Whether it’s drugs, food, money or sex, Alcoholics Anonymous has spawned several off-shoot groups during the last half-century designed to help those who abuse things other than alcohol. But now something new has emerged from the granddaddy self-help program. It’s for people who seek assistance coping with a quantity that can’t be swallowed, spent, embraced or even seen.
The quantity is creativity.
Paralyzed by fear, perfectionism, procrastination or crippling self-criticism, newcomers to ARTS Anonymous (Artists Recovering Through the Twelve Steps), simply put, have a creative block. Whether actors, writers, dancers or singers, they can’t do the thing they most want to do, and feel desperate, frustrated and angry, unable to fulfill their creative yearnings.
“It’s like having a bell inside you that’s been ringing and ringing all through your life, but you’ve ignored it, or danced around it, or eaten too much over it, or drunk through it,” said local ARTS member April, who uses her first name only, in compliance with program guidelines.
“Our meetings are full of people who have done everything but their art.”
” . . . Our heart’s desire has become our heart’s disease,” ARTS literature says. “We are afraid of our responsibility to fully develop our talent. We have felt restraint at expressing our originality and potential.”
Anna, now a professional visual artist, founded ARTS in 1984 in New York City. Though she patterned ARTS directly after AA, unlike alcoholism, she said by phone from Manhattan, “there’s no disease here, we’re dealing with a gift--a gift you can’t walk away from.
“What happens is that either you ignore the gift and develop a life style that has nothing to do with your artistic spirit or purpose, or you recognize the gift but put everything into that purpose and deny yourself a personal life. ARTS is for those at both extremes and for all who fall in between.”
At 40, Anna started ARTS after a struggle with her own creative spirit.
“My parents wouldn’t let me go to art school,” she began grimly. “That was the first block.”
So she became a highly paid fashion model, then an executive for a blue-chip publishing firm; she managed a fine art poster business, planned a public relations campaign for an art gallery, and did the books for a small museum.
She earned money and prestige in the world of commerce, but “I was never able to be a artist and I didn’t give a damn about anything I had been successful at. And when you don’t care about the way you are living your life, you don’t want to live. I was suicidal.”
So after taking a 50% salary cut to pursue her art seriously, Anna joined another AA offshoot, Debtors Anonymous, to learn how to create for a living without falling into debt. What she quickly discovered in DA, she said, was that she was already in debt--she had an emotional debt to her art.
Came Out of the Closet
“Through DA and AA’s 12-step recovery program, I realized that happiness for me was being an artist. I sort of came out of the closet--I had been in major denial.”
Bolstered by the support and need of other artists Anna had met in DA, ARTS began, and as a direct result, so did Anna’s creative career.
For the first six months in ARTS, she did very little art work (“I kept blaming my parents until I realized I had no one to blame but me. I had formed my own prison,”) but she carefully followed the suggested recovery program as she had adapted it from AA, which had such steps as admitting to herself and others that she had a problem and helping others who shared her situation.
“Then, I started to draw. It was just that simple, and I’ve been drawing and creating a little bit every day ever since.”
Now Anna spends several hours a day working in a studio. She recently opened a jewelry exhibit at a gallery in Soho, New York, collaborating with “an established, nationally known artist.” The show will travel to 13 museums during the next two years. She has also designed place mats for a gallery in Baltimore, started a fabric design business with another ARTS member, and sold her designs to a suede apparel manufacturer in New York.
About 10 people attended the first ARTS meeting in New York City in November, 1984. Today, from 20 to 40 members gather together there six times a week, and the program has spread to Boston, Provincetown, Mass., Westport, Conn., Paris and Los Angeles.
Equal Mix of Men, Women
ARTS meetings started locally when Anna traveled here last May. There are now three meetings a week in Los Angeles, the largest one averaging 15 attendees, usually with an equal mix of men and women ranging in age from their mid 20s to early 50s.
Thirteen people met on a recent evening in the crowded, dimly lit living room of one member’s Westside home.
With trusting, “gut level” honesty, members took turns talking about the ups and downs they had experienced with their art careers that week. Affirming their identities as artists, each one began his or her sharing similarly: “I’m Dana and I’m an artist”; “I’m Rod, I’m an actor and a writer”; “I’m Joan, I’m a song writer, singer and musician.”
One member talked about her fear of not producing enough jewelry, though now she had customers eager to buy; another expressed gratitude to ARTS for giving her the courage and support to “complete the cycle” of long hours spent practicing, and to take the necessary steps to play her guitar publicly.
One member described how his “money-holism” had been the addiction that had led him away from creativity, drawing him toward work with which he knew he could make a lot of money, but not a lot of art.
“I attend many meetings,” Anna said, “a lot of comfort comes from knowing we’re not alone, that we’re not the only ones who feel the way we do about our art.”
In a separate interview, April, who writes children’s books, said, “I get this incredible spark at meetings. There are people there who are working full time in their profession and loving it. Being surrounded by them makes me believe it (a writing career) is possible for me. When I hear a successful writer who doesn’t want to write that day, I think, I’m still a writer, and procrastination is just part of the process--instead of telling myself, well, I’m not a writer.
“And there is absolute, unconditional acceptance in those (meeting) rooms. I can do no wrong. I just walk in there and I can completely bare my heart.”
Early last year, April left the corporate world after five mostly unfulfilling years working as an executive for a large telecommunications firm. With the help of ARTS, she now writes every day. Originally, she recalled, she resisted pursuing her creativity because of a negative family example: her mother, a free-lance concert pianist, never knew if and when she would secure her next engagement.
“Also, I thought the creative process had to be hard. I love to draw and love to write, and until recently, it used to feel illegal to take the easier way.”
The primary purpose of arts is to express creativity and to help others do the same. One specific group aim is to find a way to make one’s creativity into a part- or full-time profession, and a frequent discussion topic is how to overcome “fear of financial insecurity” to pursue a career in the arts.
Anyone can join ARTS; the only requirement for membership is a desire to identify and express one’s creativity. There are no dues or fees for membership.
As modeled after AA, ARTS members follow AA’s 12 steps. Spiritual in nature, ARTS’s 12 traditions, or governing rules, are the individual’s path to recovery.
Members also benefit from the mutual support found in meetings, and a “buddy” system, in which they call each other frequently for encouragement or guidance, or just to speak to someone who felt the same way before. They may also “bookend” with a buddy, phoning both before and after a potentially anxiety-producing situation, such as attending an audition or writing the first pages of a screenplay.
ARTS meetings usually conclude as each attendee makes a commitment to take constructive, concrete actions toward achieving art career goals, or to hold positive thoughts during the upcoming week.
“ARTS is not a cure,” April said, “like today, I feel frightened (about the future of her writing career), I feel inferior, and I feel lazy. All of the negative tapes are running rampant, and I wonder why I quit my job. But I don’t really wonder why I quit my job, because I am constantly happier, I wake up happier.
“And ARTS offers me hope . . . ARTS gave me the permission to dig deep inside myself and do what I really wanted to do.”
For information about ARTS Anonymous, call (213) 256-7166, (213) 653-0272, or write: ARTS Anonymous, P.O. Box 69413, Los Angeles, 90069.