First published: Spring 2003
Nothing in Donald Mitchell’s background would have predicted his emergence as one of Creative Growth’s most outstanding artists. Before his acceptance into the program at the Creative Growth Art Center, in Oakland, California, in 1976, he had shown no interest in art making. One teacher remembers his early drawings as ‘scribbles’; others recall rudimentary figures obliterated by cross-hatching. The earliest work saved in Mitchell’s file, a 1982 painting depicting a face, in no way presages the confident and elegant calligraphic style that Mitchell has very gradually developed over many years.
While the field of study comprising ‘self-taught,’ ‘outsider’ and Art Brut continues to expand, there remains a tendency to privilege those artists who create their art despite, or because of, their unusual mental or emotional states.
Contemporary scholars, dealers, and collectors continue to romanticize the individual genius of those artists who find their voices in isolation. Today, however, many artists with disabilities are less likely to work in isolation. They might attend special education classes, interact with others in group homes, and learn the skills to live productive lives within their communities. The work of Donald Mitchell demonstrates how membership of a special institution can foster and guide the creativity of artists with developmental or psychiatric disabilities.