center for Creative Works – Human Development

Art Spiel in Dialogue with Lori Bartol and Samantha Mitchell

Untitled (Herbies), by Doug Tan. Image credit: CCW/Virginia Fleming

Center for Creative Works (CCW) is a PA based unique professional art studio where artists with intellectual disabilities can access not only equipment and supplies but also dedicated mentorship, including help in promoting their work. Furthermore, it offers a
permeable space which prompts collaboration and idea sharing between CCW artists, artists outside of the studio, and community members at large. Lori Bartol, director, and Samantah Mitchell, exhibition coordinator, share with Art Spiel their vision for the organization and an insight into some of CCW artists’ work. Lori Bartol has recently revisited our discussion on how her team and artists have coped with the pandemic.

AS: Our interview was conducted a while before the Corona pandemic. Life has changed since. How are you coping these days and what are your thoughts about the road ahead? 

Lori Bartol: CCW closed due to the pandemic on March 13th. As of today we remain closed but hoping for a partial reopening in August. It has been a very interesting past several months. Our journey began with a panic that we would not be able to continue to work with our artists. We closed very abruptly and with no plan in place for how we could continue or what the near future could look like. We rapidly put remote services for many of our artists in place however and they exceeded all expectations for working in remote conditions. We learned a lot about the value of one to one interactions between the CCW artists and the art staff as well as how resilient and quickly adaptable our entire team is (artists and staff alike). We have artists conducting remote portrait and landscape commissions, working from home, collaborating and meeting other artists, creating videos, performing music.

It’s been very exciting to see how this trying and isolating situation has actually enhanced some of the work and how so many of our artists and art staff have teased opportunity out of despair. I feel luckier than ever to work in a creative field. We are definitely itching to get back into the studio and I miss the activity and proximity of everyone. We’ll do a combination of remote and studio services when we reopen and just see how things develop. 

AS: Tell me a bit about the genesis of CCW, your roles in this organization and your vision for it.

CCW grew out of a traditional vocational training program. As the founder and Director of the program, I came on at the end of 2009 with the task of rebuilding the organization. My role has been to set a vision and direction for the studio and move it forward in an ever evolving direction staying true to our mission. Together with a core group of determined people we took on turning the workshop in to a progressive studio. It was really hard work to transform the mission and direction of a long existing organization. We turned over nearly the entire staff and administration over time and built a team of teaching and practicing artists who shared the vision. We also lost many people enrolled in the program who did not share an interest in art but began to enroll people in the studio who were creative and interested.

We are now at the point where we have 91 people enrolled in the studio and are able to offer access to drawing, painting, printmaking, fibers, ceramics, sculpture and mixed media. We also have a recording studio in the building and music has become an important creative option for many of our artists.

The vision for CCW has remained pretty focused over the years. CCW is a professional art studio where artists with intellectual disabilities can access everything from equipment and supplies to mentorship, guidance and help in marketing and promoting their work. It’s a highly creative place. A little chaotic, a lot creative. Although teachers are there to guide and help with other needs our goal is to have a studio which does not reflect a hierarchy of “teacher-student” “disabled-non disabled” or “capable-in need”. It’s an environment where everyone is engaging and working together. Inspiring and being inspired. And just actively working. I like to think of CCW as a permeable space which enables creative contribution, collaboration and idea sharing to happen between CCW artists and artists outside of the studio as well as other community members.

Moving forward we are opening a satellite studio this spring in Philadelphia. The new studio will be in a new creative hub of makers, artists, and creative businesses in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. This is a natural evolution for us as it brings our studio and our artists into an inclusive community of creative peers. Our goal is that the new studio will be able to offer access to artists with IDD in Philadelphia as well as become an alternative workspace for CCW’s artists with maturing bodies of work.

SM: I started working at CCW part-time in 2012 as a teaching artist, and over the next four years became increasingly fascinated by the work I saw coming out of the artists here. In 2016 I became the Arts and Exhibitions Coordinator, a role that has allowed me both to develop the exhibition profile of the artwork coming out of CCW and to work one-on-one with the artists on professional portfolio development. I also facilitate some collaborative projects with local artists and arts organizations, which is a great way to bring new creative people into the studio and introduce our artists to local resources.

My goal is to provide visibility for our artists while engaging them in the process of promoting their work, or at least as much as they want to be involved (many artists don’t care to participate in the more commercial/marketing elements of the art world, a somewhat universal sentiment among artists!) So many of our artists have gained notoriety and recognition through their work, and it’s wonderful to see real, community-based relationships form out of that, beyond professional success.

Samantha Mitchell with Brandon Spicer-Crawley in front of his mural in Harrisburg, PA. Spicer-Crawley was commissioned by Sprocket Mural Works to create this piece, and Mitchell assisted Spicer-Crawley with the mural in the summer of 2019. Image credit: CCW/Samantha Mitchell

AS: I am curious about the teaching philosophy. Tell me a bit about your teachers and their teaching methods.

LB: Nearly everyone at CCW are working artists. Even many members of the management team have art backgrounds and those that do not share an interest in art and a real respect for the work coming out of the center. We hire teachers on based on the specific skill set they are bringing and what the studio is in need of at that time. A teacher with a ceramics background is hired for the ceramics studio and should have a professional knowledge of that medium and relating equipment. Same for other areas as well as the music studio. Some teachers are also actively engaged in connecting the artists and work to the larger community. Our music teacher for example arranges concerts, musical collaborations with other musicians and other opportunities for the artists engaged in the music studio.

