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Finding a sober community through creativity

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DENVER — The creative process can also be a healing process for people in recovery from addiction and substance use disorder. Often times, establishing and staying in recovery takes a multidisciplinary approach where more than one type of modality is needed.

“Sometimes there’s groups of people who don’t find their community in the 12 step community. They struggle. When I was working at a treatment center I noticed that many people were artists and musicians; and they found their peace  strumming their guitar, or painting picture, or drawing,” explained Darin Valdez, the executive director of Colorado Artists in Recovery, a recovery community organization that creates safe spaces for people in sobriety and curious about sobriety to meet and have fellowship using creativity.

Colorado VoicesColorado Artists in Recovery

Valdez spoke with Rocky Mountain PBS at Free Spiritual Community in Denver, where artwork created by people in recovery is on display.

“Vulnerability is strength; it’s taking that leap of faith. It’s leaning into fear. People have a fear of putting themselves out there. It’s one thing to paint, but it’s another to put it on a wall and say I made this,” added Valdez, explaining that he has been in recovery from methamphetamine addiction for nine years, and how playing music and creating art helps him stay sober, which is why he started Colorado Artists in Recovery back in 2018 in the first place.

“Those first days in recovery were so hard. I was freaking out and I asked a counselor for paper so that I could draw. That was what calmed me down and gave me peace,” said Valdez. 

One of Maggie Barfoot's paintings is hanging in Free Spiritual Community.

Maggie Barfoot has also been sober from drugs and alcohol for nine years. She has two paintings on display at Free Spiritual Community that she kept in her bedroom for five years before letting anyone see them. Barfoot says creating art keeps her out of her head.

“I drank and used for a long time and constantly lived in my head all the time. I had obsessive racing thoughts, but I started meditating and then sort of spill paint everywhere, and that got me connected to my body and my spirit,” she said adding that it’s helped her come out of an extremely dark place. “Pouring my heart out while I’m doing the art and then showing people has helped me become more vulnerable."

Karie McMullen is also in recovery and works for Free Spiritual Community. She says she’s excited to be partnering with Colorado Artists in Recovery to put on this exhibit. 

“Some of us might be telling ourselves 'I’m not an artist, or I’m not a musician. I’m not creative or I’m not recovered enough to be in the is space.' We offer a free space to explore what that might look like,” McMullen explained.

McMullen feels that the space to be creative can help bring people out of the darkness of shame that’s often associated with addiction. ““For people in recovery, that inner critic is so hard to overcome, and we might be the first step in them gaining their expression back,” she said.

Darin said that it’s not hard to see the results of what being creative can do for someone in recovery, no matter how little time they have, or how long.

“For us to get the chance to say to our artists that you’re going to be in a show puts a lot of terror on their faces, but they bring their family and their friends. Then they’re like ‘look I’m in a show!’ You get tingles,” he added.


Dana Knowles is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at danaknowles@rmpbs.org.

Melanie Towler is a video editor at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at melanietowler@rmpbs.org.

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