What We Do

ACEky artists structure a non-competitive, attentive atmosphere where each participant can develop clear standards for their own care-filled work. In the process of gaining knowledge and skills, we see participants become more self-reflective, and free to explore and discover.

Thinking Through Story

The stories we choose and make to share encourage the analogical thinking necessary for creating healthy relationships and for seeing oneself with compassion. We also see the inspiration participants experience through these stories turn into more hope-filled aspiration. 

The story of the Monarch butterfly provides a living analogy for the process of self-transformation.  For people locked in a cell or in an addiction, the story of growing wings takes on visceral meaning. We have seen the Phoenix legend of rebirth grip the imagination of those who can feel utterly lost to life.  The story of the mud-rooted lotus flower who rises to sunlight to bloom, is waterproof, returns to the water every night and lifts above it every morning invites a complex self-reflection that can only be described as meditative.

‘Spoil’ is all rocky stuff that is mined from the ground with coal, and is left behind when the coal is carried away. Before we learned to pack it down to hold it in place, spoil slid down Appalachian mountainsides, polluted water, destroyed forests and homes.

Spoil has even killed people. We had to look at spoil with the intent of seeing beyond the problems it created before we could learn that the long-unused minerals it holds make spoil a miraculous growing medium for trees. 

In fact, seedlings planted in ripped-up spoil grow faster than they grow in the woods. Nothing-but-a-problem strip-mine spoil has also always been the stuff of miracles.  

Spoil is rich in symbolic meaning for many ACEky participants. People suffering from addiction and undergoing all the physical, emotional, mental and relational repressions of incarceration feel kinship with something that’s been seen as nothing but a problem but is really so much more.  

During an art-making session in 2016, Brenda Richardson told the story of spoil to a group of women in an Eastern Kentucky jail for the first time. Those 24 usually-talkative-women sat with lowered heads throughout the telling. This story was touching them all.  In the hush that followed, a very young woman–in jail for the first time–cried as she saw herself before and beyond all that had brought her there, including addiction.  Those who could hear her nodded when she said, barely above a whisper, “I wish I could go back.” The response of that first group of women to the story of spoil continues to inspire ACEky artists to spread the story of spoil to those we see in jails and recovery centers. 

In the spring of 2021, a group of men in the Kentucky River Regional Jail Recovery Cell, where Brenda was volunteering, initiated a special project after hearing the story of spoil.   Many of them were parents who were grieving because they were separated from their children. One man was especially concerned about his son who was struggling to shoulder an unfamiliar load of responsibilities without his father.  All the men were concerned about the enormous threat they knew drugs and alcohol are to the young people in their communities.  

The men had been working with clay from mine-site spoil.  Some of the men were hunters, some were loggers, all were familiar with the woods.  Through the dialogue we shared that day, that group of fathers and brothers, uncles and grandpas came up with the idea of making something that could teach children about the specialness of spoil, of spoil-clay, of the Appalachian Forest and of themselves. They would make a mobile of leaves made of cast-off spoil clay driftwood, and donate it to a system to be circulated among classrooms.  Marcus Lindon, teacher in the KRRJ men’s Recovery Cell, asked KRRJ Administrator Lonnie Brewer to come into the cell with us.  Mr. Brewer didn’t even have to go away and think it over.  He immediately said he thought it was a splendid idea. 

The on-going Spoil-Clay Mobiles Project was born!

To carry out this project, participants use hand-drawn patterns to cut leaf shapes from hand-cleaned, hand-pressed spoil-clay.  Their only tool is most often a sharpened pencil they use to cut out the shape and inscribe the name of the tree on its back. The leaves are bisque-fired, then glazed before firing again, Collapsible stands made from PVC pipe enable participants to hang the leaves from pieces of Kentucky River driftwood. Mobiles are donated complete with a stand, and with a key coordinating each tree represented with its classification.  The children can then research to learn more about the tree, and about its history in the shaping of our culture and our nation.

Spoil Clay Mobile

ACEky artist Jonathan Clark says the spoil clay mobiles he helps participants make and assemble are educational in many ways.  Pieces are hand built from the clay’s craggy beginning. It is soaked in water, sieved more than once, broken down and molded over and over like the pilgrimage of the human spirit. A spoil-clay mobile can teach children about the Appalachian Forest and its history, and it can do more.  The journey of spoil-clay can teach us all something about what it means to look in order to see, and about how important it is to be seen beyond any bad choices we make and any circumstances we find ourselves in.

Last fall, a group of Athens-Chilesburg fifth graders participated in a project led by their resource teacher, Ms Marissa Wallace.  The group collected personal items and toys for incarcerated parents to give as Christmas presents to their children.  On November 19, they donated the items to  women in the Recovery Cell for Women at Perry County’s  Kentucky River Regional Jail.  
In appreciation of the students’ perceptive work, a team of Primary Care leaders presented their school with a mobile made of spoil-clay leaves and Kentucky River driftwood.  The leaf shapes are labeled with names of various hardwood trees native to the Appalachian Forest.  The mobile is designed to enable students to learn more about the Appalachian region of their state, and its valuable role in the development and economy of our country.

Even though the spoil-clay project has been interrupted many times by COVID-19, participants tell us it continues to inspire them to live from and share their highest wisdom—and to committing to a lifetime of recovery.

What this means to people who are intimately aware of their separation from community is beautiful. 


What their gifts can mean to the young is infinite in possibility for helping beautiful life stories come to be.  The re-creation of family and community relationships this project may bring about is the kind of difference that can enable participants and their communities to make and sustain change.


Spoil-Clay Leaf Mobile Project

If your classroom or school system would like to participant,
please contact us.

Moving Forward

2021 marked the year ACEky added people to our roster who are in lifetime recovery, and who have learned or relearned the value of art-making in their lives through participating in our sessions.


Their presence among us as working artists also marks the fulfillment of an early aspiration we see as being a logical end for our wholistic approach–to help those we serve attain right livelihood. 


Help Support Our Work

If you are interested in volunteering for ACEky