Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: addiction and art

A Love Of My Life: John Copley.

My first night here I took the Metro from Foggy Bottom to Gallery Place, where you come up just across the street from the National Portrait Gallery. I hadn’t seen this guy in ages but I wanted to meet him again. It was 6:15 when I emerged from under the sidewalk, and I ran across the street only to be confounded by a small but lovely little arts festival, strung with lacy white lights and smelling temptingly of funnel cakes, which was blocking one of the main entrances. So I had to walk around to the other side.

It was a long way around and I was late.

I ran up the steps and through the open brass gates into the gleaming white marble museum. I mentioned his name to the front desk receptionist and asked her if she knew where he was. She had no idea.

This I found hard to believe. He is well known. His face (which I flashed for her on my phone—I had several shots) ought to be recognized by anyone who knows about American portrait art. He’s here a lot, I said. All the time, I think.

If he were still here, she said, I might be able to find him hanging somewhere around the early American wing. But she doubted he would still be there.

I was sure I’d find him.

I walked back into the long bright hallway, hung with flat-looking folk-arty portraits of pioneers both political and geographic—Lucretia Mott, Quaker feminist. Daniel Boone, mountain hardcase. Walked past several galleries and there he was, right in the middle under the hottest light, just as I knew he’d be. But with another woman.

My man.

John Singleton Copley at the National Portrait Gallery.

I first saw John Singleton Copley’s self-portrait in 1976. The “Bicentennial” year. We had come to visit my grandmother in Baltimore. My grandfather, a mean drunk who terrorized my mother during her childhood, had died in February of cancer in his liver, and my mother had helped nurse him. She was in bad shape for a while after he died.

When we visited Baltimore—twice a year, Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day—we never left the half-acre plot of suburban-Baltimore land my grandfather had bought after the war. The one exception was to go to church, which was just up the street; but we drove anyway. We never walked anywhere. We were suburban.

But in 1976 my dad, who had grown up in a city, decided we’d go to Washington, D.C. for the July festivities.

I remember my mother bitching in advance that the heat would kill us all. “Washington’s just built on a swamp, anyway,” she’d say. (I sit in “Foggy Bottom” at this moment.) We went anyway. In the end, my mother would always allow my dad to make the decisions, then she’d bitch about them behind his back. Classic alcoholic-family behavior.

In fact the heat was terrible—awesome, in a literal sense. Annihilating. Every time we’d walk out of a museum (the museums were free! We could go to as many as we wanted!!) the heat and humidity would hit us like a hot wet towel in our faces. We’d struggle to breathe and listen to my mother complain about the heat till we reached the doors of the next museum, where my mother would stop for a while and we could finally inhale air and relax. (I’m surprised now that my dad made it so long without a beer. I’m sure he grabbed a six of National Bohemian on the drive back to Grandma’s. He never drank in the car, but he could down a beer pretty quick before getting in.)

The National Portrait Gallery was one of my two favorite museums. (The other was the American History museum.) So many faces of so many people painted and drawn in so many ways. I’d already been drawing faces for some time.

And at 11 years old, I stood in front of John Singleton Copley’s self-portrait for a long, long time.

As far as I can remember, I hadn’t seen the picture since 1976. I wanted to know what I’d liked about it.

A handsome face. Straight nose; full lips; blue eyes with shadows cast over them. Blonde, as far as we can tell—a fair face with light eyebrows. A bit of a five-o’clock shadow. He’s between 45 and 50 in the painting.

I can see now, having painted faces, that what I responded to was the spontaneity in the painting. It’s unfinished. It’s a sketch, almost a vignette. The brushwork is very fresh and alive. The palette is warm—he uses a lot of warm reds tending toward orange, even in shadows. The brushwork is rough and ready, full of movement, spontaneous, sketchy. Unfinished. True.

Also, he’s smart: he’s obviously using mirrors. How else would he get this perspective? Most self-portraits had been drawn full-face.

A smart man. A spontaneous man. A handsome man. A skilled man. A hard-working man.

A man who could see things. And express himself.


For a long time I had a pen that I’d brought home from Washington, a cheap ballpoint pen that had a tall ship floating in a harbor on its barrel. But what I really treasured from that visit, what will never leave me, is seeing that guy. Thank God for the Smithsonian, which makes art free to the people, and for my Dad, who insisted we go do things once in a while.

