Creative Clay: New location is a destination for local artists

First Ave. S. offers new opportunities and challenges for the nonprofit.

Member artist Chris C. displays his embroidery - Jody Bikoff
Jody Bikoff
Member artist Chris C. displays his embroidery

For the first time since its founding 22 years ago, Creative Clay has a place of its own.

When Creative Clay Cultural Arts Center opened in 1995, it was the first nonprofit in Florida "specifically designed to serve persons with disabilities through sophisticated arts education." They started with one student and a $1,000 grant. Today the nonprofit serves 50-60 member artists per week, helps veterans, children and others in need, and consistently challenges the way we think about disability. The organization is, without a doubt, a creative and compassionate stronghold of the St. Petersburg community.

The new space, at 1846 1st Ave. S., sits a few blocks from its prior location on Central. The street is busier and less walkable, but the gallery itself remains as homey as ever. Creative Clay’s swirling red logo stands out above the door, along with a banner advertising free meals for local children.

“We thought a lot about what we wanted the space to be,” CEO Kim Dohrman said. The building started as a shell, so every inch could be constructed according to their specifications. Inside, there are three creation studios: One for 2D art like painting and drawing, another for 3D sculpting and a final one dedicated to performance, music and theater. Before, it was impossible to put these genres in separate rooms. Now Creative Clay can hold multiple workshops simultaneously, and the sculptors don’t have to worry about flecks of paint and other materials polluting their clay.

The performance room lets member artists explore alternate forms of expression. In the past, they’ve enjoyed theater and filmmaking sessions, but the staff had to plan them in advance. The designated space ensures these will occur with more regularity. Jody Bikoff, Director of Exhibitions, mentioned possible improv workshops in the future.

“Improv allows you to explore other sides of yourself that you might not be able to express otherwise,” Bikoff said. With the new setup, staff may introduce a rotating schedule that would allow artists the option to visit each of the studios for a few hours every day.

click to enlarge Gina K. shows two of her paintings - Jody Bikoff
Jody Bikoff
Gina K. shows two of her paintings

How do the members feel about the changes?

“They’re really excited to each have their own worktable. Before everyone had to share, and it got a little cramped,” Dohrman said. A larger building also means Creative Clay can move new artists off the waitlist.

The move comes with challenges, too. The location feels somewhat cut off from the bustle of downtown.

“We have to go from being a passive gallery, where people could just wander in on Central Ave., to an active one that reaches out. We have to become a destination,” Dohrman explained.

Creative Clay has a plan — and the space — to add some income as well.

“Diversifying revenue is what keeps us going. We have to constantly think of ideas and be flexible,” Dohrman said. The soon-to-be-launched Creative Thrift Store provides one good reason to visit. It will operate in the right side of the studio and sell art materials using a “pay what you can” philosophy. This way, local artists will have constant access to the supplies they need. Dohrman hopes the store will keep them connected with artists in the community, as well as become a source of revenue.

New fundraising ideas also highlight Creative Clay’s goal of becoming a destination. They bring people into the gallery, or bring the gallery to them. For example, Parties with a Purpose lets you rent the venue for events and art class parties, and Art in Offices encourages local businesses to lease paintings to decorate their workplace. Or, you can join the Good Folk Society, by making monthly donations to help Creative Clay achieve their dream of building a garden and an outdoor shed for a kiln. Donors receive VIP status and a portrait drawn by one of their member artists.

Dohrman hopes connecting with as many organizations as possible will widen their circles, attract business and attract donors. Just as important, it strengthens their partners and introduces them to more people in need.

For example, they team up with CASA, another nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence, to provide monthly art classes for the families in the shelter. CASA also sends students to Creative Clay’s Art Around the World summer camp. Each year, Creative Clay applies for summer grants, and some of the resulting money goes toward scholarships for the campers. Creative Clay alerts CASA, and they send kids to camp for free. Some years, homeless children have attended. Dohrman says “that relationship introduced us to kids who we would have never known how to reach, otherwise.”

Creative Clay also partners with Pinellas County Schools. Their Transition program provides vocational arts training for 18 to 22 year old graduates with special diplomas. Students are taught the business side of being an artist, including how to set up festival booths and price their artwork. One aspect of Transition is a mail art project with senior art students at PCCA high school. Transition and PCCA students are paired up into teams of two and exchange canvases back and forth multiple times, sharing facts and adding onto each other’s work, before they finally get to meet each other at their own exhibit opening.

Finally, the Artlink mentorship connects members with professional artists or creative institutions to develop their craft and business skills. The end goal is to find member artists meaningful employment in arts- or culture-related positions. 

After hearing about these programs, I'm at a loss for how to describe Creative Clay. It seems to be a multidimensional foundation, a resource and refuge for all, where individuals with disabilities can learn career skills and plan for their futures.

As St. Pete’s downtown district grows, one would expect more business for the gallery. However, the opposite is sometimes true. For example, Creative Clay’s Folkfest festival is usually one of their greatest sources of annual income. However, this year, despite perfect weather, turnout was small due to other festivals and events going on in the area. After all these years of development, funding remains a continuous dilemma. Cutting programs is always a last resort. Instead the organization relentlessly searches for ways to raise money, such as introducing the Good Folk Society, and builds supportive relationships like the one with CASA.

I ask Dohrman if this funding struggle gets frustrating, especially when it means moving to a different venue. She says yes. The move was hard to accept at first.

click to enlarge Creative Clay's new location at 1846 First Ave S. - Kim Dohrman
Kim Dohrman
Creative Clay's new location at 1846 First Ave S.

“It was so great for the artists to have their pieces on display right there on Central Ave., where everyone could see it walking by…But look what we’ve built, here,” she says, optimistic and choosing to focus on their future of serving and inspiring the St. Pete community. “There’s always a better ending if you push for that.”

 Amid all these changes, something remains the same: There is a vibrant energy to the place that I remember from Creative Clay’s previous location, and the one before that. After visiting the new gallery and being greeted with so many smiles, I decided it comes from the people. There are the artists, who Dohrman describes as “talented, kind, wonderful, down to Earth, and vital.” And there are the staffers like Kim, who, when designing the new building, immediately decided to make their offices smaller, so that the studio space could be bigger. It’s an energy that comes with caring individuals, important work, and art. At 1846 1st Ave South, Creative Clay proves there is no better combination.