Mike Kimble says his painting technique comes from natural ability. But painting and visual art in general offers the recovering addict more than just a showcase for his talent.
"I'm really high-strung, so this calms me down," said Kimble, 45, who takes part in a weekly art group as a patient at the Adult Addictions Clinic of the Anne Arundel County Department of Health.
The dozen or so members of the 3-year-old art group meet Wednesday mornings for 90 minutes in a basement room at the clinic building, where they can express themselves visually and bond together.
With soft music in the background and a watercolor technique video playing silently in the corner, they work around a large table dotted with sponges, brushes, palettes, name placards and instruction books. The object is to promote socialization and self-esteem, said Roberta Brown, clinical supervisor and leader of the group.
"The art group is just an extension of helping them with other issues in their life," she said.
Brown, the group's originator, said participation is voluntary. Patients can join after they complete required educational counseling groups at the clinic.
Once admitted to the art group, the patients' work is entirely their own creative endeavor, from abstracts to landscapes, sculpture to photography.
"After an addiction, most of us feel like we have nothing to offer, and no creativity, but it makes you realize you can still do things," said Ginny Slabaugh, 33, another patient in the group. "And it builds your confidence."
The clinic admits people who have addictions to drugs such as heroin and pain medication, said James Dorsey, medical director at the clinic. Many have other addictions as well, such as to cocaine or alcohol.
Dorsey's role at the clinic is to prescribe methadone for patients. Methadone is a substitute narcotic used to treat heroin addiction.
Prescription treatment aside, the art class fulfills another need, Dorsey said.
"Methadone doesn't really treat the substance-abuse problem, but just prevents [the patients] from having withdrawal problems," he said. "Other activities treat the substance-abuse problem."
That's been the case for Kimble, who said he was "a mess" before he came to the clinic. "I just couldn't get myself together," he said.
Kimble, who has been attending for more than a year, said his favorite aspect of the group is the interaction with the rest of the class.
"I enjoy it. I look forward to it," he said as he painted a tropical beach scene with a deep-purple sky.
In fact, the group members enjoy it so much that last year they got together and successfully lobbied the staff to lengthen the sessions from one hour to 90 minutes.
"We'd actually like to extend it even longer," said Kimble, who drives in from his Pasadena home. "I wouldn't mind if it was a couple days a week."
"It's kind of like hanging out with a bunch of friends," said Garry Seals, 32, who on a recent day was painting concentric circles in shades of blue. "I'd be comfortable discussing just about anything that's going on with me with the people here."
The art of learning
The patients' efforts are further rewarded with artwork displays. In a public show held one day last month, visitors could view the patients' creations, including tie-dye, hand-tinted photos, decoupage, homemade Christmas ornaments and cigar boxes with collages. The works are still on display in the clinic building.
After each new art project, Brown issues written questions for the patients to use in evaluating themselves and reflecting on their feelings about doing the artwork. They considered, for example, whether a finger-painting stint was more freeing or frustrating.
"The art group is just an extension of helping them with other issues in their life," Brown said. "We do see patients progress from coming to the art group."
Dorsey said he saw such progression in the attitude and sociability of the patients. "Sometimes when they've been in the art group, we start noticing things, like they start speaking," he said. "They tend to smile, whereas before they didn't."
While encouraging social interaction, the art group also offers mental relief, according to patients and staff.
"It's hard coming off an addiction," Slabaugh said. "You're not used to sitting down and keeping your mind occupied on one task." But the art group promotes that, she said.
And other patients said the class was one place where they didn't have to sit around and talk about themselves for a length of time.
"It brings my thoughts together so I can focus on something instead of being all over the place," Kimble said. "It's very therapeutic."