Creative Citizen Studios (CCS) is a Pittsburgh based organization that works with adult artists with intellectual or developmental disabilities to make, exhibit, and sell their art. We had the honor of sitting down with Founder & Executive Director Tirzah DeCaria to talk about their work.
IFEP: Thank you so much for meeting with us today, to start off would you tell us a little bit about Creative Citizen Studio?
Tirzah: My name is Tirzah and I founded Creative Citizen Studios about ten years ago in 2013. We are an organization that’s dedicated to supporting adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities who want to pursue a professional career as an artist.
So my one sister has down syndrome, and so she certainly is a huge part of my inspiration. We're both creative people in very different ways. When I finished my undergrad, I studied fine arts, I moved to New Mexico and worked for an arts and disability organization in Albuquerque, I was really inspired by everything that they do, it was called the North Fourth Art Center. There was a mixed ability theater company, a dance company, a printmaking studio, a quilting studio and all of these art forms serving about 200 people a week. I moved to Pittsburgh for Graduate school at Carnegie Mellon and I realized that there was nothing similar to what I had experienced in Albuquerque. It’s just so inspiring to be around people with disabilities and the freedom of creativity. It’s great to just see all the different ways that a lot of people approach situations and interpret things neurotypical people interpret in other ways.
IFEP: What does disability pride mean to you?
Tirzah: Disability pride is really key to me, it is being able to celebrate the essence of who you are regardless of disability. Sometimes it is celebrating your exact identities, but I think to me it’s more like we live in such an ableist world and it's great being in a space where you can be yourself.
I think about specific examples. We have students that are nonverbal and artists that are obsessed with scribbling one specific shape over and over again. Disability pride in our classroom is not about telling people what to draw, we don’t tell anyone that we are all drawing a still life and, “why can’t you draw this like everyone else.” Instead it’s like, “you are an expert on the scribble circle. Let’s talk about it. Let’s investigate what happens when you add layers?” It's about how we can help you become an expert in the shape that you are really excited about.
IFEP: What are some of your favorite projects and initiatives you’ve been a part of at Creative Citizen Studio?
Tirzah: We are a really tiny organization, there’s about five people right now. I think I’m really inspired by the times when we can connect with larger organizations and non-disabled artists. It’s great to see the magic that can happen when two artists that have different brains and bodies can be inspired by one another and make work together. I’m kind of in a mentorship program with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and every summer we work with artists at Contemporary Craft and the Warhol. So when we can work with groups of non-disabled artists and expand their worldview while expanding the world of the artist is just very exciting to me.
IFEP: What do you find the most rewarding about your work?
Tirzah: I think I’m really proud of the community that we’ve built. I think a lot of the time if you don’t have a disability and you’re an artist, you feel like a weirdo or an outsider. In our classroom there is this kind of double outsider, like because they have autism and because they have this creative part of themselves. I think some of the magic happens when you get everyone together in the classroom they’re able to build these connections with one another in ways that they can’t build those connections in other spaces. We have artists who have been consistently with us for the past ten years, and just seeing how some people may not have many friends because it's hard to talk to other people. Being able to build those connections as an adult is really exciting.
IFEP: In the context of your work, what does free expression mean to you?
Tirzah: In the entire space we try to make it as free as possible, and we try to encourage as much autonomy as possible for a population of people that are generally controlled to some degree, because as the recipients of care, they need caregivers to support their daily functions. So we are never trying to censor anyone and we're not trying to guide anyone’s voice.
I think it is really important for each student, especially for folks that are nonverbal, to find their voice and find how they want to share their view of the world. They can use art to just get their thoughts out of their head. There are just very complicated and beautiful thoughts going on that can’t always be expressed in words.
IFEP: Is there anything else you want to share with our audience, and if people want to know more, where can they find you?
Tirzah: We really love being a part of this conversation, and we look forward to celebrating more freedom of expression in the future. If people want to follow us on social media we have Instagram and Facebook. Our newsletter is probably the most informative and it’s all on our website.
To learn more about Creative Citizen Studio, go to citizenstudio.org.