No one had to paint Barbara Hughes a picture.
Stressed as piano wire by her job, withdrawing deeper into her own shell, overcome by anomie – Hughes knew she needed help.
"I was close to a breaking point where I would quit my job and do something drastic."
It was the fall of 2008 and Hughes was working "dawn to dusk" in the control room of a local TV station putting political ads on the air, a task that was "driving me crazy."
She vented over dinner and wine to a girlfriend who had a suggestion: Hughes should try painting her own picture. Her friend told her about Kaye Callaway's "Open Studio Six" class at the Maitland Art Center.
"The minute I walked in the door, I exhaled and felt the stress draining out of me," Hughes said last week as she dabbed purple on her latest abstract work under Callaway's supportive eye.
Since then Hughes, 46, rarely has missed the weekly class, and when she does, "I really feel depressed, like there's a hole in my week."
Painting not only brought new fulfillment and goals for Hughes – she's studying for a fine arts degree at Valencia Community College – it made her a better employee. This fall she was not fazed by the blizzard of political ads she shepherded onto the air.
"I had a better attitude," she said. "My demeanor has changed. For a while there, I was angry and bitter. My mom says it's the best thing that ever happened to me."
And at $104 for 12 weeks of lessons, it's far cheaper than her previous "therapy" – going to the mall every Saturday and buying stuff. "It never made me happy," she said.
Hughes is not alone in finding art the best therapy for workplace trauma and despair. At the easel next to her last week was Antje Dardin, 44, a regular in studio six for half a dozen years. On the canvas was a brooding image in black-and-white of the Brandenburg Gate in her native Berlin.
An occasional vacationer in Florida, Dardin decided a decade ago to uproot and start a new life in the Sunshine State. The last thing she threw in her suitcase was a set of acrylic paints, a gift from her family she had never used.
They didn't come out of storage until about 2006, when the pressures of her job as a civil engineer creeped into the red zone.
"My company was in land development," she said. "It was so crazy in 2005 and 2006. I was working 50 to 60 hours a week. I would come home and have hard time letting it go."
One Saturday, in desperation, she broke open the paints and didn't stop until she had finished her first abstract work. Soon after that, she joined Callaway's class.
"I thought, 'Oh my God – why have I not started this earlier?'"
Letting her creative right brain speak with a brush is a welcome respite from the rational, structured demands of her left-brain job as a civil engineer, Dardin said, joking, "I'm surprised I don't have any numbers on my paintings."
The walls of Dardin's office are covered with her abstractions. "Looking at them during the day makes me happy."
A longtime classmate, David Plambeck, 52, who paints under the nom de plume "durkART," has never had an office in a long string of jobs at companies such as Disney, Universal and Lynx that left him angry and bitter about corporate America.
"Back in 2000, after seeing the injustice of wages and benefits down here, I signed up for art classes at the Beardall Senior Center," Plambeck said. For the past eight years he's been a weekly presence at studio six, creating colorful "happy art" to the sound of disco music.
"My art is a time for me to get away and mask the pain I'm feeling, as I paint away and hope that tomorrow will be better."
Dear Readers: This story is my last picture show. After 45 years in the newspaper business – 24 of them at the Sentinel in various guises – I'm retiring to bug my wife full time at home and to write a book about (don't laugh) Crest toothpaste. Thanks to all of you who made it to end of this story and any others over the years, and who always offered more praise, patience and loyalty than I deserved. Remember that when you see me in the 10 or fewer express line at Publix with 12 items.