Exceptional Art

Inside the gallery, patrons sip merlot, nibble on hors d’oeuvres and admire the art. They talk with staff about funding, the artists, and the space. The walls showcase a dazzling breadth of artwork, from pen and ink to acrylics. By all appearances, this gallery looks like any other during St. Petersburg’s Second Saturday ArtWalk

But look closer at the art, and then look around and look at the artists. They range from young to old, but many, including a woman who calls herself “Toni G.,” retain a youthful appearance despite their physical age.

Toni, who is 40, looks much younger. She lives with her mother, Rose Marie, in St. Petersburg. Her sister Gwen buys her the canvases Toni uses to paint. She smiles shyly and speaks softly. When she finally does speak, only an ear trained to her pattern of speech can understand everything she says.

Toni has a developmental disability. Every artist here struggles with his or her unique disability; in Toni’s case, her struggles stem from a bit of extra genetic material. Toni has Down syndrome. She can’t speak as well as many of the museum’s benefactors, but she can wink. She loves to wink.

And paint. Toni paints, and this studio caters to her and others facing similar challenges. They give her space to paint, teach her technique and sell her work.

Welcome to Creative Clay, the studio and gallery that gave Toni hope and, her family says, changed her life.

“She was really depressed,” Gwen says. “It teaches them more than just about art here. It’s getting them in a social environment.”

Before Creative Clay, Toni went to Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center, then to Life Skills Center. She has also enrolled in courses at Saint Petersburg College.

Five days a week, Toni gets on the bus. From 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., she spends her day learning about making art and painting as part of Creative Clay’s Community Arts program. In addition to art, the program helps artists like Toni learn to advocate for themselves and interact with the community. Currently, about 30 artists participate in the program every day. Medicaid and grants fund the program, which helps offset the costs to families. Although Creative Clay relies on volunteers, it pays its teachers.

“We believe in paying artists,” says Jody Bikoff, Director of Exhibitions and Marketing. Local professional artists teach performing arts, dance, writing, filmmaking, visual arts, textile arts and mixed media classes.

Toni, who often starts work at home and brings it on the bus to Creative Clay, started with colored pencils and progressed to acrylics. She splashes vivid colors across her canvases; cheerful flowers glisten in every color, the close-ups of each blossom outlined in a rainbow of colors. Toni says it takes her about ten hours to paint each notebook-sized canvas.

“My arms get tired,” she says.

Despite the fatigue, Toni says she loves Creative Clay, and she encourages Jody to join her for a picture in front of her painting. Toni pulls Jody close in a hug and says something; Jody throws back her head and laughs.

“You’re her hero,” Gwen tells Jody. Rose Marie agrees; Creative Clay, she says, has given Toni a nonverbal way to communicate what she feels.

“So many people struggle to understand her,” Rose Marie says of her daughter.

And what does Toni think of Creative Clay? She touches her chest and winks:

“It makes my heart drip.”

Find Creative Clay at 1114 Central Avenue in St. Petersburg’s The Edge District; they’re open for every Second Saturday ArtWalk. For the June ArtWalk, they will hang the “Five Years of Mail Art” show. They offer a variety of art programs and accept donations.

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