Reverb10: Body Integration

[Until 31 December I’m participating in reverb10, a month-long challenge to get bloggers to respond to writing prompts designed to help themselves and their readers take stock of the past year—conduct the year’s final inventory—and to imagine possibilities for the coming year.]

Prompt: Body integration. This year, when did you feel the most integrated with your body? Did you have a moment where there wasn’t mind and body, but simply a cohesive YOU, alive and present?

The piece below was commissioned by a client who wanted both her dogs on one painting. A challenge: the 15-year-old Dachshund is the Alpha-dog. The lab mix is the very energetic Beta-dog. I had to photograph them separately, then choose a shot for each and combine them into one composition.

watercolor, 20 x 30 in.

I made the Alpha-dog look straight at the viewer, with her intense gaze.

Notice any differences between the one above and the one I posted the other day?

The client had liked my painting of Molly the Cat…

watercolor, 11 x 15 in.

and had also liked some paintings I’d made of her own face.

Painting these dogs taught me so much about composition and color. The big dog’s colors were cool, and the small dog’s were warm. I had to incorporate some warmth into the big dog and some cool colors into the small dog. I also had to create a background that hovered between the abstract and the literal—because adding furniture, park-benches or other objects would jumble the picture; and I did not want a sea of literal green grass, but I wanted the dogs to be in “grass-ness” and “sky-ness.” I had to make the dogs’ figures breathe into that background.

Also: I usually paint humans.

watercolor, 14 x 19 in.

Human anatomy and facial structure is my love. I understand how the face is built and how its skin tones interact with the elements, especially with light. I enjoy exploring those relationships from photographic references, from life, whatever I can get. … But when confronted with the long snouts of dogs, I was thrown off my game. I looked at the photograph of that big black dog and I was like, How does that nose connect to those eyes? I had to figure it out. I had to experiment, and I had to make a couple of drawings and paint several paintings in order to get it the way I felt it. Because I don’t paint it the way I see it… The way I saw it was A Big Black Blob. I paint it, in the words of my teacher Charles Reid, the way I want to see it. I paint the way I feel it… The way I felt it was a living, moving, panting dog who was not all black, but many colors underneath the black.

In playing, experimenting, solving the problems, I often went deep inside my body, and/or my mind came outside my body… This is the way it happens when art is being made. You can tell Art Is Happening when you no longer care about the clock, when you forget to eat, when you behave spontaneously.

Part of the reason I’m able to do this is, I’m recovering from addiction. My program of recovery has woken me up.

Another example…

I was also surprised to find I’d started to care about the dogs themselves. There’s no way you can spend so much time painting anyone’s face without starting to love that person… or that animal. I’m a little afraid of dogs… and these guys had usually bugged me when they’d tried to lick me or sniff around me. But when I took the painting for the client to view and the dogs ran toward me, I dropped to my knees and wrapped my arms around the big dog’s neck while the little one crawled all over my lap. The art taught me that was all I needed to do to make it OK—let my mind go and get a little bit of “body integration.”

“Dudes,” I said, “how you doin?” Like we were old friends. And we were.

Sober life: Helping others, loving unconditionally

Science has shown that we’re evolved to want to help others—not just to save our own necks.

In 2006 a group of American scientists found that the human brain is deeply motivated to get us help other people, even when there’s a cost involved. Subjects in the study were asked either to donate to a charity or to take a payoff—and both kinds of choices, especially the altruistic one, were associated with increased activity in a part of the brain usually associated only with primal desires such as food and sex.

The healing benefit of altruism is a principle that Deborah Feller, the artist and therapist who created two pieces for the Addiction and Art book reviewed here, uses in her practice. She spoke with me by phone from her New York City practice about her art and her work with people recovering from addiction and early-life trauma.

Feller works with, as she put it, “people horrifically abused as children.” Her clients usually have problems such as dissociative identity disorder (formerly called “multiple personality disorder”) and severe post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, along with, often, addiction.

She shocked me with this statement:

I tell my clients they can’t be the people they were supposed to be before these things happened to them.

