Peer-run behavioral health nonprofit Creative Vision Factory utilizes art as a means of recovery for its members

The space at 617 N. Shipley St. buzzes with activity—artists talking, teasing each other, drawing, drinking coffee— while Michael Kalmbach, founding director of the Creative Vision Factory, points out a completed peer-led project: a wall-length, patchwork quilt-style mural on canvas, a venture led by CVF members and completed by inmates at the Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution. Member paintings and drawings line the walls. In the rear art room and Kalmbach’s office are blueprints and tiles intended for mosaic projects at the Rick VanStory Resource Center and Christina Cultural Arts Center.

Funded by the State of Delaware’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, the peer-run Creative Vision Factory opened five years ago as a way to better serve members of society struggling with or recovering from mental health and addiction disorders. And the organization’s focus—recovery through visual, literary and performing arts—serves as a powerful tool of expression and social integration, Kalmbach says.

Although he is an Intro to Arts Theory professor at Delaware College of Art and Design and a 2008 graduate of the University of Delaware’s Master of Fine Arts program, Kalmbach considers himself a peer of the people he serves. A recovered drug and alcohol addict, he recently reached 14 years of clean and sober living.

“Luckily for me, I’m able to identify as a peer from prior experiences, and have been working in the arts community long before that,” he says. “It’s been fun.”

Funding Born of a Lawsuit

With almost 500 individuals welcomed through CVF’s doors since it opened in 2011—that’s approximately 60 per week—his job also entails a lot of hard work and dedication, and as the first state-sanctioned organization like this in the area, it’s an evolving concept.

Funding originated from a lawsuit against the state’s psychiatric center for being out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“It’s legalese for ‘don’t warehouse people,’” Kalmbach says. “There have been people living at state hospital for 15-20 years, or innocents detained, that could be out in the community. This lawsuit brought in some federal funds to say that progress had to be made during settlement agreement.”

Part of that agreement included incorporating peer support into the state’s mental health system.

Kalmbach says the CVF model is based on a concept formed during a wave of mental health system revolutions in the 1970s, however simplistic it may be: if you want to connect, don’t build societal walls.

“We want to serve and work with people as they are, rather than perpetuating an art therapy model with a capital ‘T’ which automatically insinuates ‘I’m well, you’re sick,’” Kalmbach explains. “We’re dropping the capital ‘T.’”

The country’s oldest center for artists with disabilities, the Creative Growth Art Center, in Oakland, Calif., was formed 30 years ago. Some of its members have been featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, gallery spaces in Paris, and international art fairs—potentially paving the way for aspiring artists like CVF members.

CVF memeber Eric Carpenter adds pieces to the RVRC mosaic wall. (Photo courtesy of the Creative Vision Factory)

CVF memeber Eric Carpenter adds pieces to the RVRC mosaic wall. (Photo courtesy of the Creative Vision Factory)

Creativity as a Recovery Tool

“There’s a ton of talent that is already here, but there just wasn’t a program or system here to recognize that,” says Kalmbach.

Now, through the CVF, numerous members who may have never had the opportunity to pursue art have sold works to UD, shown in galleries across the state and in Philadelphia, and are featured in art magazines.

“Having something you can do in which you control the pace can be a powerfully adaptive way to combat other hardships,” Kalmbach says. “People come into this place with really strange and wonderful creative practices, faced with enormous economic and health challenges, but despite all of that are making amazing art. They have developed this because they have to; it’s part of their survival mechanisms.”

Take the Baylor patchwork quilt, for example. The only instruction given to the women was to paint something light on one side of each individual’s square and dark on the other, Kalmbach says, and each woman created vastly different art. Now, not only is there a finished work, but because of the connection, some of the women who have been released from prison are involved with CVF. The quilt itself will be displayed at the Brandywine Festival of the Arts Sept. 10-11, in addition to other venues, followed by a permanent installation at Baylor this winter.

Meanwhile, work on the mosaic project for Rick VanStory Center, a psychiatric recovery-oriented peer center, will continue through this month. The mosaic will be displayed at the center, at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Justison Street. The Christina Cultural Arts Center mosaic—on the backside of the building facing Shipley Street—will be completed in September, in time for the CCAC’s 70th anniversary.

Open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., the CVF’s open-door policy allows leaders to observe functionality.

Not everybody who comes to the CVF has a behavioral issue, and some people aren’t in active recovery, Kalmbach explains—some may still be in active addiction.

“If people come here just to get out of the heat or cold and grab a cup of coffee, so be it. In AA we joke around, ‘If you keep going to a barber shop, you’re going to eventually get a haircut.’ And here, if you keep showing up, you’re eventually going to make something. We dangle the carrot, saying, ‘If you want to do this, go for it, and maybe earn some money on a job.’ This can start as a consistent space to count on being safe and start to rebuild some stuff.”

On a practical note, Kalmbach says that if someone has more time to do one thing, it’s less of one other thing he or she is doing. More art equals less maladaptive behavior, less petty crime, less loitering, he says.

Opening Doors to Social Mobility

Kalmbach says he could be breaking up a fight on Shipley Street on a weekday morning, and by the afternoon be at an art lecture with CVF members at Winterthur. The art community encompasses “this amazing social mobility,” Kalmbach says.

CVF residential neighbor, visual artist and volunteer consultant Nancy Josephson agrees.
“Here, we let art be the bridge, and it’s happening right there in real life and real time,”
Josephson says. “It’s a remarkable way to bring together two sides of the art community.”

Josephson moved to North Market Street in 2002 with her husband and local musician David Bromberg. The couple opened a shop at 601 N. Market, David Bromberg Fine Violins, LLC, and live in the apartment upstairs.

Josephson wandered over to the CVF after it was founded in 2011 and ended up getting involved with the program, leading workshops, and training members to lead workshops, which “has been phenomenal,” she says.

Through these creative works, CVF members have an opportunity to make a little money—and build relationships, skills and also network.

“My connection became much more involved after the Newsweek ‘Murdertown’ article came out,” says Josephson. “As an artist, I felt isolated and didn’t know what I could do. Then the idea of creating a product might be a way in which a couple of people could make money as well as a statement.”

That’s how a current project—bullet casing earrings, now sold at the CVF—was born, and Josephson and peer leader and staff member Chantal Matthews ran with the concept.

While membership—which really just means “showing up”—is open to anyone, in order to be a peer leader a member must show signs of active recovery or improvement. One of the CVF’s current public project foremen, Brook Miller, started out last year just looking for a place to have his mail forwarded. Now, he’s leading group workshops at venues like the Delaware Art Museum.

Connecting with neighbors and the local community is currently an important factor, Kalmbach says. He wants to help educate the public on what the CVF is doing, and to encourage people to advocate within local government for more spaces like the CVF. People can also show support by attending exhibitions and commissioning CVF members to do projects.

The Creative Vision Factory impact, it seems, is mutual. For Josephson, the program has given to her as much as she’s poured into it.

“I’ve forged deep relationships that are also educational—I have a broader perspective,” she says. “And at the core, this program gives a voice to people who are frequently silenced.”

Krista Connor
When Krista's not at the O&A office, you can find her with a cup of tea, a book or donning a backpack for an adventure.