Art & Hope – Reawakening the Newly Sober Senses

Artwork - view of rooftops addiction treatment center


Gerhard Richter once said, “Art is the highest form of hope.” And hope is the message for the men of Sanford House at John Street. As part of a yearlong renovation to this historic site, now serving as a treatment center, art was key to making a house a home. With more than 60 original works on the walls of Sanford House, the mission is clear. An inspirational environment can serve as a vehicle to healing.


If you’ve been in a clinic, doctor’s office or hospital recently, you will probably notice that the institutional green paint of old is gone. Often, in its place are bright colors and the works of regional artists. So too, in the addiction treatment world. An integral part of the Sanford House philosophy has always been that treatment begins in a particular place. And although residential treatment is just the beginning of a life in recovery, living with original artworks can encourage self-reflection and reduce stress and depression.


Artist Kathy Mohl

One of the featured artists at John Street is Kathy Mohl. Mohl’s work is influenced by places that stir the senses. And her artist statement reflects a kindred spirit with Sanford House. She says, “My work is inspired by light, nature and the power of place.”


Sanford House founder David Green saw Kathy Mohl’s work at an opening at LaFontsee Gallery in Grand Rapids. He was taken by her landscapes. He purchased several and commissioned two large paintings, Sanford House Rooftop View and Empire Bluff. They are the foundations of the John Street collection.




These commissions were admittedly a challenge for the artist. Mohl is a “plein air” painter. Because of this, she is most comfortable painting in the “open air,” inspired by the ephemeral quality of light. The commissions required that she work from photographs. And according to the artist, “Photos lie. Images flatten. Shadows darken…” It took her about eight weeks to finish the paintings, adding personalized elements to the canvases and making the inspiration her own.


I was drawn to Kathy’s use of color, especially in water scenes. Also, I was intrigued by the mystery in her work – what you might find around the painted corner or a bend in the river. I am continually impressed by Kathy’s appetite for discovery and experimentation… Sanford House founder David Green


Many of Kathy’s art challenges sound like a metaphor for recovery:

The reason, is because she had to:

  • Find balance
  • Take the job step by step
  • Look at the big picture
  • Give herself credit for the small successes
  • Allow room for miracles
  • And in the end, “let come what comes…”



Reawakening Senses

Viewing original art can relieve mental fatigue, stave off cognitive decline and even trigger the brain to be more open to learning. Kathy Mohl is an artist who believes “our surroundings can shape our thoughts and art can open our minds”.


And science agrees – our brains respond when we look at a painting. This is because viewing art triggers emotions. And for those people in addiction treatment, a reawakening of emotions and inner thoughts can reactivate the pleasure centers in the brain. In fact, art can be restorative in the same way a walk out of doors can relieve mental fatigue and clear the head.


In her article for the National Endowment for the Arts, Maria Popova says, “…people who partake in ‘creative culture,’ by playing an instrument or creating art, or ‘receptive culture,’ by going to museums, concerts and art galleries, are less stressed, report higher levels of life-satisfaction and well-being, and are less likely to feel depressed or anxious.”




Optimism and Art…

Entering addiction treatment is an act of optimism in itself. And as Kathy Mohl suggested, there is a great deal of power in “place.” Recovery from substance use disorders is like a widening path. The overwhelming joy of sobriety after the long, rocky road of addiction is like looking out over a spectacular vista. Or living with one of Mohl’s landscapes.  And taking in its intrinsic human value – light filled and promising.


Without intention, my paintings often seem to ask questions. What is around the bend? Where does the path lead? What is beyond? These are the questions we all have as we go through life… Standing back – taking the long view – sometimes that is when we see things more clearly.” Kathy Mohl








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Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world. (She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing). Seven years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, "Excursions". She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction.