Creativity Reinvented: CCA Students, Creativity Explored Artists ENGAGE

Glen Helfand (in the green T-shirt) with CCA students and Creativity Explored artists

A hall of mirrors reflecting an artist's actual view of the world; sculptural train tracks coming out of the wall and into the gallery space; colorful, hanging text-mobiles that evoke psychologically charged word-clouds; a fashion magazine devoted to one fabulous model; and a pop-up shop selling equestrian-themed T-shirts, jewelry, and drawings:

These are the works that will be on view in Fabricators, the culminating exhibition for Glen Helfand's fall 2012 ENGAGE at CCA course, at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco, December 12-22, 2012. The public is invited to the reception on Saturday, December 15, 3-5 p.m.

The Artist's Hand, and the Koons Model

In contemporary art, the artist's hand is becoming an ever more complicated thing. We still revere the handcrafted object -- from Etsy items to photorealistic paintings -- and yet the sculptor Jeff Koons, who maintains a factory-scale operation to execute his ideas and never actually lays his own hands on the work, is one of the most successful artists going. Which is to say, the practice of fabrication has become one well-regarded facet in a vast spectrum of artistic approaches.

This semester, Glen Helfand of CCA's Fine Arts and Visual and Critical Studies faculty is leading an ENGAGE at CCA course that applies the Koons model to a dramatically different scenario. "The core idea was," he explains, "What would happen if we gave a few Creativity Explored artists the opportunity to work like Jeff Koons and have other people -- for instance, CCA students with the assistance of some folks from IDEO -- fabricate for them? How would the work change?"

Creativity Explored is an arts center in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District that helps foster the creative expression of developmentally disabled adults. In addition to studio access and individual instruction, Creativity Explored promotes and exhibits the artists' work in its gallery on 16th Street, allowing the artists to pursue an actual livelihood through their art.

Students as Facilitators

The ENGAGE course involves 15 CCA students divided into five teams, each team matched with one Creativity Explored artist. Coming from a variety of disciplines, the students are calling upon their academic and studio training to act as facilitators and project managers to help the five artists produce new bodies of work beyond their usual level of operation, in terms of either scale or materials.

"So, the students are not only helping the Creativity Explored artists carry out their concepts, but they are also in many cases helping the artists formulate those concepts: guiding them in thinking through what new directions their work could take, given this opportunity," Helfand says.

Scaling Up

Some artists, like Christina Marie Fong, Camille Holvoet, and Lance Rivers, began with a fairly clear idea of the project they were looking to implement with the help of the CCA students. For instance Rivers ordinarily creates detailed depictions of the Bay Area transportation vehicles, tracks, and tunnels, and he knew he wanted to create a more dimensional version of something that he had previously only drawn.

Others, such as Natalie Spring, had no predetermined expectations, and so one of the challenges for her student team was to engage her in a dialogue about her work and determine what it might mean to take her ideas to the next level. Ultimately they settled on the idea of a pop-up shop selling T-shirts, jewelry, and drawings based on her depictions of animals and nature. The proceeds will go toward supporting her art practice.

Artists First and Foremost

From the students' perspective, the course is far more critical and conceptual than craft-based. Helfand is encouraging them to communicate with the artists as image makers and thinkers rather than as adults with special needs. "We're here as facilitators and fabricators, not instructors or artistic collaborators. The students are having important input, but ultimately their job is about enabling, making technical suggestions and so on."

Student Andrea Bergen (Painting/Drawing 2013) reports: "This is a great and unique class. It is part contemporary art history and part community arts. I love that we are creating an actual project out in the world that benefits the Creativity Explored artists.

"I've learned a lot about how to make use of my skills as a painter in a different setting. The most important thing I've learned is that the Creativity Explored artists are not 'disabled' or 'outsider' artists. They are serious, dedicated artists who love to make work, and I am glad to have had the experience of creating something new together with them."

Help from IDEO

ENGAGE courses often bring in outside expert consultants to provide professional-level support and guidance; in this case they are coming from the renowned Bay Area design consultancy IDEO. Helfand reports, "They were captivated with the unique idea of this class. They've spent a lot of time with the students, giving them advice regarding how to implement the artists' projects."

Helfand is a well-known curator in addition to his teaching and writing careers, and his decision to do this ENGAGE course came out of an initial request by Creativity Explored for him to curate a show of their artists' work. "I was very interested in the idea of taking a different approach to the work, and it was encouraging to see how well people responded to the idea. It also seemed like a project well served by a class, as there are so many interesting angles and related activities."

The course began with an introduction to art historical precedents and then quickly moved into conceptualizing and realizing the projects.

Bridging the Communication Gap

Every artist works and communicates in a different manner, and the artists of Creativity Explored are no exception. Thanh My Diep communicates better with her CCA student team via email, whereas Christina Marie Fong is meeting with her group more often in person. Fong's project is the creation of a new fashion magazine. Their student groups have enjoyed the experience of getting to know them as they developed the projects.

The CCA students come from all disciplines but most are Architecture majors, and they report that this experience has been extremely beneficial in preparing them for a career of communicating with clients, creating proposals, and implementing projects on a deadline. They are gaining other experience as well, as they will prepare and install the Fabricators show at Jack Fisher Gallery.

Continuing Relationships

The class is progressing swiftly, and Helfand is hoping that the relationships fostered will carry on long past the final exhibition. "What's been so great about this class is to have an initial idea and see how the relationships develop around it. The students seem to be truly engaged by the process, and the artists definitely love the attention the possibility to realize a new aspect of their work. So far, it has been an incredibly gratifying experience for us all."

Participating CCA students

Michael Barker
Andrea Bergen
Jack Chang
Cella Costanza
Shelby Hinte
Miso Kim
Sirada Laomanutsak
Natasha McLachlan
Mateen Mortazavi
Vince Nieto
Manny Pagkalinawan
Pamela Pascual
Marieca Tye
Yixin Yuan
Kangning Zhao


ENGAGE at CCA is an innovative initiative combining the Community Arts Program's successful model of community engagement with the project-based learning approach of the architecture and design disciplines. Activated across academic programs, ENGAGE at CCA serves as a hub to connect interested faculty and students to community partners and relevant outside experts.

Housed at the Center for Art and Public Life, ENGAGE at CCA dynamically advances CCA's mission to prepare its students for lifelong creative work and service to their communities through a curriculum in fine art, architecture, design, and creative writing. For more information, visit


Fabricators: Blurring the Insider-Outsider Boundary by Lia Wilson (Daily Serving)