Book Review: Addiction & Art

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Art Serves Science:
Understanding Addiction
Through the Eyes of Artists Touched by It

In an age where attention spans have shrunk to mere seconds, addiction professionals face competition for air time just like everyone else with a message.  How can they ever hope to effectively communicate the devastating toll alcoholism and drug addiction takes on individuals and the people who know and love them, a subject that usually elicits denial?

One organization, Innovators Combating Substance Abuse (affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) decided to use the visceral power of images to convey what words often fail to do.  For five years they sponsored juried competitions that invited artists to share their creative responses to addiction and held exhibitions of the selected pieces.

Winners of the latest competition participated first in 2008 by having their art displayed at the offices of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Service Administration) in Rockville, Maryland, and then in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it was viewed by  professionals attending the annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

Later, with grant support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Patricia B. Santora (then at The John Hopkins School of Medicine) and her co-editors gathered together a selection of artwork along with artists’ statements, combined them with introductory text and an appendix describing how these competitions can be replicated on a local level, and produced a unique book, Addiction and Art.

Hoping to “appeal to a diverse audience: the general public, individuals in recovery, health professionals working within and outside of addiction medicine, young people, community leaders, and policymakers” (p. xiii), the editors were forced to confront the problem of whether or not to include art that could offend or even trigger some viewers.  In the end, they opted for the undiluted truth of the tragedy of addiction, hoping that it would provide insights for those struggling with their recoveries.

Browsing through the pages, one discovers that food and tobacco have not been left out.  In Prison, a digital photograph by Brain Kelly, four filtered cigarettes stand in for jail cell bars with the prisoner’s two hands grasping the middle two.  Kelly explains: “The fear and agony that drive an addiction are prisons that only bring pain and desperation.” (p. 34)

Joseph Barbaccia’s sculpture, Obesity, made with a food grater lying on its side, oozing flesh-like clay from the holes on top and covered at the bottom with a hairy, pot belly “…attempts to communicate the imbalance and destructiveness of a typical eating disorder.”  The artist goes on to describe his intention to create “…an image that unsettles the mind and offers a different perspective.” (p. 56)

Especially poignant, several of the images depict loved ones lost to addiction.  Callyn Beals submitted a self-portrait of her brother, the photograph Matthew, who died at age 25 from methamphetamine and AIDS. (p. 61)  And Julia Carpenter contributed two of a series of ten portraits of her sister, Goodbye, Amy Johnson (1980-2005) and Autopsy, Amy Johnson (1980-2005) that she had painted to “document the persistence of my grief over her premature death.” (p. 63, 65)

Anyone interested in experiencing visually the impact of addiction won’t find a better compilation than this book.  Those who work with addicts would be well served to add this to their library and to order enough copies to share with as many people as possible.  Addiction and Art, with its critically important subject, belongs on everyone’s bookshelves and deserves to become a bestseller.

Addiction and Art
Patricia B. Santora, Margaret L. Dowell and Jack E. Henningfield, editors.
Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

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