Painting recovery

The Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art has become more than a gallery. It’s a hub for ground-breaking local art therapy.


Clint Ruesch listens intently as David Hummer talks about art to a group of residents at North Central Health Care’s Lakeside Recovery program. Sun shines through bay windows onto the men and women of various ages seated on sofa chairs, a couch, and a handful of desk chairs arranged in a circle.

Hummer, who last fall launched the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, has painted art professionally for decades; Ruesch has painted for only a few months under Hummer’s tutelage. But the two have something in common with each other and with the dozen people here going through various stages of the Lakeside Recovery program: They all have known and are overcoming addiction.

So everyone in the circle listens when Hummer speaks. Some are a bit awestruck, Ruesch later tells me, including himself. “It’s a little intimidating. You know he’s this great painter,” Ruesch says, “and he’s running this museum, and you see him on the news. But he breaks that down really quickly.”

It’s easy to see that during a session in which Hummer speaks to those in the recovery program, which City Pages was given exclusive access to. He is disarming, articulate, and treats everyone with respect. His teaching style is similar. He has a way of explaining art, which can seem impossibly inaccessible to the average person, and breaking it down so a person can understand it and start their first work.

“We’re inches away from painting, and that can be scary,” Hummer tells the group. “But it’s just one painting. If it doesn’t turn out, it doesn’t turn out.”

The Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, or WMOCA, is less than six months old, but through its founder it is already the focal point for a number of local art therapy projects.

The art program at Lakeside Recovery, for example, is part of a new initiative called Rise Up.

Inspired by a project in Philadelphia called The Porchlight Project, this local program aims at tackling not just addiction but also broader issues of social change. A group of local artists and community leaders traveled to Philadelphia last year to tour the projects that are part of Porchlight, and learn from those who participate. One of the results of that Philly project: The city is covered in beautiful murals, painted by some of the least fortunate.

The Lakeside Recovery art program is only the first step of Rise Up, says Lakeside Recovery Manager Daniel Shine and NCHC Communications Director Jessica Meadows, who are both members of the Rise Up Board. “We don’t have to stop with substance abuse,” Shine says. “This could spread to veterans, to mental health or children in crisis. We don’t know where this will go.”

The benefits of art therapy are well documented and accepted, and forms of it has been used for years already around Wausau, notably through the Women’s Community for survivors of domestic abuse.

But since the establishment of the museum, Hummer has been able to apply that concept to a range of projects that touch people of all ages and many different needs.

The Lakeside Recovery art program isn’t the only project for Hummer. For several weeks, he has been working with the arts and disability agency VSA Wisconsin in Madison to provide art classes for local veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. In March he will begin a two-month art program for special needs children at Weston Elementary School.

Sharing the power of art not only transforms the people he works with, it’s transforming himself too.

A healthy escape


Libby McKenna paints along with others in recovery and volunteers from Rise Up, a new initiative using art as part of the recovery process at North Central Health Care’s in-patient addiction treatment.

Libby McKenna, 29, is open about her troubles with substance abuse. She knows the price she paid for her alcoholism: Her young daughter was taken from her custody when she lived in the Waukesha area, and her path to recovery hasn’t been easy.

McKenna, now living in Antigo, went through the Lakeside Recovery program twice—the first about two years ago, and she graduated the last time in November 2016. She didn’t immediately find long-term sobriety, which is common. McKenna is hoping for admission into Hope House, a supported living structure for recovering alcoholics. She’s attempted suicide several times.

Her story highlights one of the benefits of Lakeside’s 21-day medically monitored treatment program at NCHC. Residents first enter a detox stage, then participate in coaching and life skills classes. They learn things that are applicable not only to substance abuse recovery, but also for navigating typical pitfalls in life.

And graduates like McKenna are encouraged to return to share their success with others currently in the program. It gives residents like McKenna a reason to continue on the right path: They can’t help encourage others if they haven’t stayed sober themselves.

McKenna is one of the first people in the NCHC gymnasium following the roundtable discussion. Tables are laid out with cloth, canvases, and photographs the students will draw. Hummer presents a swath of paint in primary colors and white. All of Hummer’s students from day one learn to mix colors from those primaries. Then “just make a mark,” Hummer instructs. Hummer’s words convey the message that it’s not a big deal. “It’s just paint,” he will say.

