Art shows and addiction

With art as a method of addressing addiction, everyone can understand the message of recovery. Young, old, rich, poor. Learn some key lessons in setting up addiction art exhibitions and how art shows can help advance the cause of addiction educators.

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ADDICTION BLOG: Amanda, you’ve been involved in the planning and execution of three art exhibitions with the theme of drug addiction and recovery (a fourth show is planned for 2012 in Miami, FL). Of the possible types of addictions that we humans experience, why did you choose drug addiction?

AMANDA ALDERS: Technically, the show’s theme was open to all types of addiction. The 2010 and 2011 submission form explained that: “The term “addiction” includes but is not limited to addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, as well as to food.”

All forms of addiction are important and potentially destructive. In fact, the artwork that I personally created for the 2010/ 2011 shows featured drug addiction. When I think of the ripple effect that addiction causes, I think of drug addiction. I see drug addiction as something that distorts perception and sometimes becomes apparent to those around the individual before the individual gains insight that the “use” is “abuse.” Also drug addiction often includes illegal substances and this has been a predominant political and social issue for the past several decades. I am interested in school activism concerning education and drug addiction prevention.

ADDICTION BLOG: How difficult is it to coordinate and host an art exhibition? What challenges have you faced? And what tips do you have for people who would like to replicate your community based model? Also, do you think that similar Art & Addiction shows can generate enough interest to become annual events? What would a community require for an annual show?

AMANDA ALDERS: Coordinating and hosting an art exhibition with an addiction theme is not difficult. However, it takes time and consistent effort and planning. Additionally, collaboration with community members, gallery curators, cultural arts programs and various social programs is very useful for making a show a success. I would be happy to provide any sort of support or mentorship for anyone interested in coordinating a show. Also, the model that I used was not my own. The Innovator’s Combating Substance Abuse Program created a guidebook for organizing addiction art exhibitions.

Annual exhibits would probably most successful in larger cities. Shows hosted in smaller communities may want to consider opening the exhibition up for submission from States throughout the U.S. rather than just including local submissions.

ADDICTION BLOG: I noticed that a few artists who submitted pieces for the 2010 exhibitions were in drug rehabilitation programs at the time of their submission. How open are treatment centers to using art therapy as a complementary treatment modality today? And what are some suggestions that you have for treatment centers who are interested in using art to treat patients with substance abuse problems?

AMANDA ALDERS: The submission form was sent out to rehabilitation programs, judges, probation officers and this created a wave of submissions that portrayed the “front-line” of the “war on drugs.” * The art work that came in showed that counselors and law enforcement representatives empathized and relied on community-generated support, like the Art & Addiction show. One of the artists confided that their rehabilitation program made exceptions to rules in order to allow them to participate in the show. The Art & Addiction show was seen as an integral part of the recovery process. The openness to using art for rehabilitation was apparent.

Art Therapists have a history of incorporating art-making into drug rehabilitation. The community of Art Therapists in Tallahassee rallied around the Art & Addiction exhibition; students, professors, and therapists came, volunteered, and provided valuable feedback and insight.

ADDICTION BLOG: I noticed in the shows that you coordinated that the gallery provided sticky notes for viewers to comment on pieces as they moved through the show. What kinds of feedback did you get? Did you eventually organize the feedback into a book? And how might future exhibitions optimize on this idea?

AMANDA ALDERS: Yes. The sticky notes allowed for immediate feedback and this idea was a wonderful success. The feedback varied. Some attendees wrote personal experiences that they felt related to the image. Others gave raw and emotion gratifying support such as “F*&k yeah. That’s exactly right!”

I organized the feedback and put it into an excel spread sheet. I tried to figure out what was the most common type of support. Seemingly, the common type was the raw feedback. The exhibition cultivated a feeling of being understood and as being part of a culture that “overcame.”

I would like for future exhibitions to incorporate this idea. I believe that the sticky note responses were one of the reasons that attendees stayed so long. Artists wanted to see what someone would say next, while those who wrote a comment wanted to compare their comment with other comments written. There was a feeling of anticipation that the sticky-note activity created.

