Creating Space for Recovering Artists

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Christine Green and Jerry Thompson, owners of recently opened AIR Laguna, a gallery to showcase the art of recovering alcoholics and drug users.

A.I.R. Laguna: Artists In Recovery opened their doors with sparse inventory, displaying the works of two artists. Five weeks later without advertising or marketing, the creations of 20 artists in various media vie for space in Laguna Beach’s newest and arguably most unusual gallery at 658 S. Coast Highway.

With new pieces being submitted all the time, a rotation system will soon be necessary, admits co-owner  Jerry Thompson, 77, a recovering alcoholic who opened the gallery with two partners.

“We don’t want to turn anyone away,” said Thompson, having achieved his long-held goal to provide a place for people keeping their addictions at bay to show off and possibly sell the fruits of their creativity.

Thompson knows the recovery community firsthand. A resident since 1969, he is chairman of Laguna Beach’s Canyon Club, a nonprofit that supports the recovery and rehabilitation of alcoholics and provides a facility for Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings, among others.

Thompson first got sober in 1971with the help of his wife, Chuck Chamberlain, a founder of the Canyon Club, and a few others. His introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous was at the renowned “Gucci” meeting held at the Woman’s Club, so named, depending on the source, because of the way attendees dress for the occasion or because of Hollywood types who have participated over the years. It’s still going strong.

Despite a six-year lapse, Thompson more recently wracked up seven clean years. Now, he is ready to do more. Living in a community rife with artists and conversant with the role of creativity in recovery, Thompson envisioned a gallery as a medium to support ingenuity and artists struggling for exhibition space and sobriety.

Creative activities serve as therapeutic tool for addicts in early recovery to convey distressing feelings they have trouble expressing, said Keith Fowler, clinical director for Sure Haven, a women’s chemical dependency treatment facility in Costa Mesa.

Artist Sandra Manich and her painting "Awakening," with each canvas panel representing one of the 12 steps in the recovery program.

“I’ve had countless clients who wouldn’t speak in groups but who had tremendous results in utilizing their creative outlets,” he said. “Anything that will move people through that cathartic process, communicating those bottled up feelings, that’s what recovery is all about,” he said. “For there to be a place to really highlight people’s talents is amazing,” Fowler said.

Serendipity breathed life into A.I.R. The storefront is in a building where Thompson handles some maintenance for its owner, a nephew, who lives in Arizona. When he saw the space vacant, he felt compelled to act. His partners include his wife Nancy, an Al-Anon member and serious art collector, and Christine Green, a fellow recovering alcoholic who fervently shares his vision.

Undaunted by the dilapidated interior that recently served as storage for a neighboring boutique, the partners enlisted volunteers from the recovery community to spruce up and paint the gallery-to-be. Their efforts earned six weeks free rent.

While art as a therapeutic tool is widely accepted, few placed value on displaying the artwork born of that process whether for income or recognition. A.I.R. Laguna offers proof that such a need exists.

After opening its doors March 17 with two artists, news of their enterprise telegraphed through the recovery community. At their official April 4 opening, the arts and crafts of 20 artists jostled for space and 200 people attended.

Some A.I.R. exhibitors describe themselves as artists; others discovered art as therapy wrestling with their cravings. All are now artists in recovery, whether clean for 10 days or 20 years or more.

Mixed media wall art pieces created by a surfboard shaper share a wall with paintings by a Friendship Shelter graduate. Nearby, an easel displays oil paintings by Sandra Manich.

Going on her sixth year of sobriety, the 50-year-old lives on a sailboat in Newport Beach harbor while completing her second semester in the master’s of fine arts program at Laguna College of Art and Design.

“I feel so blessed that this gallery is open,” she said, because it allows her a place to immediately display portraits that capture people who have hit bottom and are at a point of utter powerlessness. That is the first step to recovery, she said, crediting Perin Mahler, who directs the LCAD program, for encouraging her to include the poignant works as part of her thesis, which centers on recovery.

“Through art, we can get through to people’s hearts” and use it to build empathy, Manich said.

The for-profit gallery currently has no employees, though volunteers, all in recovery, man the counter from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Proceeds from sales are split evenly with the artists. The shop also sells addiction recovery-related merchandise, such as sobriety chips.

Thompson hopes sales from the art and merchandise will cover the rent and eventually help pay a few employees. “What we’re getting out of it is a lot more important to us than money. It’s all about reaching out and helping somebody else,” he said. In that vein, they plan to have a birthday party the first Wednesday of each month for everyone whose anniversary of going clean falls in that period.

“A.I.R. Laguna is all about inspiring creations,” said Green, who designed the heart-shaped earth prominently displayed in the shop’s window and celebrated her birthday for two years of sobriety on the same day as the grand opening.

“We want to literally heal the whole planet, one artist at a time, one recovery at a time, one day at a time,” she said.


Photos by Mitch Ridder.

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  1. I’m a artist in Portland Oregon, in the s. e. side. Not a lot of resources. I’m bi polar but clean 28 years. I’ve been doing art in earnest from about 1999. I need to show my art and talk to artist. Perferably in my aria. You
    can call as well (5037740248)

  2. As a Laguna Beach resident, artist in recovery, and person who went to her first AA meeting ever at the Canyon Club and loved I’m extremely excited to hear about A.I.R. and would be so happy be a part of it!!!


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