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Recovery art often says what words cannot

August 30, 2012
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Two treatment centers find artistic expression central to healing process
A sample of the artwork produced at these treatment centers

Emotions and inner struggles are on display at treatment centers throughout the country.  Recovery art, whether paintings, sculptures, poetry, dance, or other forms, has been coming to life and bringing great benefits to those who participate. 

Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center (Lemont, Ill.), treats adult women and adolescent girls for eating disorders, substance abuse and addiction, trauma, and mood disorders. And, since the center opened its doors in 2005, the center has employed a variety of expressive arts as a part of its treatment and healing process.

Melissa Rocchi, MAAT, LCPC, ATR, program development coordinator, and manager of expressive therapies at Timberline Knolls, said that from the beginning of the art therapy program, she and three other art therapists have noted the power of the work and wondered how to share the pieces with a broader audience. The goal, said Rocchi, was to help the women “become empowered and express themselves in some of the challenges they’re going through.”

By working with a local art center, the therapists arranged an annual public exhibit.  For the second year, Timberline Knolls teamed with the Lemont Center for the Arts to host an exhibit of recovery art titled “Honesty.” The name was chosen, said Rocchi, because “honesty is fundamental in the beginning of the journey to recovery.”

To gather the maximum number of worthy pieces for the exhibition, Timberline Knolls held an “open call” to any artists whose work met the guidelines for the exhibition. “We wanted it to be inclusive, not exclusive,” she said.


Staff members are included too

Given the inclusive mindset, the exhibition also welcomed the contributions of Timberline Knolls staff, several of whom offered works depicting their interpretations of the meaning, value, and freedom that honesty and recovery can bring. Others, said Rocchi, produced works that expressed “the meaning of working with women who are suffering with some of the things that they are.”

Adding the works of staff to those of residents reflected a greater reality of treatment, said Rocchi: “They’re not alone in this. We’re walking with them and figuring it out together.”


More than pretty pictures

Rocchi maintains that artistic expression brings a special benefit to residents “because so many times there are not words for what they’re going through. It [gives them] a different way to express themselves. It challenges them to not be totally verbal all the time and to really get in touch with their mind, body, and spirit.”

In the second year of the exhibit, Rocchi says that the audience response continues to be strong. “There are some really provocative pieces in there that are, no pun intended, really raw and honest about peoples’ challenges and experiences.”

A significant part of the response is generated by what viewers don’t see at the exhibition. “When you go to an art show, sometimes people are wanting to see ‘pretty pictures,’” noted Rocchi, adding that, “although there are some very pretty pictures at this exhibit, there is also a lot of content and honesty behind each of them. It’s opened up great dialogue.”

And, she says, the dialogue will continue. She reported that an official from the local high school contacted Timberline Knolls, hoping to get more information, explaining that some of the issues presented in the pieces at the exhibit are connecting with issues in the lives of local students. “That’s what we wanted,” said Rocchi. “A place to start this discussion, and to provide education and help for those who may need it.”

When asked to reflect on the power of the work, Rocchi’s voice grew thick with emotion. “What surprises me over and over again is just how creative people can be and how they’re able to express themselves. Some of our residents have gone through some really horrific things and they are able to gracefully represent and communicate it in these amazing art pieces.  For each person I can get that same feeling.”


The role of the art therapist in recovery

1.  Help residents understand how to use the available materials and utilize the fundamental aesthetics of the art form.

2.  Guide residents through the process of deciding the content of the work, using in-depth discussion to help them explore and consider their deepest feelings about addiction and recovery, then how to capture those feelings in the work.

3.  Assist and encourage residents in executing the work itself, while continuing to help them identify and express their concepts and emotions as deeply as possible.

4.  Encourage the fullest expression of residents’ feelings and ideas in the work. Because self-expression is the primary goal of the work, there’s no place for censorship.


Effective pieces typically attract a lot of attention. “The harsh reality of what they’ve been through is kind of in your face,” Rocchi explains. Because each work is an outward representation of an individual’s inner struggles, “viewers can attach their own experiences to the piece and connect to it on a different emotional level than when they’re reading or listening to something.”

Given the deeply personal nature of many works, participants had the option to present their works anonymously. “At the end of the day, yes it’s an art show, but we really want to make sure we are exhibiting the artwork with respect and honor,” Rocchi concluded.


Showing recovery on three panels

In Missouri, Sigma House Recovery Center (Springfield) and the Larry Simmering Recovery Center (Branson) use permanent recovery art galleries to reflect the journeys that their residents have traveled.