This sort of knocked the wind out of me. “How are they supposed to go on after a statement like that?” I asked.

The Annunciation by Deborah Feller

The Annunciation, © Deborah Feller, 2004

“Healing involves making meaning of the trauma,” she said, “which is where we get into the spiritual angle as well. Take my client in ‘The Annunciation.’” The subject in this painting, now in her sixties, was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend; she was addicted to heroin when she was younger, and now has a high-level job in child-protective services. “She knows today that she might not be doing that work if that trauma hadn’t happened to her. She especially knows she might not have the kind of commitment she has about helping those children.”

Feller goes on:

When we do things for other people, a reward center in our brain lights up and it makes us feel good.

In Addiction and Art, Feller talked about her artwork as manifesting the children that “continue to exist unseen in the adults they have become.” I asked her whether the traumas themselves had healed, or whether the “unseen” children continued to exist because the traumas continued to exist unhealed.

People whose traumas were woven throughout the fabric of early life have small children that live on inside them that need to be taken care of, even when the traumas are largely healed, Feller said.

“In a way, the children grow up inside as well,” Feller said. “But the adult needs to learn how to take care of the child. This means learning self-care. Especially not hating that small child. She will depend on you to love her unconditionally.

The challenge is to love yourself no matter what—that’s where Higher Power comes in. A Higher Power loves you unconditionally.

She also shared a tool that she teaches her clients recovering from addiction: Every difficult feeling has a beginning, middle and end. The feeling will change, and the challenge is not to pick up during the feeling. One way to do this is to time the feeling and watch it change and pass over time.

Addiction and Art.

Book cover of Addiction and Art.

Addiction and Art has been sitting prominently on my coffee table. I’ve designed books, and it’s a beautiful book: a big flat hardcover bound in cherry-red cloth, with a reproduction of a painting in red and acid-green on the cover… a tightrope walker clad in the stars and stripes, balancing above a jagged forest of needles and bottles, reaching for an illuminated heart.

The reproductions inside are done equally well. The paper is thick and white and holds the ink nicely; the separations are clean. This is an art book.

It’s also a science book. The authors—Patricia B. Santora, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Jack E. Henningfield, Ph.D., professor of behavioral biology at Hopkins—directed Innovators Combating Substance Abuse, a $7 million program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation whose program office was at Hopkins from 2002-08.

Santora and Henningfield got involved with Margaret Dowell, a suburban-Baltimore artist, after she just happened to have an addiction-themed piece that she sent to them for their annual meeting. These little hotel-lobby shows went over so well among the addiction scientists that they decided to try community-level exhibitions. And the response was a landslide. The show they put on at the Carroll Community College in Westminster, Md., became the most popular art show in the college’s history.

These two scientists and one artist have four audiences in mind for this book:

  • in friends and family, they want to develop compassion;
  • in addicts, they want to foster not just hope but “knowledge that recovery is attainable and that they are not alone”;
  • in policymakers they want to develop the will to fund treatment and prevention from community to federal levels;
  • and in scientists they want to foster a better comprehension of the “human dimension of this treatable medical illness.”

I’m in the first two groups, and I spent 12 years interviewing policymakers and scientists. I’m also an artist. This book makes a vivid and multidimensional contribution toward shifting public perceptions of addiction away from morality-based notions and into the public-health sphere.

One of its best approaches: it lets everyone tell their own stories. It lets the scientists tell their part of the story; it lets the artists tell their part; they combine to create such an interesting cumulative picture.

The artists come from all over the map: recovering addicts; people who love recovering addicts; survivors of addicts who died; therapists and other providers; even a funeral director. Nearly 1,000 images were submitted for consideration; 62 were accepted—that’s how many artists are working on addiction as subject matter. Who would have thought?

But why not? As the authors note, when AIDS struck the nation’s consciousness in the early 1980s, community organizers enlisted the help of artists to tell the story of AIDS through novels, plays and memoirs. And then there was the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which defined art-in-action and forever changed the public’s ideas about AIDS from a moral problem (“the gay disease”) to a public-health issue that deserved scientific research and treatment.

