POWER House residents practice drawing techniques. Photo courtesy of Amber Coppings.

As the opioid epidemic grows, the women living at POWER House are fighting for their lives. Their goal, during their months at the 25-bed facility in Swissvale, is to get off drugs and build a toolbox of strategies to stay clean and sober.

Traditional therapy helps them tackle issues that led them to use drugs in the first place, and they take classes in life skills like nutrition and self-defense. Thanks to a partnership with textile artist Amber Coppings, they’re making art, too.

The seed was planted in 2012, when Coppings created a spinoff collection of her Xmittens line to benefit the agency. She knew that creative expression can offer health benefits, from reducing anxiety and depression to increasing self-esteem.

So with funding from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Shadyside Presbyterian Church, she began offering regular classes that allow women to discover what they’re capable of in a safe space.

Residents tell Coppings that making art calms them and boosts their confidence. One client even shared that it gives her something to talk to her family about when they visit, rather than discussing “how she used to be drunk all the time.”

Using their newfound drawing and lettering skills, the women have designed greeting cards that they sold at the Neighborhood Flea in the Strip. They’ve also designed T-shirts and posters, which hang on the POWER House walls as a reminder of what they’ve accomplished.

“We’re always looking at ways to help women build new lives and what is going to be in those new lives,” says Karen Clark, POWER’s volunteer coordinator. “All of them take away something new, whether it’s a hobby or a livelihood.”

Coppings, who launched POWER’s artist-in-residence program in 2015, agrees: “It’s more about the process,” she says, “than the product.”

One POWER House client’s card design. Photo courtesy of Amber Coppings.
One POWER House client’s card design. Photo courtesy of Amber Coppings.

Nearly half of the women who entered POWER’s programs in 2017 — which include outpatient treatment and support services like mentoring — named opiates as their first drug of choice. Many of them turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the effects of trauma as a result of abuse, sexual assault and rape.

Leslie Slagel, POWER’s clinical director, says that creative activities like art-making and writing allow clients to attach a narrative to their trauma, which helps them process these painful experiences in therapy.

“A picture can tell a story about the client’s life that can’t be told using words,” Slagel says.

This personal storytelling and sense of creative accomplishment can be a game-changer for women leaving POWER House. Many are starting over from scratch, rebuilding broken relationships, seeking employment and engaging in the hard work of recovery.

Coppings has plenty in store for the next session, which begins in March. The women will explore color, texture, composition and curation as they plan their own gallery show. Guest facilitators will include installation artist Oreen Cohen, fiber artist Laverne Kemp and interdisciplinary artist Connie Merriman.

This summer, POWER House residents will also dig deeper into Coppings’ favorite medium: fabric. The women will design custom patterns on iPads loaned by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. And, thanks to a Spoonflower sponsorship, each woman will end the session with a yard of her own bespoke fabric. Participants will stitch zippered bags out of the material and sell their creations.

POWER House clients share clothing they created using Shibori dyeing techniques. Photo courtesy of Amber Coppings.

Coppings says she learns as much as the women do about everything from processes to new perspectives on making art.

“She obviously has a lot of faith in the women and sees things they don’t see in themselves at first,” Clark adds. “It’s all pretty inspiring.”

Along with Coppings’ art mentoring, residents also learn to write poetry. Volunteer Valerie Bacharach has been teaching poetry to POWER clients for three years. Her work often dovetails with the art classes and she believes both art forms give the women an outlet to express a range of emotions.

“It allows them some control over lives,” she says, “that have been too often out of control.”

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications....