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'Art is the best medicine': Recovering addicts in Renfrew find solace through Art of Recovery program

Unable to attend regular AA or NA meetings during the COVID pandemic, a group of recovering addicts have found a safe place to meet in Renfrew where they talk and paint in a program known as the "Art of Recovery."

The COVID pandemic has left many individuals isolated from the normal routines they grew accustomed to over the last two years. For some, it was the inconvenience of not going for their daily workout at the gym. For others, it was not taking part in a weekly lunch with friends and family.

The inability to gather in small or large groups certainly took its toll on many. However, there were some who not only missed the interactions of others, but feared the lack of interaction could lead to dire circumstances, including slipping back into the downward spiral of alcohol or narcotic addiction.

William March, a recovering addict, is one of those people who depended on the fellowship found at weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings where they could speak truthfully and candidly about their struggles to remain sober and make positive changes in their lives.

“That all ended when COVID took over our lives,” March said. “Many of us were lost and alone and unable to provide support to one another when it mattered most. It felt like we were adrift in the ocean and nobody was around to throw us a lifeline when we really needed it. That was until Patrick opened up his heart and his art studio to us.”

March is referring to Patrick John Mills, an international award-winning poet and abstract painter who purchased a former foundry in Renfrew and transformed it into the Art Factory. It is a 10,384 square-foot factory that at one time was a world leader in the production of metal manhole covers until its closure in 2011.

Today, the Art Factory is recognized as not only one of Canada’s premier independent art galleries, but for individuals such as William March and others fighting the daily battle of addiction, it became a beacon of hope during the darkest days of the pandemic.

As March warms his hands by a wood stove located on the second floor of the Art Factory, he shares the frustration he and others in his group felt when they were informed that regulations to their meeting sites were no longer accessible.

“We have a core group of about 25 who met regularly in church halls and other locations for our weekly meetings, and once the pandemic hit, we had nowhere to meet,” he said. “For some like myself it was a real challenge, and for others, it literally became a matter of life and death. Some depend on these meetings just like a person undergoing medical procedures needs follow-up appointments to make sure they were on the path to healing. Some were lost and were close to giving up on all the progress they were making because we lost that human contact.”

In his younger days, March studied art and used the canvas as a way to express the conflicted emotions he felt inside. Like many addicts, he never envisioned his life leading to a path of self-destruction, broken relationships, run-ins with the law, incarceration and alienating everyone who ever cared for him.

“I was, and still am, an addict,” he said bluntly. “Drugs cost me everything. My wife, my children and anyone who ever meant something to me was driven away. I am not making any excuses for what I did. But with the help of others I have slowly begun to reach out to my children and others I have hurt to try and make amends. One of the things that helped me get to this point in my recovery is the fellowship and support I received through regular NA meetings.”

While a resident at MacKay Manor in Renfrew, a residential centre for men battling addiction, he picked up a paint brush for the first time in decades and began to paint.

“To me, art is the best medicine because when you’ve been in addiction for a very long time and then you’re finding your way out of that hell on Earth, you got some deep soul wounds and you need some real powerful medicine. Art is a powerful medicine and it helps you if you let it. What the Art of Recovery does is bring people together and we encourage each other by making friendships and making positive connections.”

After leaving MacKay Manor and trying to find some form of substitute for the now abandoned weekly meetings, he turned to his friend Mr. Mills last October for advice. Without blinking an eye, Mills immediately offered his second floor studio for March to organize informal meetings centred on art.

Those familiar with Mills know him as a generous, non-judgmental man who not only creates art, but is driven by a passion to make art accessible to anyone who is willing to try it. He has sponsored children’s art competitions, and has hosted two very successful summer art festivals where local artists can display their works and sell their creations to help them along. More often than not he will not only sponsor these events, but donate professional art supplies for those who cannot afford them.

In the case of the Art of Recovery, he not only donates the space for group members, he provides all the supplies for participants. 

After consultation with the health unit on capacity and COVID protocols, March organized the bi-weekly meetings which includes a general meet and greet where participants share their experiences in a relaxed atmosphere. Part of the therapy includes individual art stations with easels, stools and paint so the participants can paint whatever they want and the group will carry on discussions while painting.

“When people hear about our group and want to know more or even join, they are really afraid because it’s a new thing,” March said. “They are leaping off a cliff and they have no idea how far down it is, and they ask me to help them come through that door and I help them. What I find is once they have come for a meeting, I notice that they light up and I think, 'Oh my God.' They just have this sudden energy and you can see it in their eyes.”

Both March and Mills set out with the intent of keeping the group small with less than 10 people being the ideal size.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you view it, the Art of Recovery has been a resounding success.

“I’m not sure what it is but you can just feel this sense of love and positive energy that comes from their joy and excitement from the group and for most of those who come through that door, they want to come back,” Mills said. “It is working to help those who most need the help, and it is growing. It is a common ground of people connecting through art and everyone does something different.”

March said some people come just to watch and feel they are among friends.

“When we were plunged in the darkness of addiction we forgot how to have fun. We forgot how a simple act of picking up a paintbrush, or putting a log in the wood stove can make us smile and forget about our problems, even if only for a short time. The Art of Recovery has given us that, and so much more.”

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