Turning Trash Into Beauty – Kat Nicotera’s Unique Art Therapy
By Ernest Dempsey
Kat-Fasano Nicotera, an ex-heroin addict, believes, because of her passion for doll making, and art therapy in general, that in order to come out on the other side of addiction a different person, a whole person, we must find something that inspires us more than the pain we’re familiar with. This is her story.
Ernest: Hello Kat! I am honored to be speaking to you about your art and healing! Before we move on to talking about doll making, how long was your addiction period, and how did you put an end to it, returning to normal life?
Kat: Hi Ernest and thank “you” for this exciting opportunity to share some of my journey with you. I’ve been struggling with a variety of addictions for the better part of my adult life. I was running so hard, trying to numb my incredible pain from my issues of a horrific, abusive, and traumatic childhood, for years. I finally had my first “bottom” in 1987, and found the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous. I stayed clean and sober for almost 6 years, but wasn’t in a place to excavate the deep spiritual infection that haunted me; and I eventually relapsed, finding relief and another eventual bottom with heroin. I created such enormous, irreparable damage to myself, my two sons, my marriage, and family. My two teenage sons sat me down with a life-saving intervention all by themselves and insisted I find help, or they were going to call the authorities to help find them a decent home with daily food, clean clothes, and running hot water, etc. I was “tough loved” into finding help at our city Methadone Treatment Facility since they didn’t require health insurance, (which I didn’t have), and I was allowed to self-pay on a sliding fee scale. I realized that this was my one and only chance to get this right and make something of myself—become the woman “others” believed I could be.
I still was too broken and sick to believe any of it, yet I showed up and utilized every resource available to me. At first, I was getting help for my sons, but soon after I was doing it all for me. I was lead to this amazing woman who provided me with a safe place to release the emotional hemorrhage that kept me in bondage of relapse for years. I saw her every week for intense therapy for 3 years, (on her own free time), and beautiful things began to happen to me… for me. I was on the methadone maintenance program for many years, and slowly began to taper off, and eventually, successfully, medically discharged. Today, I live a medication-free life. I surely didn’t do any of this alone, Ernest; I was blessed to have been “Divinely” led to so many powerful people who helped heal me, believe in me, trust me, root for me. Even today, these same people have opened doors for me to come back and volunteer at the same program that helped me, and today, I’m in the process of being hired part-time to become a Recovery Coach. If recovery can happen for me, it can happen for “anyone.” I believe that with every breath I take.
Ernest: Had you been making dolls, or any other kind of art, before your addiction started?
Kat: I was always kind of interested in general crafts when I was younger, or if they were introduced to me in some art class at a “Youth Facility”, I was locked up in, or in any of my brief and lame attempts at sobriety, I would dabble in a variety of embroidery, or crocheting, but I was always too preoccupied with planning my next relapse. I was sadly consumed with feeding the cravings, the monster growing inside of the insatiable hole in my soul, screaming for relief in some form of alcohol or illegal substance.
Ernest: So how did you start with doll making after you returned to a healthy life?
Kat: Well, about a year into “real” sobriety, I became very aware that I was missing something. As I began releasing and forgiving the old pain, I was making room for something new; I thought what I was feeling was restlessness, or complacency, but I didn’t understand I was being “called” to tap into my authentic creative self. It was time to begin rebuilding my spirit—a brand new one. My mom was very creative and made exquisite dolls and Teddy Bears, (Oh the beauties she’s made!), and although I had taught myself the art of Folk Art painting, I had a new burning desire to learn something new, something to stimulate and challenge myself. I had been so creatively, and spiritually, “dead” for so many years, that I began to become alive… with life, feelings, and color. I felt as if I’d missed so much in my active addiction, and the healing process drained me; yet, I couldn’t find new things to do fast enough. I wanted to cook challenging recipes; I began writing as if tomorrow wasn’t coming; decorating my home; I took a beginners’ computer course. I was similar to a child experiencing life for the first time at 45! When I was introduced to my first computer, I found craft sites, forums, and doll making blogs. I Googled and YouTubed “everything” artistic. I saw my first primitive doll and I was fast on the road to the fabric store, drooling over a variety of doll making magazines and patterns. I didn’t even care if I knew I’d face the challenges of being learning disabled… wild horses wouldn’t keep me from attempting my first doll. I think dolls speak to me because having such a dangerous and unpredictable childhood, the little girl inside of me never felt safe enough to “play” or create. The beauty in all of that old darkness, Ernest, is that I’m blessed with second chances at creating, living AND playing.
