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?”