Heart of Gold Country: Grass Valley man reaches independence through art
February 23, 2013
Spencer McClay stands out in Grass Valley.
And not just because of the color of his skin.
McClay is black and walks everywhere he goes in a county where 94 percent of the residents are white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 figures.
"I wasn't sure if we were going to fit," said Gretchen Serrata, McClay's adoptive mother.
“With his vibrant use of colors and whimsical forms, he evokes a sense of joy and playfulness.”
— Jillian NAkornthap, curator of folk art show
"I don't even think about it," McClay said. "I do what I have to do."
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Whether to his downtown art studio or on his way to help teach at the Neighborhood Center for the Arts, which provides creative opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities to work toward independence, McClay uses public transportation or his own two feet.
But that isn't all he does on his own.
Born in 1964 with developmental disabilities, such as dyslexia, McClay lives and works on his own in Grass Valley.
"I'm not going to say this is a perfect community, but it has been so welcoming to us that it has allowed him to focus on his art," Serrata said. "His life blossomed here."
Born in New Orleans as one of nine brothers in the St. Thomas housing projects, McClay first became exposed to weaving at the Roman Catholic St. Michael's Special School.
After McClay's parents passed away, he became a part of Antonio and Gretchen Serrata's family and moved with them to Grass Valley in 1987 after they lived shortly in Southern California. Before coming to Grass Valley, in both the Los Angeles area and in New Orleans, Serrata said McClay would get stopped by the police. Once, she said, he was arrested for cleaning the windows of their Hermosa Beach home.
"I don't really have any negative things to say about Grass Valley," McClay said. "I love it."
Since the move north, McClay has been with the Neighborhood Center of the Arts, called The Workshop at the time of their arrival in Nevada County.
Today, he pays the rent for his home and his studio through his art and his work at the Neighborhood Center for the Arts.
"He is a success story. He can live independently and is able to pay for his studio and rent," said Amee Mederios, executive director of the center.
"He is a big part of our center. He's a good team leader for the rest of the clients that attend. We are very proud."
McClay's weaving is very organic, he said. He uses a floor loom to make his handwoven wall structures.
"In weaving, you set it up and go, and however it come to be — it is," McClay said. "It's setting it up that takes a lot of time."
Found materials go into his work, such as fish nets, wires, beads, blankets and other fabrics, often dictating how a piece will be shaped.
McClay's intricate and colorful weavings were featured at New York's Community Folk Art Center as one of two solo exhibitions, alongside artist Beverly McIver, who has been the subject of an HBO documentary, as well as national media coverage. McIver's works sell for thousands of dollars, Serrata said.
"There are references to totem poles, African masks and Mardi Gras costumes," wrote Jillian Nakornthap, curator of New York's Community Folk Art Center. "With his vibrant use of colors and whimsical forms, he evokes a sense of joy and playfulness."
His work really blossomed after the family took a trip to Africa's Ivory Coast, after which his art suddenly became infused with bright colors.
"When I first started doing this, it was hobby because I needed something to do," McClay said. "Then people started asking me to (create) and paying me."
McClay has also shown his work at the Lincoln Arts Center. In 1996, the California Arts Council also gave him a grant for his work in the Art in Public Places program.
"McClay proves that a disability does not define him as a person, and his limitations were simply hurdles to overcome," Nakornthap wrote.
Beyond his art, McClay is also heavily involved in the community. He has served on numerous boards, including the Alta California Regional Center, FREED and the Advocates for Developmentally Disabled.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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