Last July, 32-year-old Hope Ross reached out to Judge Kim Todd, who oversees the Pinellas County’s diversionary Adult Drug Court and Veterans Treatment Court.
Ross was first referred to the drug court in 2019, after an arrest, but had multiple relapses. This time, though, she knew she wanted to change. She was feeling suicidal, she said, and asked for help.
Now, Ross is 10 months sober.
As part of her treatment plan, Ross participated in a drug court art challenge. In exchange for participating in the challenge, the judge will waive some or all of the defendant’s cost of supervision, a fee charged by the department of corrections. Ross is one of 34 artists featured in “Art in Recovery,” an exhibit in the Gallery at Creative Pinellas with art from participants in the drug court and related veterans court.
“The art helps, (it) keeps your mind focused on something healthy that you’re creating,” Ross said.
The idea for the exhibit was born after Todd met Barbara St. Clair, CEO of Creative Pinellas, the county’s nonprofit art agency. Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters introduced the two women to each other at a dinner hosted by a local nonprofit last December.
Under the previous drug court judge, Dee Anna Farnell, defendants could take part in a number of different challenges, including a fitness program, to get supervision costs waived. Farnell, who was a runner, decorated her courtroom with jerseys and running numbers.
When Todd took over the Pinellas drug court in 2020, she filled her courtroom with artwork from defendants who participated in an art-focused challenge.
“It wasn’t just paintings,” Todd said. “It turned into sculptures. It turned into puzzles. It turned into sewing. They really took the idea of art and just expanded it.”
Todd invited St. Clair and Peters to come see her courtroom. They started talking, and the idea for the exhibit was born.
“Each work is so personal,” St. Clair said.
When she saw the finalized exhibit, St. Clair said, she got goosebumps.
“It just moved me so much,” she said.
Much of the art focuses on recovery and change. A wooden car glued to canvas, surrounded by gravestones, with a sign that reads “sobriety ahead.” An elaborate clock, made from wood, titled “Time for a Change.” A poem, titled “Dear Cocaine.” A vision board, with the words “degree” and “travel” prominently displayed.
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Other artwork focuses on patriotic themes, such as a photo on canvas of a soldier walking along the horizon, titled “RIP Wade Stack.”
Many of the artists remained anonymous.
One of the program’s graduates, 39-year-old Amanda Valentin, came to see the exhibit during its opening reception Wednesday, though her art was not featured in the gallery.
Valentin completed the drug court program in February. Doctors had prescribed her opiates for pain from a car accident and arthritis, along with Adderall for ADHD and Xanax for anxiety.
“Those drugs all do different things ... basically, every day, I would get up and be like, ‘Which way am I headed?’” she said. “And so pretty quickly, I realized I couldn’t stop taking them.”
Valentin was arrested last spring, after law enforcement found medications in her car with expired prescriptions.
Now, she’s living in housing provided by a local nonprofit and is a house leader. She’s also in the process of becoming certified as a licensed trauma coach.
In the past, Valentin said, she used art as a barrier. Now, she said, she uses it as a bridge to connect with others.
“When you give the judge a piece of art, she doesn’t just look at it and look away,” Valentin said. “She stops. She looks at it and she asks you about it. She engages and makes you feel like she wants to know. And she’s grateful for it.”
Beth Gelman, senior director of art and cultural programming at Creative Pinellas, curated the art show. As she built the exhibit, she tried to think about how to connect people to the artwork and educate those who might not know much about the problem of drug abuse in the United States and locally.
“Really, the truth is, as in all exhibitions, the artwork always does the majority of the work for me,” she said. “That’s the incredible luck of curating an exhibit.”
Two of Ross’ artworks are featured in the exhibit. One, “The Sacred Fallen,” features a scroll listing the names of Black men and women who have been killed by police. The other, “Crystals & Gems,” is a mixed media piece with crystals on a denim background, surrounded by a lavender photo frame.
Ross now lives in housing provided by the Boley Centers, a local nonprofit. She started using crystal meth about six years ago, after a man she was dating introduced her to the drug.
“Crystal meth and abusive men — that’s what brought me down,” said Ross, who said she’s had 15 abusers since the age of 16.
In 2019, Ross was arrested on drug charges after a traffic stop where she was driving with unassigned tags and a suspended license.
As she’s gone through recovery, Ross has focused on healing her relationship with her mother and her three kids, a 14-year-old son, and two daughters, ages 10 and 11. She’s working on launching an Instagram and Etsy shop for an art brand, which she plans to call “Untamed Unicorn.” And she’s started writing letters to her past abusers — not to send, but simply to process everything that happened.
Art has been a key part of the healing process, she said. It teaches you patience, and how to accept mistakes.
“You’ve got to accept messing stuff up and restarting without frustration,” she said. “And that’s definitely something I needed help with.”
The exhibit, which includes 42 pieces of art, will be on display through July 16 at 12211 Walsingham Road in Largo. Admission is free. The gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.