About the Milltown Tour Initiative
We come to these things backwards. At least in the beginning, the maps we draw are of the places we have already been. The discipline of finding a path ahead comes later. This project looks back, mapping a personal narrative of 26 years in the homes of addiction – my own homes and the homes of my loved ones, my family. I have been continually challenged by my ignorance and avoidance of this issue. I am still working on finding my way. This campaign is personal representing a chronicle of life loss beginning with my brother Reno’s heroin overdose death and the drug related deaths of two other siblings. By mapping a timeline, reconsidering my art through the lens of addiction, I’m hoping to draw connections between my loss and my art and begin to find paths to build community.
The process began with walking – literally step by step – in interstitial spaces, in Portland, Maine, in the 1990s. Though I wasn’t yet able to vocalize it, as I counted out the perimeters of parking lots and sketched their shapes on paper, I was taking the first steps to survey my grief on the edge of these open spaces. After several years of collecting the drawings, I began to paint these large emotionally charged abstract images on canvas. These paintings were not representational but more like tombstone compositions for my brother’s ashes. The markings reflected an empathetic madness and a peculiar resting place for my weary mind, finding calm between the ordered white lines of the parking lot.
My own struggle has been to nurture roots beyond my own, to recognize in my paintings of asphalt a desire to risk new family, to engage with a wider community. Part of that process has been to challenge some of our most basic assumptions about addiction. What I mean is that in order to understand addiction, we need to recognize and acknowledge the benefits and comforts of using. Heroin, considered as a chemical compound, fits perfectly on a molecular level in the love center receptors of the brain. Heroin creates a chemical sensation of love. Opium: A Comforter is an expression of this alienation and deep comfort, conveyed by a quilt I sewed in traditional log cabin design, with oxblood red center squares of stamped poppy pods, cut and oozing opium love.
As a society, how can we expect the user to give up a substance that makes them feel loved, if another love is not offered in its place? The health of a society is measured by how we treat our most vulnerable members. Am I willing to provide familiar support and love in order to replace the chemical love that heroin provides? The homes of addiction provide an opportunity for us to grow in compassion making pathways into community helping every member to find their own way.
The GET HIGH poster designed in the shape of the 3D chemical compound of heroin is intended to be provocative – to ignite public discussion – to get the city high – literally – above the usual platitudes about drug use. As a metaphor the hot-air balloon brings lightness to an otherwise heavy, stigma laden conversation about opiate addiction. The balloon as a beacon signaling empathy and community as antidote.
How would a community approach work?
First it is critical to understand that opiates are not the problem. It’s the addicts attempt to solve the problem of disconnection – his/her comfort method to remedy alienation. Recovery demands reconnections at every point and level – a mending of the very fabric of society and doing away with us versus them. We need a long-suffering love cure, which motivates us to ask more compassionate questions instead of using overly simplistic and ineffective responses.
This current opiate epidemic cannot be solved by professionals alone. Addiction is not a war that can be won. Professional responses often polarize remedies with punishment verses prevention or abstinence verses harm reduction. This rhetoric may help fund the correctional and treatment industries, but does not facilitate community involvement, which promotes connectedness and belonging.
Art as Medicine
Watching, looking, witnessing – interpreting the image with movement; being watched – the marks grow larger, as a need to be interesting increases while empathy leaks. While being watched, I feel more self-conscious with a need to perform and to be more interesting. In contrast, as the witness, I feel such freedom and comfort mirroring the movement of another, rocking back and forth to the drum beat as a meditation.
“Rather than labeling pictures from our frames of reference, we meditate on them, tell stories about how we created them, speak to them, listen to what they have to say, dramatize them through our bodily movement, and dream about them.” Shaun McNiff
My mark making, like an aerobatic workout, originates from the hips and the balls of my feet. I apply the paint with large brushes and sweeping motion using my whole body. The canvas is often the width of my out stretched arms. I mix the colors on the surface with quick choppy brush marks, using my hands and fingers, scratching the surface, following the rhythm of the drum, pushing the paint around, being lost and found.
How and When the Milltown Tour Started?
In 2014, I began this campaign with the desire to create public dialogue around the opiate epidemic. I presented a retrospective of my artistic work spanning 26 years through the lens of addiction. The name of the show is On Getting High: Mapping Addiction at Home. This multimedia presentation is both personal and professional – accompanied with an art talk – with an appeal to multiple audiences. I am committed to taking this traveling show to five milltowns in Maine.
When I started walking around the edges of parking lots, shortly after my brother Reno died from a heroin overdose in 1992, I never imagined that this experience of walking and counting my steps would eventually inspire the making of a full size hot-air balloon. In order to bring attention to the need for a new perspective, I started sewing a prototype of the balloon in the shape of the chemical compound of heroin. I was set up sewing in a public park as a spectacle to get people talking about this issue.
What is Art-Based Research LLC?
Art-Based Research LLC is an expressive arts organization committed to research, education and community engagement addressing the complexities of addiction and other related social issues.
Art-Based Research LLC enables individuals to explore their own stories, and build new community awareness with outreach that includes all stakeholders. Art-for-social-change can develop community networks of support and shape a dialogue in which community-based arts can imagine new language and realities.
If you are interested in supporting the Five Milltown Tour we have products for sale in our artist shop.
All proceeds help support and further community outreach.
Interview on Portland’s Maine TNTRC
Monday Night Talk Radio Club with Chris White on WMPG