By SARA ARTHURS
The importance of creativity in healing, and of hearing others’ stories, were on display at “RBR (Right Brain Recovery) Gallery Exhibit: Stories of Recovery through the Eyes of an Artist.”
The collection of works created by local artists and inspired by the stories of people in recovery from mental health and addiction issues was unveiled Tuesday night at the University of Findlay’s Center for Student Life. It’s a joint endeavor of the university, the Jones Building Artists and Focus Recovery and Wellness Community.
Artists Phil Sugden, Nancy Frankenfield, Tamera Rooney and Ray Munoz created art after each met with an individual in mental health, addiction or trauma recovery, and heard the open and honest stories of their personal journeys.
Sugden said he had “a really nice conversation” with a woman in recovery who told him her life story. She talked a lot about her friends and how they supported her. So, to keep with that theme of support, the piece Sugden created includes an image of two people walking past a cottage, one with a walking stick, and the words “Never make the journey alone.” A tree in the scene has a heart-shaped mark on it.
The piece has to do with “the journey through life,” and the cabin’s windows and doors are open, a sign of welcome.
Sugden said the collaborative experience “reconfirmed my feelings about the creative process being a process of healing.” He has taught art at the Allen-Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima for years, and has seen how creative expression helps the inmates. When you’re in the process of making art, your brain is fully focused on that task, and cannot worry about the baggage of the past or anxiety over the future, Sugden said. “It gets them out of prison, for those few minutes,” he said.
Rooney said her art normally features “cute little farm animals,” so this project was a departure. Her piece, called “The Unthinkable Journey,” focused on loving a person with addiction and finding yourself hoping they get arrested and hit rock bottom, while “knowing that death by drug use is a very real possibility.”
Frankenfield said her work featured mirrors, so a person looking at the piece can literally see themselves in it. She said the mirror is “shattered” and is reflective of who we are — she liked the idea that in these shattered pieces, “you could see yourself in the brokenness.”
The art work also includes puzzle pieces, in that it’s about literally bringing the pieces together. She said in a sense, “we’re all broken,” but that “there is hope” as you put those pieces back together. The only color used in Frankenfield’s piece is red, intended to symbolize passion, or excitement.
Jill Darnell, recovery accountability manager at Focus, said she was a little apprehensive when Focus program manager Ben Hippensteel asked her to share her story with an artist. But she nearly cried when she saw the work Munoz created. Particularly significant to her was the image of a drum in the background, as she belongs to a drumming circle.
Darnell said at Tuesday’s presentation that she recently marked 10 years in recovery, at which point the audience applauded.
“I never thought I’d make it, but here I am,” she said.
On days when you think you can’t get up, “hope says, ‘try again,'” she said. And, if you keep moving forward, “Who knows what will be out there?”
Munoz said the piece he created symbolizes Darnell eventually coming back together with what is most important to her, and relates to a life-changing moment that enabled her to stick with recovery. The work features a quote from Darnell: “She quiets the storm that rages within me.”
The work includes two hands, their palms touching, each in a piece that is partly in, partly outside, a frame. Munoz’s piece is called “Unbound Spirits,” and he said it’s a symbol of “breaking boundaries,” getting past obstacles that are “significant.”
The project was coordinated by Hippensteel and Victoria Ayoola, a fourth-year pharmacy student who is also pursuing a masters in health informatics at the University of Findlay.
Ayoola said she learned a lot about collaboration and working with a nonprofit organization, “but I also learned about art and recovery, in a totally different way.” She said she hopes the exhibit opens people’s minds.
“We wanted to share recovery in a positive light,” Hippensteel said of the project. As the artists learned about recovery, he said, the people inspiring the pieces “learned that they were a cultural being” whose story could be expressed artistically.
Hippensteel said when someone is first in recovery, they are so focused on staying sober or taking needed medications that they may not explore their creative side. But “there’s a whole different world out there.” He said creative expression has been an important part of his own recovery and, when he got sober, he realized his creativity was stronger than ever.
The program was funded as part of the Pursuing Cultural Humility grant from the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation, which awarded the university’s Buford Center for Diversity and Service a grant in 2018 to fund collaborative student and community organization projects focused on furthering diversity outreach and understanding.
The works can be seen in the artists’ Jones Building studios during ArtWalk tonight. An exhibit is planned at the university in early 2020, after which the art will adorn the walls of Focus.