With bandanas covering their eyes and hands poised atop square slabs of rust-colored clay, the artists await a signal to start.
"Think about what's going on in your life," says Kimberly Benson, a licensed mental health counselor. "Take the focus off the external outcome and let your feelings drive you to what you want to create ...
"You may begin."
Julia Hoonhout crushes her clay in both hands, letting it squish between her slender fingers. Brianne Kintz cups hers gently into the shape of a bowl, smoothing the sharp edges. Gary Westra breaks off chunks, rolling each into a body part — a ball for a head, tubules of hair, long, flexed-foot legs.
For the next 45 minutes — until the lights are turned back on — the 14 clients from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at the Salvation Army work silently in the dark, diligently shaping the clay as if by doing so they could shape the course of their lives.
"Clay in the Dark" is just one of the creative exercises Benson uses in her role as founder of Expressive Arts Therapy International, a nonprofit based on the belief that art can spark emotional and psychological breakthroughs — sometimes more successfully than traditional therapies.
"I believe art enables an individual to access the unconscious," says Benson, who has a doctorate in counseling as well as an art degree from the Ringling College of Art and Design. "Of course, talk therapy does too, but art helps them get there faster."
Benson's belief is based not only on her professional experience, but a personal history of overcoming alcohol addiction by tapping her creative side.
"It helps bring together the right and left brain," says Benson, who has been alcohol-free for more than six years. "I don't believe I have a happy medium yet between art and therapy, but in the beginning of my recovery, I was immersed in my art. It helped me discharge the negative emotional states I had and helped me deal with my loneliness."
So firmly convinced is she that art can help people battle their demons and find their voices, earlier this year Benson founded EATI in order to bring her practice to varied populations in diverse geographic locations.
"I'd always wanted to volunteer abroad as a therapist, like Doctors without Borders but in the therapeutic realm," she says.
Through Internet reserach she found Village Volunteers, a larger nonprofit doing work internationally that now umbrellas her own. After raising nearly $15,000, her first major project took place this spring in Kanaria Village in Kenya, Africa, where she worked with a group of teenage girls who had been victimized by human sexual trafficking, emotional or sexual abuse, or the loss of one or both parents.
During a week-long workshop, she introduced them not only to "Clay in the Dark," but also to painting inspired by music, self-portraits and individual and group mandalas, the geometric figures that represent the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. Each session was followed by a "talk back" to examine the feelings the art had catalyzed.
In the beginning, Benson says, the girls were reluctant, self-conscious and imitative. But by the end of the week, she saw radical changes.
"It was so evident they had all become individualized in what they experienced," she says. "By the third day, you could actually see them start to separate. They become much more genuine and authentic, they shared more deeply and were more trusting."
The success of her initial venture has renewed Benson's commitment; if she can raise the necessary funds she hopes next to work with women in a red-light district of India. Meanwhile, she regularly offers sessions to various organizations in Sarasota. After a half dozen classes at the Salvation Army, demand has begun to outweigh capacity.
"Our clients love it," says program manager Cathy Hart. "We had to draw names this time, there were so many who wanted to come. Alcoholics and addicts are typically very creative souls."
As this session draws to a close, the clay objects have taken on identifiable shapes. One looks like a tree stump with a hollow center; another an elaborate nest of snakes; a third, a giant domed mushroom.
It's clear there's been some internal molding going on too. Tears trickle down Hoonhout's face as she kneads her clay like bread dough until shredded bits of the paper covering the table become part of the collage. Westra collapses his head in his hands after assembling the figure of a little girl. Kintz meticulously erases every wrinkle and imperfection from her rounded bowl.
When the bandannas come off, the artists first write, then talk about their experience, one Malinda Vilches found "fun, in a freaky sort of way."
Hoonhoot says she was thinking about her father's death. Westra talks about the wife and child he lost to his addiction. Brian (who asked his last name not be used) — he has an art degree and a job as a designer waiting for him as soon as he graduates from rehab — explains his elegant sculpture, which looks like a maelstrom of violent ocean waves.
"I was thinking about being at a beach, but it wasn't a nice beach," he says. "It was dangerous and I was in the water and I kept thinking, 'What a bad place this is to swim, it's not even pleasant!' But I always wanted to go back."
To finish, Benson explains the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist monks who, after painstakingly creating elaborate mandalas one grain of sand at a time, sweep them away and return the sand to the ocean. She suggests everyone take their art outside and place it somewhere on the Salvation Army grounds.
"Last time, some ended up in the trees," recalls Hart. "They'd walk by their clay every day and remember what they'd done here. It was almost like a meditative process."