Narcotics unit police officer: “Visual arts can create social change”

We speak with artist Ralph Irby about why he depicts men, women and children in times of struggle. And how his art has helped heal and connect him with the addicts he’s worked with in Norfolk, VA. Plus, he gives us some ideas of how art can help police officers get better at their jobs and how drug treatment programs are preferred to prisons. More on art, addiction & law enforcement here.

minute read
Disconnect © 2010 by Ralph Irby

ADDICTION BLOG: Ralph, it’s an absolute pleasure to be talking with you. Your work is plain incredible. How did your talent for drawing emerge? Is it something that you have to work on or has it always been there?

RALPH IRBY: At the age of 6, my house was full of turmoil. My father’s battles with alcoholism are the earliest memories for a shy withdrawn child. Drawing became my safe haven; with a pencil in my hand, I could go anywhere and be anyone. Drawing has always been a part of me, so I would say it has always been there.

ADDICTION BLOG: Your work has a powerful impact on me, especially in being able to FEEL need, shame, fear, desire or anxiety as a reaction to what I’m seeing. In terms of process, what do you do to prepare for the creation of a portrait? Do you contemplate the person in front of you? How do you reach that place of unity to reach some kind of truth about what is common in all of us as humans?

Solace © 2007 by Ralph Irby

RALPH IRBY: My empathy for mankind ignites my passion for creating art. The human figure has no equal in its scope for empathy. Not being a proponent of what is stylistically in vogue, I developed a style that is spiritually significant to the human condition. Because of my faith-based upbringing, I continue to look for the spiritual side of things common to the social realist ethos. I choose to depict the everyday struggles of people regardless of their race, gender, creed or color. My intent, to invite the viewer(s) to communicate and to have a sensory response to the often-overlooked world of the subjects or situations I render.

ADDICTION BLOG: So do you prefer charcoal and graphite to painting or mixed media? Why/Why not?

RALPH IRBY: I hold a terminal degree, I consider myself well versed with a variety of mediums. I will divulge to the world that charcoal is my favorite. It is most often considered the black sheep of drawing media by my students. If I had a penny for every time I heard, “Do we have to use this messy stuff, it’s so dirty?” I would be a millionaire. I often do workshops dressed in white to demonstrate that the individual is in control of the charcoal and not the other way around.

ADDICTION BLOG: OK, I have to admit that I’m very curious about your time in narcotics enforcement. I imagine that you’ve seen quite a lot during your time on the Norfolk Police Department. Did your world view change as a result of your work with drugs and drug addicts? How? Has this view been transferred into your work as an artist?

RALPH IRBY: My art serves as a healing component and connecting element for me: it allows me to visually communicate my pain and life’s vicarious situations. Police officers have one of the highest alcohol usage and divorce rates in the country. Our combat does not take place in the jungles of South East Asia or the deserts of the Middle East. Our battles are fought on the streets of America. I would refer to the city as a concrete jungle, dense in population and heavy on criticism.

Art saved my life, without it I do not believe I would have survived. Drawing calms my nerves in the most volatile situations. The recurring dreams of my years spent in the narcotics division are the worst and the basis for most of my work. I am unable to control my dreams of being the hunter or the hunted. The images eat at me uncontrollably. I am compelled to answer their call without haste. I will get out of bed and sketch until the hunger has been satisfied.

ADDICTION BLOG: In your experience, how can the law (state or federal) help addicts? And what changes might we make as a society to address the problems of addicts living in addiction versus the addict who wants recovery?

RALPH IRBY: I would advocate more research on the effectiveness of drug treatment programs. I would rather see the construction of a drug treatment facility rather than another prison. The problem is community opposition to the establishment of a drug treatment center. Who wants a methadone clinic in their neighborhood? Education is paramount; we are a nation of numbers. We rely too heavily on statistical data. My experience has led me to reason that some things are not quantifiable. We are all human and make mistakes. I would often inform young investigators to the division that all addicts are not dirt bags. A little compassion just might save your life.

The first things that are cut in an economic down turn, Art and programs designed to educate our children of life lessons such a Drug Awareness’ Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) and Teen Life curriculum. The disparity in sentencing guidelines for powdered and crack cocaine needs to be reviewed by our elected officials, the punishment are unjust in my opinion. Hopefully one day change will come.

ADDICTION BLOG: Do you think that law enforcement officers or military personnel can benefit from expressing themselves? How might they do that? And do you know any other former colleagues who are into art?

RALPH IRBY: Police officers are confronted and respond to the exact same social issues that many artists past and present depict in their artwork. This course of study may prove to be critical in solving or preventing crime. I am still working on it at this time.

Yes, I have shown officers that their observations skills can be heighten by drawing. The objective is to allow your eyes to be fully engaged in the moment. We often take seeing for granted and make assumptions based on pre-conceived notions. I believe a course of study designed primarily for law-enforcement officers and military (especially combat) personnel can help fine-tune their attention to visual details.  My colleagues (law enforcement) are not very artsy as they put it. I am considered the Renaissance man.

ADDICTION BLOG: You’ve said that struggle is the universal factor present among the people you have encountered in life…and that relating to this pain and imperfection is the beginning of the journey back to perfection. This seems a very raw statement that many addicts can relate to. Do you have any suggestions for addicts in early recovery who are looking to share their pain, or just get it out?

RALPH IRBY: Before a child learns to speak a language, imagery is the biggest part of their young life. We can learn a lot from children. To quote Picasso, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Art therapy and treatment for addiction can be a powerful combination. Art is healing and an effective way to reach the inner soul and exposes the demons that seek shelter in us. It leads to communication. Humility is the key.

ADDICTION BLOG: Finally, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

RALPH IRBY: It’s unfortunate that as a society we fail to see the importance of the Visual Arts as a part of the big three: Reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, as insufficient funding for education becomes more of a dilemma for administrators, classes such as art and music are the first to be put on the back burner or thrown away altogether. The idea is that these classes are not as important to an individual’s education is deplorable. A cut in government funding would further fuel the disenfranchisement of so many. The Visual Arts are not strictly for the “Elitist” to experience them. The world in which we live is full of many cultures and ethnicities; each and every one of us has our own idea as to what is art. That is the beauty of it. People who say that art has no function, obviously do not understand the broadness of its definition. There is an improvement and growth in all areas from attitude development, social skills, thinking skills, self-expression and cognitive skills. Art not only allows us to appreciate other cultures, we can express common aspirations through the universal language of art from the past to present generations as a means of effecting social change. Thank you so much for allow me to share with you.

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.
I am ready to call
i Who Answers?