Students in recovery at the University of Oregon have found a therapeutic way to express their stories through art in a unique program offered by the campus museum.
For Rick Bartow, creating life-affirming works of art was interwoven with his life in recovery. A year before the Native American artist’s death in 2016, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene curated “Things You Know but Cannot Explain,” a major retrospective exhibition now on a national tour.
This homage to a revered Oregon artist — and former alcoholic — opened the doors to a new audience: university students in recovery, who viewed Bartow’s works as cathartic, empathetic and reassuring.
“Bartow presented images of the struggle with the inner demon he dealt with on a daily basis. The students could relate,” says Lisa Abia-Smith, the museum’s director of education.
Abia-Smith, whose role is to create engagement with the museum’s objects among specific audiences, understands the healing power of creating art from her years working with marginalized audiences. “Being creative sparks something in people,” she says. “It allows them to tell their own stories — like Rick Bartow did.”
Seeking opportunities to bring together well being and art, she founded the Art Heals program in 2013 with a grant from the Oregon Arts Commission. She began her outreach with hospitals, holding workshops for children with disabilities, people with traumatic brain injuries and patients in an oncology center.
Seeing how the art program benefited people with physical ailments, Abia-Smith considered how it could help university students who were concerned with mental health, such as those in recovery from substance use disorders and those who had experienced trauma.
When she approached Al Siebel, director of the Collegiate Recovery Center, about hosting an Art Heals workshop for students in recovery in spring 2016, he was immediately on board.
From time to time, Siebel had taken students to the museum and witnessed how encounters with art resonated long after the group left. “The museum is a beautiful building in the middle of campus, but many of our students have never been inside it. When I take students there for the first time, I like watching their reaction – they’re really surprised,” he says. “There’s an initial hesitancy about going in but once they take a tour, most come out saying how great it was.”
Siebel is always looking for ways to utilize the resources at the university as wellness opportunities at the CRC, exposing students to new experiences. For example, he recently took students to the craft center on campus where they created and painted their own pottery mugs. “These excursions are a great way for the students to disconnect and regroup. It gives them an opportunity to slow down and take a breath,” he says. “So, when I presented the idea of a workshop where they create art at the museum, all the students were interested.”