Ernest: That’s very inspiring! I am really interested in learning what basic materials you use in creating dolls, and where do you work on them?
Kat: I guess it’s True Confession time, Ernest. Since being clean and sober, my new addiction has become art supplies, and FABRIC! Lots and lots of magnificent fabric: new fabric, vintage fabric, antique fabric—all fabric welcome! I have them safely stored, and contained in see-through bins in my cellar downstairs where I keep most of my supplies. But I work upstairs in my dining room, so I’m not far from our beloved pooch, Opie, or something simmering on the stove; sometimes the T.V is on, on which Opie and I enjoy The Animal Planet; or I often listen to my first owned I-POD on which I have ridiculously blaring old classic rock, or hip hop music from the 80s!
More confessions – My poor dining room table is often lost among… well you guessed it… fabric…. thread, paint, brushes, artist pencils, wire, scissors, doll stuffing, embellishments, and antiquing stain. My sewing machine, that my mom left to me after she passed away, which I’ve lovingly named “Olde Josie,” (my mom’s name was Josephine), is in the kitchen, sitting on an old primitive dresser, loaded with more supplies in each drawer for easy access.
When I am designing a doll or character, I am in another zone. I am at complete peace, and nothing seems to matter other than allowing “who” this doll wants to become. I allow them to give me the lead on their birth. I sometimes begin with something very specific in mind; yet, after the last stitch has been sewn, it may be something entirely different. You just never know, and that’s just fine with me; it takes the pressure of being a perfectionist off the table. They become who they want to become.
Ernest: Makes perfect sense! You mentioned that you turn trash into beauty, meaning creating dolls out of useless material that would otherwise go into trash. Why so?
Kat: I do often refer to my turning “trash into treasures” the same way I feel God did with me. I was so broken, I felt so useless and un-fixable, that I feel a certain connection in seeing something like old fabric or buttons buried or forgotten in a remnant bin, or in an antique or thrift shop; even if I don’t have a certain use in mind, the orphaned treasure comes home with me for a future project.
I do often find my “treasures” on the side of the road awaiting the garbage truck, and I come to a screeching halt or U-Turn to rescue. Usually old dressers, or end tables, foot stools, or wooden chairs, (they all make me weak in the knees), I strip them, repaint, and stain them for a doll prop, or for personal use in my own home. There’s something so comforting knowing these items had a history, a family, a home at one time, and to see them tossed, deemed worthless…. well, it just provides me with a feeling of wonder and joy to put them back together again, with purpose and joy, to either keep, gift, or sell.
Ernest: So, after you have selected the materials, what are the main stages through which you create a doll?
Kat: Perfect example I can give you—one of the wives of a counselor and dear friend of mine, whom I recently reconnected with on Facebook after many years, saw a couple of photos of my dolls and she asked if I could create a frog doll for her, emulating her personality. This friend has a passionate voice and personal message against domestic violence among women, (being a survivor herself). So I asked her to send me some of her favorite colors, quotes, or hobbies. So knowing this woman personally, and having her provide the information I asked for, I’ll begin creating a whimsical frog, starting by drawing out the frog’s body on a white piece of muslin or Osnaburg material. I’ll cut it out, sew it up, stuff her with cotton batting, then sculpt a happy face with a large doll making needle and thread. Then I’ll select a soft color of green and darker green paint to cover, and then shade the body. I’ll probably make a few darker circles to try and create a life-like frog skin. I’ll sprinkle a little cinnamon, and brush her with vanilla and instant coffee, to make her appear older, as if she’s been with us for many years. I’ll put her in the oven to gently bake her dry for a half hour on a low oven, (which helps her smell so wonderful), then sand her down to help soften and age her some more.
Next comes the fun part of creating her personality by designing her face. I use either soft, diluted acrylic paint and/or artist’s pencils. I always dab a small pin prick of glitter to the iris of each eye, to give them a little extra sparkle of life. Sewing their clothes is always exciting too, because no one ever wears the same outfit, (it’s just not fashionably correct!).
