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Bay Area Artists in Recovery Reach for ‘The Creative High’ in IndieFest Documentary

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Luis Canales (aka Strobe) dances in a scene from 'The Creative High.' (Courtesy filmmakers)

Performing in public is daring, risky business, whether it’s a rocker behind a guitar or a drag queen in a wig and gown. Working solitarily on painting or sculpture, for all its meditative potential, presents a whole other set of psychological challenges and stumbling blocks.

Now add the disorienting, unfamiliar feeling of making art in an altered state, that is, not under the years-long influence of an addictive substance. Recovering artists who stick with it can reap a considerable payoff, as illustrated by the nine Bay Area men and women who bare their struggles in the inspiring documentary The Creative High.

The Creative High is screening online in the hybrid SF IndieFest (running through Feb. 13) with an in-person screening Sunday, Feb. 6 at the Roxie Cinema featuring five of the subjects along with the filmmakers.

“I found a lot of my healing in my recovery through my creativity,” San Francisco director Adriana Marchione recalls. “And I was also confused about how to be an artist after I got sober and stopped drinking.”

That was 28 years ago. A visual artist and dancer, Marchione has specialized in working with addiction and recovery for most of her career as an expressive arts therapist and somatic movement educator. Her entreé into film, the autobiographical half-hour short When the Fall Comes (2014), meshed poetry, dance and performance to depict the journey of grieving and healing.

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Realizing the potential of film to reach far more people than she can encounter through her one-on-one or group work, Marchione embarked on a feature-length documentary. Veteran San Francisco filmmaker Dianne Griffin came onboard as producer along the way, contributing some pivotal creative suggestions.

Woman with white hair works on her art
Painter Kathy Page in her studio in a scene from ‘The Creative High.’ (Courtesy filmmakers)

The Creative High introduces us to nine talented everyday artists of various ages, including choreographer and performance artist Luis Canales (aka Strobe), hip-hop musician Brandon Michael Randle (aka Dopeless) and expressive artist and educator Lessa Clark. Rock musicians Wes Geer (founder of Rock to Recovery) and Ralph Spight (the perfect name for a punk rocker, he points out) take their turn in the spotlight, as do visual artist Kathy Page, photographer Joan Osato, theater artist and drag performer Peter Griggs (aka U-Phoria) and sculptor and musician Jason Bernhardt.

As distinct (and distinctive) as their sagas, personalities and artistic endeavors are, weaving nine characters into a coherent, impactful narrative is a colossal endeavor. Griffin had the inspired idea of structuring the film in three chapters, each comprised of a troika of subjects.

“I love the idea of ‘three,’” Griffin says. “It’s such a strong, ancient number. Past, present, future. Their stories could be heard, you really got to know the characters, and we could create a book-like feeling. We start with our early-in-recovery collaborators, moving into what we call the ‘grit’ section.”

“The depths of the struggle and coming back out is the second chapter,” Marchione continues. “The third chapter is the creative high, the transcendent nature of going to the height through their art practices.”

The subtext, which gradually emerges from the structure, is the progression through the process of recovery. The dominant themes of the film, though, are the ways in which being sober creates the opening and inspiration to create (albeit often accompanied by self-doubt) and, at the same time, artistic practice contributes to self-knowledge and staying clear of substances.

One of the unexpected pleasures of The Creative High is that we come to see the nine subjects as works in progress, partly because they commonly refer to themselves as “recovering” no matter how many years they’ve been clean or sober and partly because it is the nature of artists to continually develop and evolve.

Man plays guitar and sings into mic in purple lighting
Ralph Spight on stage in a scene from ‘The Creative High.’ (Courtesy filmmakers)

“There’s more shadings to my emotions,” Spight confides in the film while seen walking around the Mission. “I’m also older. You live more, and so you see more of where you can be wistfully happy or depressed and grateful”—he laughs at himself—“at the same time.”

Regardless of what happens down the road for the film’s nine subjects—in fact, one relapsed while the film was being made—The Creative High should have a long life. “There has been a lot of excitement in the recovery community about the film,” Marchione reports.

“We’ve always had the desire,” she says, “to go into treatment centers, mental health [clinics], behavioral health facilities, art schools, universities, colleges.” Griffin’s wish list includes zen centers, museums and dance companies. The filmmakers invite representatives from these and other venues to reach out to them via the film’s website.

Of course, one needn’t be in recovery or an artist to experience the transformative power of art. The Creative High taps into our basic, profound impulses to reveal, rage, let go, vent, invent and reinvent. That is, to create and express.

‘The Creative High’ streams online via SF IndieFest through Feb. 13. It screens live at 7pm, Sunday, Feb. 6 at the Roxie. Details here.

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