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Winter 2011

The Human Side of Addiction

Science meets the visual arts in a book that captures wrenching sagas of addiction--and recovery.

By: Christine Grillo
Date: February 18, 2011

Jill Nonnemacher
“Empowered,” by Jill Nonnemacher

In the epigraph of Addiction and Art is an excerpt from a letter penned by Henry James to H.G. Wells: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance … and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”

Ten years ago, Jack Henningfield, a scientist who studies the biology of addiction, gave a talk at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, where he viewed the artwork of recovering addicts. A seed was planted. Struck by the “human side” of addiction, he saw, literally, the relevance of his work. “The art hit me,” he says. “This is what our science is all about.”

In Addiction and Art, Henningfield, an adjunct professor at the School of Medicine, and co-authors Patricia Santora and Margaret Dowell present what they call the intersection of science and visual arts. Through 61 images that employ a wide range of styles and methods, the book conveys eerie and wrenching sagas of addiction—and strong messages about the profound work of recovery. Accompanying each image is a brief explanation or essay that sheds light on the work and the artist’s relationship to addiction.

Some of the featured artists are recovering from addictions: heroin, alcohol, Vicodin, gambling, bulimia. Some of the artists have lived through the addictions of a father, a daughter, a brother, a sister. Others have been touched by it in their roles as mental health professionals, counselors, funeral directors, police officers. Some are bereaved; all are struggling to make sense of the disease’s impact.

In “After Richter,” artist Christina Anderson uses mordançage, a process in which she subjects a photograph to a chemical acid bath, to work through the grief of watching her daughter’s fall from recovery. In “Ask Again Tomorrow…,” Lindsey Mears uses mixed media to represent honestly the push and pull of addiction, the allure and shame, the “perceived love, communion, and grace” that alternates with waste and weight. “Prodigal Son,” a sculpture by Karen Swenholt, is partnered with a poem about trying to “come back” to a parent: “If a father could be perfect/ If a father could love long/ If a father could forgive/ Though I had taken a bath in wrong.”

No one lives above drug addiction, say Henningfield and Santora. Virtually every American knows someone who drinks too much, smokes, or abuses prescription or illegal drugs—a family member, a colleague, a friend, or himself. Addiction is chronic and pervasive, and its transcendence requires vigilant treatment.

“One of our goals was to see if addiction art could change the way people understand addiction,” says Santora, a senior public health advisor at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “We want people to see it not as a moral failing or an unlawful act, but to appreciate it as a chronic medical illness requiring treatment.”

The authors adopt the strategy championed by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who urged the medical community to fight the addiction instead of those who have it.

“We need to treat the disease,” says Henningfield. “Not that long ago, we looked at epilepsy as punishment for sins, and people were labeled ‘epileptics.’ But more and more, instead of saying ‘epileptic,’ or ‘diabetic,’ or ‘addict,’ we’re not labeling, but talking about people who have epilepsy, diabetes, or addiction.”

To select the pieces for the book, the authors worked with an advisory group composed of curators, professors, gallery owners, and addiction scientists to review more than 1,300 submissions. The guidelines called for artistic merit and compelling stories of addiction and recovery. Some of the images are brutally honest, reflecting the pain of recovery and the thrill of substance abuse; there were moments of concern that the art might spark an interest in thrill-seekers or trigger a relapse among those in recovery. “But we have to understand all aspects of addiction,” says Henningfield. “There’s nothing simple about finding a new life without drugs.”

So far, Addiction and Art has been met with tremendous support and enthusiasm from both scientific and artistic communities. Says Santora, “Addiction is not just the person who’s addicted. We’re all connected.”