ColorATL, a local coloring book, sparks joy for those who need it most

For every book sold, ColorATL donates another to a local cancer center, homeless shelter, hospice home, or transitional facility
A couple colors together at a public creative-gathering at Atlanta City Studios last December

Photograph by Connor Dwyer

The concept of an adult coloring book might seem trivial to some—a trendy, mindless activity to pass the time. But for those dealing with long-term illness, suffering from addiction, or experiencing emotional turmoil, coloring books can be a powerful healing method. Not convinced? Just ask artist William Massey, illustrator Amber Guinn, and designer Connor Dwyer—they’ve seen it for themselves.

After collaborating with a handful of local artists whose work they admired, the trio released the first volume of the ColorATL coloring book last fall. It features works—everything from abstract geometric patterns to lifelike people and scenery—from more than 40 creatives who live in Atlanta or have local ties, including Sam Parker, Mac Stewart, Estela Semeco, and Lela Brunet. They released the books in a TOMS Shoes-style one-for-one model: with every book sold, they’d donate another to a local cancer center, homeless shelter, hospice home, or transitional facility. “I started it thinking it was just going to be a little side project,” explains Massey, “a cool little book I could pass out sometimes when I’m volunteering or working with one of these art programs. It has definitely exceeded my expectations.”

Through online sales, markets, events, and some retail, volume 1 sold about 2,000 copies, which means a couple thousand books also went to nearly two-dozen local health and social organizations. A launch-slash-exhibition event showcased the artists’ original works from the book; about 75 percent of the pieces were sold, with the artists receiving 100 percent of the commission.

This fall, Massey and his team will launch volume two of ColorATL. This time around, they plan to print around 4-5,000 copies, the same volume as the first book, with a pre-sale fundraiser that’ll help with costs. But unlike the first edition, volume two will be a mix of Atlanta artists they’ve curated as well as a local call-out for emerging artists to submit their work for inclusion.

“I’m proud to be involved in projects like this one that bring the Atlanta creative community together with other groups around the city,” says Molly Rose Freeman, a local painter and muralist who contributed to the first volume. “Projects like this show that artists don’t exist in a container outside the real world. We can be integral in community development, social justice, and cultural healing.” She adds that, especially now, it feels important for to use her creative power in a way that can uplift others. (“We ask for a very loose and general theme of ‘hope’ within each artwork,” Massey says.)

And art-based projects like these do seem to help heal. A recent Instagram story from ColorATL showed a woman who had received chemotherapy at a cancer center remarking about how the coloring book made her treatment seem to go by much faster than normal. “Some of the most profound interactions have been at the cancer center because in the chemotherapy infusion room, patients have to sit while they’re being literally injected with some of the most toxic stuff you could ever put in your body,” says Massey. “They just have to sit there and feel it and not move for like eight hours.” He’s sat with patients while coloring and watched their heart rate drop and their tension melt away.

Lisa Thornton receives a copy of ColorATL during a month-long stay at Piedmont Hospital

Photograph by Bill Massey

Escapism can also help with healing. Massey says he once brought ColorATL to the Gateway Center, an all-male transitional facility in the metro area, on a day when the fire alarm had been going off all morning. Understandably, participants were not exactly in good spirits. But Massey and his crew turned on some jazz, handed out coloring books, and watched the mood of the room change.

“People were giggling; they started telling stories, and you could just feel the tenseness drift away,” Massey explains. “They were acting like family. It creates this real vulnerable, yet really comfortable space for people to interact and to just get away from the everyday stress of what’s next. Coloring turns people into kids again.”

But it’s not just those dealing with hardship who can benefit from a project like this. “I think if we don’t take time to partake in the goodness of creativity and creation on a regular basis, we’re just setting ourselves up for more hardship,” Massey says. “We can wait until something really dramatic and bad happens to focus on self-care, or we can make it a part of everyday lives.”

As far as the future of ColorATL, Massey and his crew want to keep creating volumes, expand to more cities, and continue the quarterly events they host at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center for adults and kids alike (the next one takes place June 29). “In a nutshell, we come together to color, collaborate, and meet new friends,” he explains. “We hear from a spotlighted ColorATL artist about their story, passion and process, and [those of age] can enjoy a custom cocktail.” The featured artist this time around will be Geinene Carson.

A public collaboration during the ColorATL Volume One launch at Ponce City Market

Photograph by Heather Troutman (WildGrainPhotography)

Massey’s ultimate goal is admittedly audacious, but one that’s worthwhile. “We want to get art into every facility or organization that art is not already part of, and make sure people at least have the option to release the jumble of whatever is stuck inside of them,” he says decidedly. “ColorATL definitely strives to be more of a community and connector rather than just a book. The book is a tool to grow good things.”