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.