When Words Fail Us, Art Finds a Way: The Story of a Recovery Art Show

I recently had an idea to curate a recovery themed art show. In my mind I saw artists of many talents expressing their journey of recovery through all the many different mediums that art allows. It was my hope that this art show would spur dialogue between people in order to make recovery from addiction a possibility for someone who never believed it to be obtainable. I found a quote by Pablo Picasso which seemed fitting for a show with this subject in mind. “Every act of creation begins with an act of destruction”. It was relatable to creating a piece of art as well as building a functional life out of the chaos of addiction.

I shared my idea with two friends and they saw the vision of what I was trying to achieve.  We met in the gallery space of Magus Books and Herbs, the local occult bookstore in Minneapolis where the show would be held, and came up with a plan to make it happen.  First we chose a date.  Once that was in place we laid out a plan which included the call for artists, deadlines for submissions and requirements for art and artist statements.  There was so much to consider. I had never been a part of curating an art show, but my friends had done it before.  Letting them take the reins on this was easy.  We all had the same vision in mind and they knew how to reach the goal of making it happen.

That allowed me to focus on my goal of creating a piece for the show that depicted my recovery and how my life changed because of it. I played around with different mediums, since I dabble in quite a few, and finally settled on a tape sculpture. It is a fun medium to work with, but I didn’t see the metaphorical references to my recovery until the piece began to take shape.

I decided that I wanted to show the weight of my addictions and how I was able to rise out of the darkness into the light.  The form I saw in my head consisted of two human figures.  The figure on the bottom would be on its hands and knees with head hanging low.  The second figure would be rising upwards from the heart area of the bottom figure with its arms outwards and head upwards.  I wanted this piece to represent both the heavy and dark energy that one feel caught up in when lost in addiction, as well as the freedom of release when one is able to find a way overcome it. 

I spent a weekend with my son and his sweetie in Chicago, and she volunteered to be my model for the sculpture. We spent hours together in my son’s apartment, her, wearing barely nothing and me intently covering her torso and limbs with layers of packing tape while my son yelled at the video game he was playing. Luckily he’s used to me doing weird art projects like this. She, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine her mom doing a project like this. My son would occasionally put the remote control down and scratch her itchy nose or find the end of the tape roll for me. A family that creates together sticks together. Once the pieces were all formed and she was freed from them, I carefully packed them up and headed home. Once home, the building started.

I have a roommate. He’s a really nice guy, and he understands the quirks of living with a woman like me. My art collection leans to the erotic or the Satanic. I often have meetings of the Left Hand Path and Witch community in the living room. You just never really know who or what you are going to see at my house. He posted the following photograph on his Instagram one evening when he came home to find this on the table on the front porch.

The large inflatable penis in the background only added to the confusion he must have felt, but the photo shows the structure I had to build as part of the process of creating the base figure.  A seven foot structure made out of something as thin as tape needs a structure to support it, and I made this one out of ¾ inch PVC tubing, using different connectors to piece together the angles needed to fit the form. 

I wanted the figure at the bottom of the structure to portray the murky, heavy energy of addiction, so I chose to stuff this figure with black tissue paper. I didn’t realize how hard I would be hit by the act of stuffing this dark paper into a human figure. As I watched the limbs and torso fill with the black wads of paper, I was reminded of all the times I swallowed what I was really feeling. Pushing the paper through the hole I left in the heart of this figure where the top piece would attach, I was overwhelmed with knowing all the times I denied myself something as simple as love. By the time I finished stuffing the head of this figure full of blackness I had tears pouring down my face, because I was remembering every negative thought I directed at myself; every idea I had that I wasn’t worthy, wasn’t good enough to be loved even by myself. I stuffed fear into my stomach. I crammed loathing into my belly. My knees were full of things I thought I could never forgive myself for and my feet full of things I could never walk away from as long as I stayed trapped under the weight of this illness.

I’ve heard the phrase “art heals” at least 100 times. As I stood back and looked at her I felt a wave of healing come over me. Maybe healing isn’t quite the right word. Maybe it was forgiveness? Even that doesn’t seem quite right. I’m having a hard time finding the exact words to fit the description of what I was feeling; maybe because it’s a feeling too complex to be summed up in words. This figure, in the shape of a woman became me.

More metaphors became clear as I worked on the top figure. She was the representation of the Phoenix; the rising out of the darkness. Her energy was lighter, as the tape is translucent, and she glowed with the sunlight coming through the windows of the front porch. I left her empty, but she was full of possibilities.

Each layer of tape I placed on her represented another piece of me holding myself together as I rebuilt my life. One arm curved upwards, and the other arched towards the earth like the Baphomet, in an expression of “as above, so below”. It became evident to me that this symbolized Solve et Coagula; to dissolve and to make whole again. Each part of this sculpture had to be separated from the model and reassembled in a different location, symbolizing how I wasn’t the same person at this point in my recovery journey as I was when I began it. Her head was tilted to one side, yet she was gazing upwards. In this gesture she seemed to acknowledge her past as she was looking towards her future. She was balanced on the toes of one foot while the other leg gracefully kicked back behind her. This added to the feeling of weightlessness. She was spinning out of the heavy darkness of her past and rising upwards to the light.

The show was amazing. There were five artists represented, including myself. Each one of us created a piece that depicted our healing journey. It wasn’t until I saw all of us together in one room that I realized the bravery it took to be a part of this show. Not only were each of us stepping into a public forum with our art work, we were also making our addiction public. We were admitting to anyone who walked into that gallery that we had come from a very dark past. However, admitting that also gave the people who came to see the show permission to admit that the place they were coming from had shadows of its own.

I was so inspired by the stories they told and I was humbled to realize that I was someone lucky enough to hear them. It also felt good to know that I was part of a creative catalyst that gave people the opportunity to come together and acknowledge their journeys. We shared our clean time anniversaries. We talked about that moment we knew we needed help. We remembered the people who helped us on this path of recovery and the people whose journey ended too soon. One person told me that this was the best way they could think of to spend their first day sober.

This was a transformational experience. It was an experience I could not have done without the help of my friends Ryan Soberg and Markus Ironwood. I could not have done this without the help of Magus Books and Herbs in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I could not have accomplished this without each of the artists who took the risk to step out of the shadows and gave of themselves to create the work that made healing happen. This would have been impossible without the people who decided to go out on a cold and wet autumn day to appreciate the work of others.

Most of all, it couldn’t have happened if I was still living a life of addiction.