Creating art with and among the communityQ&A with Craig Nowak: Nonprofit Journal Project

Craig Nowak is the program coordinator of Southfield-based Gesher Human Services’ Creative Expressions, an arts and culture program for adults with mental health challenges and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

What will some of the program offerings be in 2023.

In the first quarter of the year, January through March, we’ll be offering many fine arts classes, including 3D painted sculpture, large-scale drawing, mural painting and mosaic, and ceramics. A photo journalism and creative presentation class will also be available. For those into music, we’ll be collaborating with our long-standing partners at the DSO for music groups in Detroit and Southfield.

In the spring, our folks will be busy with exhibition planning and classes on preparing for art fairs. Our annual Frame of Mind arts event will be in May or June, and some of our folks will be working to exhibit at the Midtown Art Fair.

Programs are added based on participant interest and partner availability. The Creative Expressions Program is always growing, changing, and continuing to add to our list of creative community partners, so I can't predict what we will be doing in the latter half of the year, but we’ll likely have some new programming as well as bringing back some old favorites.

You partner with a number of highly respected arts organizations in metro Detroit to deliver education and programming. Can you briefly tell me about some of those partnerships, how they work, and why it's important to have community partners?

Gesher doesn't outright hire teachers and program leads for Creative Expressions. Instead, we partner with creative community organizations like College for Creative Studies and Detroit Symphony Orchestra that, in turn, give us a direct connection to the community by providing our members and participants with teachers and program leads that are professionals in their fields. In addition, they also open the doors to an array of creative opportunities and experiences that we might not have otherwise had access to.

Creative Expressions' music program with the DSO

Other performing arts partners have been Detroit Opera, Matrix Theatre, and Open Spot Theatre, and we’ve partnered with professional writers for literary arts programs.

It's because of these relationships that Gesher participants are not siloed into a studio or stigmatized for their disabilities. Our participants join the community, create with the community, and exhibit their creative product at a higher level alongside other creative practitioners, within the community. They benefit in numerous ways from that connection.

How many individuals do you work with each year and where does the programming take place?

In 2022, more than 90 individuals took advantage of Creative Expressions art classes. Eighty of those were repeat participants, and, on average, participants attended more 30 classes over the course of the year.

Programs primarily take place in Southfield at two locations: the Gesher Clubhouse on West 12 Mile Road and at the Gesher Diem Building on Southfield Road.

In 2023, programs will also take place at the Gesher Frank Building
on Woodward Ave. in Detroit.

Creative Expressions programs have also taken place at more than two dozen community-based locations, including the Detroit Opera House, MOCAD, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, Pewabic Pottery and many, many other arts, culture, and community hubs.

It can be challenging to live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, severe anxiety or depression, or bipolar disorder or a disability like autism, down syndrome, a severe brain injury, or cerebral palsy, all of which the Creative Expressions Program serves. What are some of the changes you've seen with program participants as a result of being involved in the arts? 

No one participant is alike. Each has their own story, and each is on their own path with their own personal goals to achieve and their own hurdles to overcome. Because of that broad range of life and situational diversity it becomes difficult to say with a single response how participants have changed as a result of the arts. It's much easier to give examples.

After participating in Creative Expressions writing classes, some of our participants who previously lacked confidence, went on to submit their poetry to literary magazines and have been accepted. Now they are published writers.

Several Creative Expressions visual artists – who before taking classes lacked self-worth, inspiration, and drive – have since gone on to achieve personal accolades as artists.

One person is developing a career as a photographer. He has acquired a DSLR camera, a tripod, lighting systems, and he's learned to alter photos digitally. His newfound purpose and confidence led him to be hired as an event photographer; he has also sold photographic prints.

One Creative Expressions participant achieved his dream of publishing a science-fiction graphic novel. He developed the idea during a mentorship with an illustrator from the College for Creative Studies' Community Arts Partnership Program and has since written and illustrated several hundred pages of his graphic novel series.

Even something as simple as having the ability to choose a color on a mural or contribute to the development of a character in a story has given Creative Expressions’ participants something to look forward to. Much of what they were used to before consisted of pre-determined projects like step-by-step crafts. Now they have autonomy to make their own art. Many of the participants express gratitude on a daily basis for this and excitement for whatever the next class or project will be.

You are an artist yourself and have been a community arts instructor in the past. What is most rewarding to you about this job?

I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I can help people achieve their dreams and develop their aspirations.

Being an artist has helped me to understand people and how I can help them with their creative goals. Being a teacher has helped me to develop programming that will benefit more people in increasingly creative and imaginative ways. I've used those experiences to help build the Creative Expressions Program into what it is today.

The most rewarding part of this job is the people. Seeing someone grow and open up when given a voice or an ability to determine the outcome of a project of their choosing, that's the magic. I get to help people create something that didn't exist before they decided to give it life. What's not to love about that?

Creative Expressions is part of Gesher Human Services. What other programs and services are offered to Creative Expressions participants?

People have access to a host of programs that Gesher offers that might be appropriate for them. They might participate in vocational programs, or the Gesher Clubhouse for adults with mental health challenges. There are also special programs for people with intellectual disabilities. Many Creative Expressions program participants with mental health challenges live in supported housing that is appropriate to the level of care needed.


This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.