Our teaching philosophy is based in a respect for the artists and for the commitment, skill level and longevity of their art practices. CCW artists who need more direction and skill building are given more direction while established artists are left to work independently and given guidance when needed. For these artists, the teachers are more in the role as assistants. We do not engage in formal teaching at all. I like teachers to contribute that which they specialize in; a particular medium, skill set, energy. We are building a tool box of skills largely around handling materials, techniques and equipment so that the artists can access and express their visual language. Teachers may point out work which is visually interesting to an artist and what makes it interesting but otherwise the direction or the work, subject matter, choice of material are left to the artists. Teachers may not, under any circumstance work on or attempt to alter the work of a CCW artist. Encouragement is important and as with most professional artists, critique of on-going work can be an important input for the artist.

Also very important is respecting the longevity of an artists career at CCW. Our established artists sometimes have already had longer careers and better exhibition records than teaching artists working with them.

SM: All our teaching artists are studio artists who bring their own knowledge base to the studio. Classes are based around materials, not methodologies, and there are no specific requirements from those participating. This allows room for artists to define their own relationship with the media, to engage with materials in ways that makes sense for them. Teachers often build adaptive tools to make artists more comfortable using specific media. We aim to create an environment that is generative and respectful, encouraging teachers to introduce artists to new materials and techniques without amending their aesthetic vision.

Red Trees by Paige Donovan. Image credit: CCW/Samantha Mitchell

AS: I loved some of your artists artworks at the recent Outsider Art Fair in NYC. I was particularly moved by Cindy Gosselin’s sculptures. What would you like to share about this artist and her work?

LB: Cindy’s work, for me, is a true expression of her self. She is consistently engaged in her surroundings in a fairly high energy – constant movement kind of way. As someone who does not see, she discovers her surroundings through touch. To hold an object and turn it over and over in your hands until you understand the shape and form of it, is a way to form an image of that object in your mind’s eye. It makes sense to me that her discovery of the object is accompanied by the almost frenetic energy involved in wrapping that object through hundreds of turning and handling motions. In the end she has reconfigured it into a vague reflection of the original object and maybe close to what the shape feels like in her mind.

SM: Cindy Gosselin makes her sculptures through binding, wrapping found material with string, tape, and yarn to create dynamic, cocoon-like forms. We have a robust material donation program and are always receiving unexpected objects which Gosselin makes quick use of. She is blind, so the pieces are created through her sense of touch, using both her hands and face to engage with the surfaces of the sculpture. Typically, for her a piece is complete when it is “too heavy,” at which point it is quickly tossed aside and another begins. Aside from her sculpture, Gosselin is very musical, frequently singing and playing drums in our music studio, and always listening to music while she works (she favors bagpipes).

We had a great time installing Gosselin’s work at the Outsider Art Fair this year – we decided to dedicate an entire wall to long display shelves for her work and brought over forty pieces. This was her third year at the OAF and we always sell almost everything that we bring.


Sculpture by Cindy Gosselin. Image credit: CCW/Samantha Mitchell

AS: Please tell me about some of your other artists work.

SM: We’ve got over 80 artists who are in our studio full-time, it’s hard to choose just a few. Mary T. Bevlock is one of our most well-known artist, she’s been developing a portfolio of portraits of her favorite TV show personalities and movie stars for the past ten years. She has really developed her own aesthetic style over this time. Her work is iconic and unique, featuring bold, almost cubist outlining of features, shadows, and patterns delineating a vibrant, experimental color palette. She had an exhibition in New York at Summertime Gallery this summer and took her first train trip to NYC for the occasion.

Another amazing artist we work with is Kelly Brown, who makes free-form weavings that incorporate unconventional fibers and found objects. Brown is deaf and blind and makes her work entirely through her sense of touch. When she began working at CCW her main creative outlet was making long strings of crocheted yarn – in our studio, she has broadened her artistic repertoire to include both weaving on a floor loom and weaving on a frame loom, even weaving fabric to make her own garments and jewelry. She communicates with our staff using sign-through-touch to request specific kinds of materials for her work. Brown exhibited at the Outsider Art Fair in 2018 and her first international exhibition takes place this month in Montreal at Galerie COA.

Artist Mary T. Bevlock at work in the studio; her painting “Golden Girls.” Image credit: CCW/Samantha Mitchell

A CCW cult favorite is David Schmuckler, who is a true original. A devotee of horror movies, he creates portraits of monsters and Halloween costumes. He Uses source imagery culled from Google image searches for phrases like “Halloween Scary Mask Costume,” “Bloodscream,” and “Krampus Horror,” which yield images from the horror genre around the world, Schmuckler develops singular characters using bold design elements and color schemes. Below the figure he incorporates the often-randomized text (sometimes in other languages) from the search results into his compositions, supplying them with equally macabre captions. Artist Kelly Brown at work in the CCW studio; her sculpture, “Untitled (Continent).” Image credit: CCW/Samantha Mitchell

Artist David Schmuckler holding one of his sculptures; his drawing “A Halloween-Mask.com Exclusive.” Image credit: Sandra Wong Geroux/CCW/Samantha Mitchell

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She holds BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, BFA from Parsons School of Design, and MFA from SUNY Purchase. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com