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A helping hand in recovery

January 1, 2008
by Brion P. McAlarney
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From an open hand reaching out with palm up, to hands clasped together, to open hands holding an acorn, Sam T. Barnes has sculpted 12 bronze hands representing each step along the way to recovery. For his meticulous efforts, the retired orthopedic surgeon from Cookeville, Tennessee was one of six adult winners last year in the Fourth Annual Art and Addiction Juried Art Exhibition and Contest, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Innovators Combating Substance Abuse Awards Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Sculpting has been an integral part of Barnes’ 21 years in recovery. He started sculpting as a child, and picked it up again as he looked for a fulfilling activity to help him fill his time through the recovery process. The idea of developing bronze hand sculptures occurred after he found an old ceramic hand he had sculpted while in his residency at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Having built his bronze foundry as a “coping skill” after getting out of treatment, Barnes decided to try to make the ceramic hand into bronze.

“As I was working on it, I was sitting there looking at it and I decided that it looked like the 12th Step—it looked like carrying the message,” says Barnes. He decided he would try to develop bronze hands to represent the other steps as a way to help him in his own step work.

Rather than create the hands to match the steps in chronological order, Barnes started with Step 12, proceeded from there to Step 1, and then moved around to the other steps as the images came to him. “The first one was Step 12, and then I believe I did Step 1 next, which was sort of a reverse crucifixion, palm down with a spike, but the hand is reaching out trying to grope its drug of choice, and there's futility in the reverse crucifixion,” says Barnes.

Detailed process

Barnes spent 10 years creating the 12 bronze hands. He also has spent time creating busts of historical figures, including Andrew Jackson and World War I hero and Tennessee native Sgt. Alvin York.

The process of creating the bronze hands takes anywhere from three to six months. It is painstaking—creating a rubber mold out of oil-based clay, coating the mold with molten wax, peeling off the mold without damaging the wax, coating the wax positive with a ceramic shell, allowing multiple dippings in a liquid silica that when heated melts out the wax, leaving a cavity into which molten bronze can be poured.

“It takes a long time,” says Barnes. “The art is in the sculpture, but then the rest of it is craft, and I enjoy both aspects of it.”

Liberating activity

From a recovery perspective, Barnes credits his sculpting with allowing him to get out of himself. “It releases me from thinking about weighty things—it kind of lets things float free in all this creativity,” he says. “One of our prayers is asking God to free us from our bondage of self—just worrying all the time or thinking about how you feel about all this stuff and all the mental gyrations that a person goes through; it gets awful wearisome and that's bondage in itself.”

Barnes attends at least five 12-Step meetings a week, and it was through the artists in his group that he became aware of the Innovators art contest. He says he was surprised and pleased that his works were honored.

“I've always thought the sculpted steps were a good way to make people familiar with the process of recovery,” he says. “I thought it would be nice to get them out there—not for profit but to get people to think about what the steps stand for to help them in their own recovery process.”

Barnes credits his wife, Shelia, for being tremendously supportive in his recovery. She also has been sober for more than 21 years and has her own pottery studio.

Brion P. McAlarney is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.