So, these authors say: why not with addiction? As Joseph Califano recently said, addiction is the new AIDS. And there’s a lot of work to do:

Current research shows that addiction treatment

  • is not readily available for those who need it
  • is not integrated into mainstream medicine but remains segregated in programs offering treatments that are not science-driven; and
  • is forever vulnerable to pendulum shifts in funding priorities from one health risk to another (e.g., treating nicotine addiction versus childhood obesity)

Nicotine addiction and childhood obesity are both “funding priorities” of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. What they’re saying is, we need the public to fund this work.

I’ve featured art from this book elsewhere, and you can see Hopkins’s excerpts on the press’s Flickr page. But the work of two artists stayed with me.

The artist, addiction counselor and psychotherapist Deborah Feller of New York City has two pieces inspired by clients: one, Toy Soldier, shows a curly-headed seven-year-old boy playing with those green plastic soldiers our brothers all played with when we were kids, while his mother lies passed out nearby on the floor—the boy later became an alcoholic. The second, The Annunciation, shows a girl of maybe 15 sitting at a kitchen table with, in the artist’s words, “her sexual predator—her mother’s boyfriend.” Feller goes on:

The girl began shooting heroin and speed in her teens but now has a Ph.D. and an important role in helping children. This teen and the boy in Toy Soldier continue to exist unseen in the adults they have become. My drawings reveal what is rendered invisible by these inspiring recoveries.

I have a question in to Feller about these comments: have these traumas healed, or do they continue to live on “unseen” in the adults? I hope she gets back to me.

Oil-on-linen versions of Toy Soldier and The Annunciation can be seen on Feller’s website.

Julia Carpenter's painting of her sister Amy

"Goodbye" | © Julia Carpenter

Julia Carpenter's painting, Autopsy

"Autopsy" | © Julia Carpenter

And then there were Julia Carpenter’s portraits of her sister, Amy, which blew me away. I’d seen her painting, Autopsy, featured on Hopkins’s Flickr page… Somehow, alone on Flickr, this painting’s ghastliness didn’t touch me the same way it did when placed next to Goodbye, the portrait of Amy two months before her heroin overdose. (I hope she’ll forgive my reproducing it here. It’s copyrighted to her.) Accompanied by Carpenter’s thoughtful statements about her artistic process, as well as the documentation of the results of both treated and untreated addiction in work after work in this book, the effect was extraordinary in its understanding and feeling:

Amy died of a heroin overdose at the age of 24. After her death, I read her journal entries, went through her belongings, and made discoveries about her life I never could have imagined. . . .  The portraits reflect my ensuing anger over her death, my confusion about her life, and my questions about the physical death of the human body. Using the template of the human face, I discovered within the genre of portraiture the ability to go beyond the traditional to express the unspeakable.

It’s these authors’ dream that the science and the art will inspire readers to ask former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s question: “What can I do to help fight addiction instead of fighting those who have it?”

Addiction and art: Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Shooting Pictures.”

Took the past few days off to roam London.

I love London more than most cities, and I am more familiar with it than any big city in the U.S.

But there were some things I hadn’t seen before. The Tate Modern, for instance. Hell, it’s only 10 years old…

Andy, at the Tate Modern.


Here’s a little discovery I made in London: Niki de Saint Phalle.

“Shooting Picture,” by Niki de Saint Phalle, 1961

Actually, the painting was “shot” by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, using polythene bags filled with paint and enclosed with plaster, against a blockboard backing.

But Niki de Saint Phalle liked making these pictures herself. She liked making them so much that, two years after this picture was made, she had to stop making shooting pictures altogether. She explained,

I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug.

I know addicts who have become addicted to “shooting.” It’s just as difficult for them to stop “shooting” as it is for them to stop wanting the drug that gets them off. Maybe even more. They adore the needle at least as much as they love what’s in it.

I stood in front of this picture for a long time… I was with some artist friends of mine, and we looked at the craters the paint-bombs had made in the plaster, the bleeding of the paint against the bruised skin of plaster and wood, and we talked about how someone could have become “addicted” to making paintings such that she had to stop making them.

“What is it about the compulsion that’s so destructive?” I asked my friend. Because I have always thought of my own art as generative and constructive.

“Power,” my architect friend finally said:

Haven’t you ever SHOT anything? It’s power.

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