‘Arts in Recovery’ program showcases work at Carnegie Hall

By Jeffrey Kanode for RealWV,

Artist and teacher Sean O’Connell calls clay “humbling but challenging material.”

It exists everywhere, and like people, he said, it’s malleable. He describes working with clay as “a dance. You do your part, and the clay does its part.” Thanks to a creative collaboration, O’Connell just taught this transforming art to a group of women who are themselves in a period of transformation, in the midst of recovery from substance abuse disorder. After their twelve week course, the students shared their work during an exhibition at Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg.

“This class was so therapeutic. I hope we can do it again. Getting my mind off of life stuff and getting it into the clay was so helpful for me,” said student Shaketa Redman. “I’m ready to take life on and try some new stuff, like pottery. Pottery was new for me; I can’t wait to try some more new stuff.”

Redman and her fellow students are part of Seed Sower, a program developed by Tammy Jordan, founder of Fruits of Labor. Seed Sower provides a recovery plan for women trying to make it through substance use disorder. According to Jay Phillips, executive director of Seed Sower, the women stay in one of three residences, in Greenbrier, Raleigh, and Fayette counties. During their eight to twelve month residency, Seed Sower provides a safe haven for the women—housing, transportation, educational and employment opportunities, as well as providing for their physical and mental health. O’Connell’s pottery class was a twelve week pilot program, a twelve week course born out of an intense period of grant-writing, training, and bridge building.

The Greenbrier County Arts in Recovery program had its genesis with an idea from Tammy Tincher, who serves on the Greenbrier County Commission. As a commissioner, Tincher wanted to find ways to help people struggling with drug addiction.

“The challenge is figuring out ways to help people recover,” Tincher said. “This is one step—to help utilize what we already have in our county, to think outside the box to help people in recovery.”

Tincher identified the vibrant arts community, especially in Lewisburg, as a major asset to Greenbrier County. She reached out to Phillips at Seed Sower, Cathy Rennard, CEO of Carnegie Hall, and Julian Levine, director of Community Engagement and Outreach through the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and the Greenbrier County Health Alliance. Once she had this team in place, Tincher wrote the application for the American’s for the Arts Creative Counties Placemaking Challenge offered by the National Association of Counties, which Tincher serves on the Board of Directors.

In the application, Tincher sought to highlight both Greenbrier County’s present and potential as an artistic and tourist destination, but she also demonstrated the community’s need for help. She quoted Kara Dense, executive director of the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau, who wrote, “Our towns are the center of activity and the region’s rich Appalachian heritage, storied past and natural resources are preserved in the culture…[This is] a place where the arts are cherished and creative diversity thrives.”

Tincher built on the reality of the cultural richness Dense described, but she added, “A beautiful and inviting vision, yet hidden behind it is the reality of drug addiction, poverty, single-parent and grand-families, and a feeling of hopelessness that so many have come to know as a lifestyle. The opioid epidemic has touched very part of Appalachia, including Greenbrier County.”

Tincher’s application was one of six selected throughout the country to be included in the Creative Counties Placemaking Challenge and the only concept to focus the Arts in recovery. Rennard stated. “The program was developed through collaboration, with hopes to duplicate it over and over and over again.”

As the education director of Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, Harmony Flora played a major part in crafting the Arts in Recovery class. “I immediately suggested a clay series—partly because of our facility instructors, but also because I know firsthand how calming and therapeutic working with earth in your hands can be,” she said. Flora also lifted up the central role Sean O’Connell played. “His role is not only critical as the program instructor, but his personal depth of involvement and caring, as well as his calming influence, are critical to this type of program. Sean has an innate ability to instruct by tweezing out the creative energy of his students, and he does it in such a motivational and laid-back manner that he makes even the most
reluctant students feel empowered and creative.”

On the night of the exhibit, O’Connell mingled easily with his students, and they applauded him warmly. “We had a pretty amazing teacher,” Shaketa Redman happily testified.

As he ambled about the exhibit, O’Connell chatted with his students, and he praised their work. As he reflected on the class, he exuded an attitude of marvel.

“I think it did everything it was supposed to do, and more,” O’Connell said. “After every class I felt amazingly light and happy and fulfilled in a really unexpected way. There’s something different about this experience. It was really special. They are already a community because they live and work together, and they kind of let me into that, in a way, which is good. It wasn’t like I was the outsider up there teaching them. It was, you know, them bringing me into their community as a participant, which I think is really special. I look forward to more experiences along this line. Everything becomes more refined the more you do it. You learn from each previous experience. That’s life, right?”

It seems certain that Greenbrier County will remain a center for artistic expression and endeavor, long into the future. With addiction continuing to ravage communities, and recovery more and more an essential for individual and public wellbeing, the Greenbrier County Arts in Recovery program has a vital task.

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