McKenna, with a black leather jacket and braided hair, smiles and looks content as she works on her painting with a Rise Up board member at her side. They laugh and talk, and Hummer takes time to help with her work. McKenna’s look of joy tells a story of its own. “It actually made me want to stay sober, wanting to come back here to paint,” McKenna says. “I was excited about something.”

Ruesch, now a recovery coach helping out with the Lakeside Recovery program, had similar feelings about art. Ruesch, 44, said he had been a functioning addict for years. His fifth OWI, and his first as a result of methamphetamines, was a wake-up call. Ruesch in 2013 was the first person admitted to Marathon County’s OWI Court for a substance other than alcohol. “It’s a very strict and intense program,” Ruesch says. “You have a team of people helping you.”

Now Ruesch is one of the people helping others. He started as a recovery coach in January 2017, and is able to connect with patients because he can relate to their struggles with addiction. “The most amazing thing for me is to watch someone change and grow,” Ruesch says. “To see someone become happy, I get really emotional. I want people to learn what I have learned, and feel what I have felt.”

Art has become a therapy for Ruesch as well, so its therapeutic affects on others isn’t a surprise.

“It’s an escape for me,” Ruesch says. “The rest of the world goes away. And that’s OK, because the result is something healthy.”

Like the Porchlight Project, some of those in recovery will ultimately paint a mural to be displayed in the community. Rise Up members are currently looking for a surface for the project, Hummer says.

Transformative moments of purpose

Ken Amundsen is 69, and retired from his job driving buses for Metro Ride for 26 years. He’s also a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise.

Amundsen followed Hummer’s achievements with interest, and says he’s been a fan since he read about Hummer’s development of the museum. He’d contemplated for months taking one of his art classes at The Bauhaus, Hummer’s private art studio now located in WMOCA. Then he heard about the art program being offered there for veterans through VSA Wisconsin.

On a Tuesday, Amundsen joined a number of other veterans in this therapeutic painting class. Like Hummer’s other students, their first efforts looked remarkably good.

Hummer’s very systematic approach deconstructs the process of painting, and allows anyone to create a piece of art if they stick to it.

In fact, it’s astonishing to see how someone who has never painted before can create such high quality art—and that success is exhilarating to the participants themselves.

The key is how Hummer breaks it down for students. Everything is guided by a grid created on both the target photograph and the canvas itself. Then students “make a little mark” on the corresponding spot on the canvas. Just make a mark and go from there.

That Tuesday was Amundsen’s fourth class in this special program for veterans. By the third something clicked. “I realized I was getting it,” Amundsen says. “It felt really good. Like I actually set out to do this and I was accomplishing it. I did have some creativity in me after all, which was untapped.”

Isolation can be a problem with seniors in general, and after seeing people every day as a bus driver (which he loved), he did keep to himself for some time after retirement to give himself a break. But the painting classes were a nice way to break that isolation, and it helps being surrounded by other veterans, Amundsen says.

Others in the class, declining to be named, say they didn’t think they’d ever find themselves painting.

Amundsen is glad he is. He’s bought some supplies so that one day he can paint at home too. For now, the classes are enough as he learns the craft.

Hummer is well aware of the healing benefits of art, and he has plans beyond bringing it to veterans and those in recovery. Children with special needs can also benefit, Hummer says.

He soon will begin working with special needs students at Weston Elementary School in the first long-term program of its kind in the area (March to May).

It’s not the first time he’s worked with children. Hummer did a brief program as an artist in residence at Mountain Bay Elementary and helped special needs students—children with Down syndrome, on the autistic spectrum, and even Tourette’s.

Hummer remembers one student in particular: A little boy with autism who wore a protective helmet. The boy watched quietly while the others enthusiastically picked up brushes and started painting. Without warning, the boy pitched up a brush, mixed red and blue colors together, and put a brush stroke on the canvas. “I made purple,” said the boy, as he suddenly blossomed and broke out of his shell. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the classroom,” Hummer says.

Transformations through art are common. Painting, for those in recovery or former vets, instills a profound sense of purpose. “The pursuit of happiness is bullshit,” Hummer says. “Pursue purpose. Happiness will follow.”