Making Connections

By Amy Paradyz

Creativity is therapeutic, and certainly not just for artists. Stitching sock monkeys, painting on canvas with predrawn images or making an altered journal in an art therapy session – these sorts of activities can lighten the mood, forge community or tease out buried thoughts and feelings.

“Addiction is about disconnect and avoidance, while attachment and connection are the root of our existence,” said Rebecca Neumann, a licensed clinical counselor and registered art therapist with SMART Child & Family Services in Windham. “Cooking, gardening, pottery, fine arts, movement, music – there is healing in working with the earth and the hands, and we are designed to have that sort of connection. Some clients simply squeeze clay, not really making something, but connecting with the material and then being better able to engage in dialogue. That’s how simple this can be.”

Her outpatient clients often enjoy working on altered books, starting with an existing book and being encouraged to transform it into something new, changing its cover, adding to pages, taking pages out. They can collage, paint, cut, bend and fold.

“It’s healthy risk-taking because you’re breaking a ‘rule’ by writing in a book,” Neumann said. “And there’s something freeing about not starting with a blank page.”

That same sense of starting with something other than a blank slate can be observed in the creative efforts led by artist Alex Crowcroft at Milestone
recovery detox programs and fabric artist Maggie Muth at McAuley Residence, a women’s recovery program in Portland run by Mercy Hospital.

“Creativity drives all of us,” said Crowcroft, a Portland-based painter, photographer and digital artist who has been sober for about a year. “Recovery doesn’t just have to be stopping drugs and alcohol but about doing all the things you love that you stopped doing that you convinced yourself you couldn’t do.”

A grandmotherly influence at Crowcroft’s meditation group at Portland Recovery Community Center suggested that he share painting with people in detox at Milestone Recovery.

“People in detox are hurting, and they’re thinking about all the things they think they should be doing,” Crowcroft said. “They’re afraid of making another mistake. I can help in easing that burden with art, with something we forgot about but enjoyed in the past. We’ve turned off our inner child and forget we’re allowed to enjoy each other’s company and to connect with art.”

Crowcroft has taken the time to pre-draw canvases, transforming a group painting session into something as relaxing as coloring – but with more novelty.

“By the end, we’re having conversations not only about recovery but about being human,” Crowcroft said. “It’s about bringing art to people who have been where I’ve been and showing them that there’s a glimmer of hope. We are able to connect over there being more to life. It’s about showing up for them. Every time, we have meaningful connection and conversation. And we might have made a few paintings here and there.” The fabric artist behind the annual Sock Monkey Saturday day at nMayo Street Arts in Portland each February has brought stitching projects, including sock monkey materials, to the women at McAuley Residence.

“Being able to stitch, even if they’re only sewing on a pocket, has given some of the women a real sense of accomplishment,” Muth said. “One woman held up a sock monkey and said, ‘This is the first thing I’ve made in my life!’”

There’s no plan, no pattern. Just the invitation to make something for their children with their hands.

“Everybody’s stitching develops its own personality. With a sock monkey, because it has a face, that’s even more evident,” Muth said. “There wasn’t any intention to make a sock monkey that’s a likeness of anyone, but they tend to see and recognize something of themselves as a child.”

Muth asks participants to take a break from talking about the struggles involved with recovery – strained relationships, court dates and overdue bills. That request is often met with a few moments of silence … and then the women open up in more positive ways.

“When I was new in recovery, mI didn’t know how to have a conversation like that,” Muth said. “For me, it was very emotional watching the women evolve as they feel better about themselves. The sewing has brought up so many positive remarks from them. One woman made a sweetly dressed sock monkey, then proclaimed, ‘Look how good I look!’”

Artist M.L. Norton of Kennebunk also volunteers at McAuley Residence, teaching not only watercolor painting but also how to see the world as an artist.

“When you start seeing, when you start squinting, you see darks and lights and values, and it’s beautiful,” Norton said. “We are totally surrounded by beauty if we stop and look. That’s the first step to creating art. We move so fast that we don’t get to see dappled light or the cobalt blue of the sky, and it’s there, it’s free and it’s for us.”

Norton’s students at McAuley Residence say that painting makes them feel better about themselves.

“Use of creativity is a way to get something out that has always wanted to get out and to blossom,” Norton said. “Most people have it. It may not be watercolors. It may be poetry or dance or music. It might be anything that is in you that needs expression. But the light and the joy that come from creation is monumental, especially for people who are working on themselves for a better life.”