In 2005, a group of Seattle friends with little-to-no artistic experience thought it would be fun to start up a weekly art-making club. It was an excuse to hang out and try something new, but all the participants, including Deborah Blake and Laurel Doody, were particularly surprised by the transformative impact their club had on their lives.
“They all wanted to find a way to bring change and positive influence to the broader Seattle community,” says Adam Doody, Laurel’s nephew and the person who eventually became program director of Path with Art, the non-profit that emerged from that original club. “They asked, ‘Could we provide arts engagement opportunities for folks in recovery?’”
With that in mind, Blake, Doody and other club members began volunteering at women’s shelters such as Mary’s Place with art lessons and supplies in hand. This was done on a cold-call basis—can we bring art projects to your location?—and the women quickly found that a resounding number of locations were interested.
In 2007, Path with Art was established as a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose original mission—providing arts opportunities for people recovering from homelessness—has since expanded to providing them for “people in recovery, period,” according to Adam Doody. (Blake, Laurel Doody and other original founders now comprise the group’s board of directors.)
Potential Path with Art students are instantly eligible if they receive care from one of approximately 30 partner organizations in the Seattle area, including mental health organizations, social service centers and drop-in centers.
The classes currently span over a dozen mediums, including theatre, ceramics, canvas art, journaling, creative writing and photography, and they take place at partner locations such as the Richard Hugo House, the Frye Art Museum and the Seattle Symphony’s Soundbridge. Students can also expect to attend theatre, opera, symphony and visual art events thanks to ticket donations from the likes of Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Opera.
Doody’s job includes walking into participating organizations and convincing eligible people, who typically suffer from poverty, trauma and other afflictions, to attend PWA’s classes, and he does so by trumpeting the three biggest priorities in his classrooms: safety, inclusion and respect.
“It’s about engaging in the creative process and what that means for you as an individual, not about a perfect photo or a perfect print,” Doody says. “We take that looming elephant in the room off the table from the get-go. If you don’t create a painting in the class and would rather, say, do studies, the class is still a success from our perspective.”
There’s also an element of role modeling involved, in terms of connecting an art form’s novices with relative experts; they may differ in ability, but they almost certainly share a bond in terms of the recovery process, Doody says. Whether that specific fact comes up or not isn’t relevant in his opinion: “This is fun, not art therapy. It’s not sitting around talking about your feelings. That could come up as part of the creative process, but there’s no therapeutic mandate.”
That fact is of particular import to Doody, who himself needed convincing that PWA’s mission was legitimate. He admits to joining the organization at his aunt’s prodding as a skeptic: “I doubted the direct impact [these classes] could have on the lives of individuals who are dealing with some very heavy and sustained trauma- and poverty-related circumstances. That pretty much got dispelled in my first classroom experience.”
Doody himself had fallen off the artistic wagon, having worked as a photographer for years before taking up carpentry “to pay the bills.” After teaching a single digital photography class for PWA in 2008 and developing a surprising rapport with students, he became compelled to volunteer his time and help with outreach before becoming its full-time program director. He still teaches digital photography on PWA’s behalf because he sees ground-level impact in his classes, and he’s not ready to give that part of the job up.
“Despite having case managers with the best intentions, and other community health resources, [many of our students] don’t have a great opportunity to get out and share their humanity with others and have that reciprocated,” Doody says. “Path with Art really provides that. The value that injects into somebody’s life is truly profound. If you do art, many different things can happen in your life.”