How To Express Healing: Art Exhibitions After Addiction Treatment

How to express healing art exhibitions after addiction treatment

Artists are notorious for abusing drugs and alcohol. Take for example, The Guardian’s list of authors and their drug of choice, published in 2008; Samuel Taylor Coleridge abused opium, Robert Louis Stevenson used cocaine. Though left out from this list, visual artists are also counted among abusers; Willem de Kooning, a Dutch-American painter celebrated for his abstract renderings of the human figure, was an alcoholic.

Artists are notorious for abusing drugs and alcohol. Take for example, The Guardian‘s list of authors and their drug of choice, published in 2008; Samuel Taylor Coleridge abused opium, Robert Louis Stevenson used cocaine. Though left out from this list, visual artists are also counted among abusers; Willem de Kooning, a Dutch-American painter celebrated for his abstract renderings of the human figure, was an alcoholic. Only with his wife’s pleading, and at the age of 74, did he seek addiction treatment. Although he continued to struggle with alcoholism for the rest of his life, he began to produce sober work after first seeking help in his mid-seventies. And as a result, admirers of his paintings began to examine his work more closely: how do his pre-recovery paintings compare to the paintings he made in recovery? What does sober art look like?

This is a question that a recent art exhibit in Islington, U.K. tried to answer. Expressions of Recovery, which opened in March 2012 at Our Space Gallery in Islington, is a collection of artwork made by recovering addicts from Cranstoun, a local charity that supports drug and alcohol recovery. A compilation of poetry, sculpture, and photography, Expressions of Recovery is, above all else, sober art.

The Johns Hopkins University, an American university in Maryland, published “Guidelines for Organising Art Exhibitions on Addiction and Recovery” in 2009. The document covers the specifics of organising a showcase of addiction and drug recovery artwork, including how to choose a theme, and screening submissions. The introduction that precedes the guidelines is the most powerful though; it says that an art exhibition centred on addiction is an opportunity for artists to communicate two things to the public: the personal harm that addiction can cause, and the new beginning offered by a sober life.

When read side-by-side, Willem de Kooning’s pre-recovery and post-recovery paintings are markedly different. “Woman 1,” a painting done while still abusing alcohol, is colourful, effusive, and is made up of multiple crisscrossing shapes that suggest a female form. In a period of post-recovery he created “The Cat’s Meow”; his sober work is light, two-toned, and viewers are hard-pressed to find a clear human shape. Although I am not an art critic, it is plain that the latter is less burdensome, less cluttered.

Art, though often used as a therapeutic tool and a means of self-discovery, can also be used as a tool of awareness. Images speak louder than numbers and percentages, and art exhibitions by those in drug recovery may better communicate the pain, the loss, and finally the healing that can be found in addiction treatment.

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