So embracing my friend’s spirit of being an advocate for domestic violence survivors, I’m going to create a variety of purple prints and solids, for her dress and bloomers, which are the colors that represent domestic violence and, of course, I will include a purple ribbon to support this cause on her lapel. I’ll also make sure this frog is holding a stuffed heart, with my friend’s personal favorite quote stitched, claiming “Love Doesn’t Hurt”. I’ll finish by ink stamping my friend’s name onto a stained baggage tag attached to her sleeve, signed and dated by me on the back: “Scaredy Kat & Her Own Crow”. One of the best parts of creating, for me, is that I always light a white candle while I create, and pray for the person, or the cause, and always thank my Creator for blessing me with such an amazing opportunity to both give, and receive, so much.
Ernest: Your Facebook page shows that you also name your dolls. So do you make dolls with names already in your mind, or does it go differently?
Kat: Sometimes, if someone requests a personalized doll (like the frog), then this part is out of my hands. But most of the times, I’ll ask my blank material, “Who are you going to be?”, “who would you like to be?”—the same important questions my therapist asked me early in “my process or rebirthing”. I made my first paper clay doll, who happened to become a blue bird, soon after I lost my mom. I wanted to use some of my mom’s fabric I’d found in her stash that I’d inherited, and I knew, without much thinking, that this little doll was going to be a “Birdy-Jo,” and she sits on “our” Old Josie, and I feel such a connection to Mom. I just feel her light shining away on me.
Ernest: What happens to dolls after they come into ‘being’? Do they live with you? Or do some of them go to others as gifts for some special occasion, etc?
Kat: I usually know where they’re going as soon as I begin. If it’s a commissioned order, then I know; if it’s a gift of appreciation, or anniversary or birthday, I know. If I am making a doll to cheer someone up, such as a doll I recently created for a friend of mine, named Patty, who was courageously battling breast cancer, (for which she just completed intense rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and is cancer-free today), I made the Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon, and named her “Hope”. It was about an 8-inch doll, and Patty brought Hope with her on every trip to chemo. When the nurses and patients saw Hope, I was flushed with orders of dolls. I am completely convinced that when you give randomly and purely from your heart, you are immediately blessed back ten-fold. If I’m preparing for a New England Craft show, or I commission the dolls out to stores, I wait until their faces are created and personalities seem to evolve, and their names become more obvious to me. I rarely have to wait for a name to come forth. As I shared, they tell me.
Ernest: Kat, how does your thinking or personality, or call it ‘mood’, in general, reflect on the dolls you make?
Kat: On September 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked, I couldn’t wrap my thoughts around what people do to others, to each other, to themselves. I was so totally freaked out, I forced myself to shut the TV off, and I ran around the house lighting my candles, and dug hysterically in my supplies for something to paint. I had to do “something” to comfort me; I hadn’t begun making dolls yet, since that was in 2001, and I didn’t begin making dolls until 2005, but the intense “need” to save myself from panic and fear, and help me to feel grounded and safe again, it’s the only form of therapy I know of that provides me with identity… of familiarity and, I’m quite sure, of “control“. I painted a bunch of primitive Patriotic Flags, candles, and slates celebrating Peace for my door until I felt I could breathe again.
I was completely devastated while saying goodbye to my mom, while she was in Hospice, and again I felt like I couldn’t breathe through the grief. I came home after sitting with her for hours at a time, and when my husband would fall into bed exhausted from our experience, and my adrenaline would be at an all-time high, and sleeping wasn’t going to happen, I found peace… much peace, in creating a doll for the wonderful and compassionate nurses who took care of my mom and our family, as if we were their very own.
Ernest: How does it feel when you create a figure? How do you relate to it?
Kat: My friend, when I am creating, I am in a continual state of deep and profound gratitude that I’m doing something so amazing, so happy to be doing anything other than planning a relapse, a crime, or being medically jolted back to life from an overdose. To be able to shop for and afford supplies, and have not just any home, but a haven of safety and cozy joy that my husband and I worked so passionately to create. We have so many friends and family members loving us today. That spirit of darkness, poverty, and pain is long gone, and I am simply humbled to have been blessed with time, talent, and passion. Those are usually the first feelings I feel when I am designing or creating.
