Cultural Recovery Through Creativity

December 21, 2017

By: Jessica Evans Co-Director of the Appalachian Artisan Center

In Hindman, KY, the Appalachian Artisan Center will be expanding work with youth and adults to address the community’s opioid epidemic through workforce programs in traditional craft and music. These programs will also contribute to an increase in economic opportunity through the creation of jobs to meet an increasing demand for handcrafted instruments in the region. This project is partnering with a rare luthiery studio as one of several education and workforce partners.

The “Culture of Recovery” Project at the Appalachian Artisan Center partners the arts with local substance abuse recovery programs and the healthcare industry by offering artistic expression as a way to keep idle hands busy, and forge a path forward for those in recovery.  

We’ve all heard it.   That ‘old saw’ that is often brought out in response to someone getting in trouble—‘Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.’  And as with most sayings, there is more than a grain of truth.  When someone has ‘too much time on their hands’, common knowledge tells us that they will end up making mischief. 

In rural Appalachia, these sayings are the predominate language by which we understand our world. Throw in a few ‘Bless their hearts’ and you begin to grasp current community response to the opioid abuse crisis-- a crisis that is amplified by staggering unemployment from the declining coal industry.  However, the situation is far more serious than a proverb can describe and we’ve seen that it can’t be dusted away with a ‘keep your nose clean’ or ‘straighten up and fly right.’ 

For context, the adjacent counties of Perry and Knott County, in eastern KY were recently ranked 1st and 5th in the nation for opioid hospitalizations in 2015-2016.  Not a very glamorous metric, but one that informs day-to-day life here.  It is not a stretch to say that families and entire communities have been left devastated in it’s wake.  You often hear the statistics of thefts and other crime, overdoses, imprisonment, grandparent-raised children, and a growing segment of unemployable individuals...  It is easy to feel helpless.  It is also easy to say ‘What goes around, comes around’ for those with substance use disorder.   It is much harder to ‘get off your high horse’ and try to understand the roots of the problem.

Over time, we became aware that a few talented and aspiring artists we had been working with were former addicts in life-long recovery.  Those individuals gravitated to the craft trades and were using art as a creative outlet in their recovery.  We now realize that there is a much larger group of creative individuals in the region that have been chronically underserved.

When you think about it, it just makes sense.  We all know anecdotally about the link between creative people and substance abuse.  Think about all the cultural icons that have publicly lost their battles with addiction.  People that have studied the issue tend to agree that the link is correlated but is not causal.  As in, drugs don’t make you more creative and creativity doesn’t make you abuse substances.  Instead, the link could stem from genetic variations that predispose people to personality traits like risk-taking, compulsions, or novelty-seeking.  Those traits can lead to creativity in some people, while some others may find that those same traits can make them more susceptible to addiction. 


What if we could nourish the artist within the addict and flip destructive habits into constructive ones?

The famous “Rat Park” study gives insight into the circumstances in which addiction will take hold of a person.  Namely, when a person is isolated from meaningful relationships, intellectual stimulation, and wholesome recreation, they are almost certain to seek drugs to fill the void.

For those who survive addiction long enough to complete rehab, the path forward is difficult.  Many find themselves with all their bridges burned-- unemployable due to felony convictions, ineligible for financial aid for tuition, and without the support of friends or family.  The initial days and months after rehab is when individuals are at their highest risk for relapse and overdose due to lowered drug tolerance.

So we have been formulating a plan to nurture creativity and connection in those who arguably need it most. Those of us that do creative work already know how engaging and therapeutic art can be.  More than that, the way that we learn a craft (through master/apprenticeship relationships, for example) builds human connection.  By pairing aspiring creatives with mentors to guide them on their journey, individuals would no longer be released to nothing at the end of their rehabilitation.  

The investment of time and focus into something you have made from your own heart, mind and hands builds confidence and heals like few things can.  For some it can even ‘keep the Devil at bay.’  Beyond the struggling individual, our goal of a healed community will only be achieved if together we are ‘as strong as our weakest link.’  The Artisan Center is stepping up now because all the traditional approaches to this problem have been tried and haven’t produced significant results.  Well, as we also say around here, ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat.’