A book has not been created. This may be a future possibility.

ADDICTION BLOG: In local communities (in general), who tends to be most interested in supporting addiction recovery? And who is most interested in using art to help communicate and combat substance abuse?

AMANDA ALDERS: I notice an universal interest and support in addiction recovery. Addiction is an unfortunate reality that affects every family on some level. My involvement with the Art & Addiction effort has convinced me that there is not a single person out there who has not, in some way, been affected by addiction. Friends suffer addiction; Moms and Dads suffer addiction; Children suffer addiction; Professionals, immigrants, the homeless, the battered, the wealthy- addiction is everywhere.

Using art as a means of communication is an idea that is in every culture and has been present since pre-historic times (think: cave drawings). By incorporating art into conversations and programs to address substance abuse and recovery, those conversations and programs become culturally-inclusive.

Visual images in art go beyond culture-based words used in language, or education-related “lessons” used in schools. Literacy is no longer an issue. With art as a method of addressing addiction, everyone can understand the message of recovery.

Every generation of youth invents a new way of using language; slang is age-sensitive. Adults who don’t speak the language of the young are ignored by the young. Art lacks linguistic syntax and overrides this problem. The young “listen” to images.

ADDICTION BLOG: You’ve also been working to develop a curriculum guidebook for Art & Addiction to encourage K-12 art educators to incorporate difficult issues such as addiction into their curriculum. How has this been received? What are your goals for the art and addiction curriculum guidebook? And are there similar curriculum efforts elsewhere in the U.S.?

AMANDA ALDERS: To my knowledge, there are no other Art & Addiction curriculum efforts elsewhere in the U.S. School Art Therapists in the Miami-Dade area have commented enthusiastically on the content and usefulness of the guidebook. A Miami-based 2012 Museum exhibition is planned and will rely on artwork generated by the curriculum guidebook. The curriculum is currently being evaluated for use in schools for the 2011 exhibit and I am eager to hear how it is received by Art Educators.

The goals for the guidebook are multifaceted. Programs currently in place within the school system (e.g. DARE, Red Ribbon Week) have been criticized as being inefficient and as not addressing the underlying emotional and familial realities of addiction. The guidebook may provide a stepping stone towards addressing these issues and towards better preparing school-age children to overcome the addiction that they encounter within their families, among their friends, and possibly as beginning within themselves. Beyond that, I would like to see the guidebook expanded and generalized for nationwide distribution. Currently, it is in a pilot phase of use and outcome evaluations are planned.

ADDICTION BLOG: One of the goals of the Art & Addiction exhibition is to change the way that Americans view addiction. Do you think that Art & Addiction shows held in your Florida community accomplished this? How and in what ways?

AMANDA ALDERS: Controlling addiction is a feat to be admired within any community. The 2010 show took the shame out of an experience associated with addiction. There was a community cohesiveness. People came to the exhibit and stayed for hours. The conversations were meaningful and attendees took the time to comment on artists’ work. There was an intimacy. Addiction can be isolating and may incite stigma. This show facilitated the opposite. There was social unity and understanding.

As Art & Addiction shows continue to spread throughout the U.S., the way Americans view addiction will continue to change. The art on display in these shows encapsulates the personal and emotional experience of addiction. The power of those depictions contrasts the common and normalized objective description of addiction by 3rd party experts. Addiction is seen, felt, smelled, and deeply known; black-and-white text doesn’t convey the struggle and the pain associated with overcoming addiction.

ADDICTION BLOG: In your opinion, how can we, as a society, make art more accessible to people? Especially people who may have no exposure to fine arts in schools? Or who may not live near a museum? Or who may not be interested in art as “art”?

AMANDA ALDERS: This website is an important step in making art on social themes more accessible to people.

ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?


* The war on drugs is really a misnomer. Judges, probation officers, and rehabilitation counselors do not view individuals with addiction as “the enemy.”

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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