Ernest: I can imagine the bliss! Do you hold an exhibition or sell your work?
Kat: I am so blessed to be able to sell my work at local county craft fairs, or at a couple of country shops that market and celebrate the primitive lifestyle. Around the winter holidays, I have home parties where I invite friends, and friends of friends, to stop by for an open house, offering my dolls for sale. I make festive appetizers, desserts, and beverages; I have a raffle, door prizes, and I mail out flyers and personal invites. In my large network and community of 12-Steppers, I’m never lacking interested guests and friends who have become wonderful fans, collectors, and supporters.
Ernest: You also are into writing now, and you volunteer, guiding students on addiction-related issues. Do you tell people about your hobby of doll making? And do they show interest in learning about it?
Kat: This is one of my most exciting adventures, Ernest. Being a volunteer at the Methadone Clinic, I have the perfect opportunity to share my experiences about how the fear of being bored in sobriety is untrue; how having fun really begins “in” recovery!; how having a hobby, or new passion, alleviates the dangerous triggers that having money often causes among those new to sobriety; the cravings are often replaced with the excitement of having something so important in our lives, which is our authentic and creative selves, either coming back or introduced for the first time. Doll making surely isn’t going to be everyone’s interest, or gift, that happened to be mine. My husband, who is a phenomenal wood burner and Native American Jewelry maker, found his creative self when he realized there was more to life than being a “Recovering Addict”.
I really believe, because of my passion for doll making, and art therapy in general, that in order to come out on the other side of addiction a different person, a whole person, we must find something that inspires us more than the pain we’re familiar with. Sometimes, having that one person inspiring, or motivating us, with their changed lives, we want the same freedom. Those of us who were busy taking, hurting, victimizing, must begin healing by coming back and giving back.
I can share with you that, this very morning, I was in tears saying goodbye to our son, his wife, and our 19-month-old granddaughter as they went back home to New Jersey, after spending the last two days with us. After they left the driveway, I bolted up the stairs to my computer, knowing that writing/sharing this interview with you, Ernest, would help center me, because writing is yet another love of mine. So I thank you. Sharing with you has done so much for me today. I feel so much better.
Ernest: Before we leave Kat, I must ask: Is your dear dog Opie friendly toward your dolls?
Kat: I am giggling out loud right now, Ernest. Our fur baby Opie is such a character. He is a 6-year-old, VERY spoiled and very loved Jack Russell Terrier whom our son rescued, (another trash-to-treasured orphan). He found a bunch of youths, (while he was on leave as a Military Policeman in the US Air Force), using him as a bait dog when he was only 7 weeks old, and badly injured as a result of the pit bull fight he was being used in. After a shoulder surgery, a lot of love, and no use of any kind of garbage “bags” around him, he has spoiled us with an amazing amount of love and laughter. So no, he doesn’t mind or touch any of the many naked body parts of my dolls laying around the house. His biggest worry is when the next cookie or tummy rub is coming.
Ernest: That’s so amusing of Opie! So if my readers were interested in learning about your work, or requesting some for purchase, how would you like them to get in touch?
Kat: I welcome any interest of communication, questions about my doll making, help or resources for addiction, or my advocacy for NAMA, which is the National Awareness of Medication Assisted Recovery, also known as Methadone Treatment. I can be contacted via email, which is email@example.com, and everyone is welcome to visit my blog, http://scaredykaterpillarsnomore.blogspot.com, where I do share several of my dolls, my crazy family life, and of course, Opie, always getting into or out of some kind of trouble.
Ernest: Many thanks Kat! I’ll keep following on your Facebook page for the beauties you create. Thanks a lot!
Kat: Thank you too, Ernest; as I shared, this has been a great time to spend with you.
Ernest Dempsey Bio:
Ernest Dempsey is an author, freelance writer, editor, and citizen journalist based in Pakistan. Dempsey edits the print quarterly Recovering the Self (http://www.recoveringself.com) a journal of hope and healing published from Michigan, USA. He is also a regular contributor to news sites like Instablogs, Digital Journal, and News Blaze. Learn more Dempsey at his website http://www.freewebs.com/ernestdempsey/.
His new blog Save Life is at http://catchingstraw.blogspot.com/.
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