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Oakland’s Creative Growth teams with Levi’s on hot-selling collection

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 2/8/2021 By Tony Bravo

When artists Elizabeth Rangel and Ray Vickers first saw their work featured on the Levi’s website it provided a moment of excitement and uplift after months of sheltering in place.

Although the virus has made it impossible for Rangel and Vickers to work in-person at Creative Growth, the world renowned Oakland art center for the developmentally disabled, it hasn’t stopped the community from creating together. After transitioning to virtual studio sessions in March 2020, the Levi’s project is the first Creative Growth collaboration to be done entirely remotely, a testament to the quick adjustments made by both instructors and artists. A look at the Levi’s website shows that neither artist has lost their enthusiasm for their respective mediums.

Rangel’s vintage Levi’s trucker jacket is embellished with red fringe, the word “freedom” stitched over its arms. A combination heart/peace sign is embroidered across the back, a technique frequently employed by the 36-year-old. Vickers’ T-shirt design shows the classic red Levi’s logo as being held up by cartoon bunnies: Like other works by Vickers, 33, there’s a playfulness and pop sensibility in his take on the brand iconography.

“I was beyond surprised and excited,” Rangel said over a Zoom video call. “There were butterflies in my stomach. My heart wanted to make this vision with the theme of the Hippie era of the ’60s for the jacket. (Seeing) it made me feel proud. Hard work runs in my family.”

“It felt good,” Vickers said of the experience, his pet dragon lizard resting on his shoulder. “My mom has ordered a bunch of my shirts, but I never let stuff like that go to my head. I try and remain humble.”

Vickers, who frequently includes rabbits and Marvel superheroes in his drawings, has been an artist with Creative Growth since 2009. Rangel has been with them since 2011 and primarily works in fashion and textiles. While Vickers has previously been involved with an artist collaboration with Levi’s — for a series of pins — this was the first time Rangel had worked on a project with the company. One day, she hopes to start her own fashion label.

“When I saw it, I said, you made me the happiest girl in the world right now,” said Rangel.

Founded by Florence and Elias Katz, for 47-years Creative Growth has not only given developmentally disabled artists an outlet for expression, it’s also provided a sense of stability and routine that’s often critical for their quality of life. Creative Growth’s roughly 150 artists — who earn money generated from the sales of their work — include people on the autism spectrum and with Down syndrome, developmental delays and other disabilities.

In its converted garage on 24th Street near Broadway in Oakland, Creative Growth is as much an icon in the Bay Area art world as the 168-year old Levi Strauss & Co. is in fashion. Over the decades the center has not only been a place where people with developmental disabilities have benefited from studio classes and community, it has also launched artists like abstract painter Dan Miller and the late sculptor Judith Scott, whose work is in the permanent collections of museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Thanks to the organization’s savvy strategy of brand partnerships with companies like Target, Vans sneakers and Nordstrom as well as local retailers Modern Appealing Clothing and Hero Shop, their products have developed a dedicated following beyond gallery clients. A 2009-10 capsule collection with fashion designer Marc Jacobs, for example, featured a line of 15 products that were carried in boutiques worldwide — which became sought-after gets for fashion collectors.

All those elements appealed to Paul O’Neill, the design director for Levi’s collections, who reached out to the organization for the recent collaboration.

“Creative Growth has long been on my radar for something like this,” said O’Neill, who owns several works by Creative Growth artists. “Then last year there was a conversation that came up about an opportunity for Levi’s to do something to highlight the International Day for Persons with Disabilities. I said Creative Growth would be the perfect people to work with, everyone loved the idea.”

The project features one-of-a-kind vintage trucker jackets painted, embellished and drawn on by Creative Growth artists.

Aurie Ramirez’s jacket is painted in homage to rock band Kiss; a jacket by Lauren Dare is drawn with leopard spots. Lulu Sotelo’s design features whimsical figures while Nicole Storm experimented with color washing on her jacket. Stephanie Hill’s jacket has a stainedglass-like motif, while butterfly embroideries dot the jacket by Susan Glikbarg. William Scott included patches with the words “Peace on Earth” and “Science Fiction” on his design, and Zina Hall’s jacket featured a patchwork portrait on the back. All jackets are priced at $498, T-shirts by Vickers, Rickie Algarva and Ron Veasey are $34.50.

Within a few weeks of the collection’s Dec. 3 launch, nine of the jackets had sold. Between proceeds from the sales, which go to the organization, plus the commissions fees that go to the individual artists, Levi’s contributed a combined $20,000 for the project.

“The partnership with Creative Growth was about doing something impactful with artists and an organization that we believe in,” O’Neill said. “We were committed to making sure all proceeds from sales went back into Creative Growth.”

The collection was not the first time the company has worked with the organization. In recent years, Levi’s has been a sponsor of the “Beyond Trend” fashion show Creative Growth has held since 2010, featuring artwear made and modeled by the artists. The event has become one of the best known fashion shows in the Bay Area, attracting celebrity guests like David Bryne and Paper magazine and The New Now founder Kim Hastreiter. For the safety of artists, this year’s Beyond Trend has been indefinitely postponed.

In a year that required such major adjustments from the Creative Growth community, it was important, said Creative Growth Executive Director Elizabeth Brodersen, to have something to celebrate.

“We get questions every day about when we are coming back,” said Brodersen. “We miss everyone terribly, nothing replaces being in studio, but in 10 months we’ve become a thriving online community. The artists are managing to stay connected and make work. It’s blown my mind.”

Both Vickers and Rangel said that they’ve managed to adjust to working with instructors remotely, but they also miss the in-jokes and kind of interactions they get in-person. Once they’re back in studio, Vickers looks forward to Wednesday coffee time with his instructors. Rangel thinks the return to studio will be “awkward” when it eventually happens, but with a virus like the coronavirus “it’s good to be awkward.”

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: tbravo@sfchronicle.com

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