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Jackson County art program gives hope to people recovering from addiction

Sonya Clemons uses vivid colors to help her students brush away the scars from drug abuse.

Posted: Sep 23, 2019 5:45 PM
Updated: Sep 24, 2019 9:25 AM

​Every Friday, students of all ages gather inside a classroom in downtown Jackson County to find hope.

It's far from your typical art class. Their teacher, Sonya Clemons, affectionately known as the "Art Lady," uses vivid colors to help her students brush away the scars from drug abuse.

"In Jackson County, we don't have a lot of creative opportunities," said Clemons. "That is changing, but I noticed, maybe in the recovery community, it could be an asset." ​

Three years ago, Clemons gathered up her paint brushes, paint and canvas and made an offer to someone who could help her make a difference, Jackson County Drug Court Judge John Graham.

"She said, 'This is a great program and I want to do something to help,'" ​Graham said. "I'm all for anything that can help people who are in recovery, but I just didn't have my mind around what an arts program could do for folks struggling with drug addition...I didn't have the vision. She had the vision." ​

Clemons spent years creating that vision through colorful murals displayed in schools throughout North Alabama and Tennessee. They're filled with bright images of encouragement and happiness. ​

It's that experience that she wanted to share with those who are struggling with recovery, including their kids.

"I was hoping and thinking the new art program might be therapeutic and might give them something to do and open up new opportunities for them," said Clemons.

Now in its third year, Clemons claims this is the only program of its type in the state and possibly, the nation. The "Pictures of Hope" Family Wellness program is enhancing an already 85-percent drug recovery success rate.​

It's not mandatory, but it's very popular.

"I've had people say they did not have joy in their lives until they sat down with their child at that table, that it helped them see the little things, the human things that a parent and child can do together," said Graham. "We don't have to beg people to go to art class. They love to go to art class, and they love Sonya (Clemons) because she believes in them and sees the good in them."

Brian Monty is one of Clemons' first students. After suffering for years with alcohol and drug addiction, including a stint in jail, Monty tried something new to break his cycle of self destruction. ​

"At first, I thought it (art class) as kind of funny, because I am 46 years old and I am doing art projects," said Monty. "But, it's actually very enjoyable. It's a great way to spend time after a long day of hard work. It's a great way to unwind."

Clemons admits that there's a compelling reason why she started this program to help those like Monty stay on the path to recovery. She actually knew someone who died early after wasting his life away. It was her father.

"He had a heart attack in his sleep when he was 42," recalled Clemons. ​

Clemons describes her father as an "out all night" type of person who battled drug addiction. However, she'll never forget when he encouraged her to pick up that first paint brush and pursue her passion to help others.

"I feel like, because of my background, I feel like I can relate to them very well," said Clemons.

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