By Guest Blogger Lisa Seward
It isn’t a widely acknowledged fact, but Vincent Van Gogh was a prolific drug user. His mental health battle with depression is well documented, but less so was his battle with addictions to absinthe and the prescription drug Digitalis (used to ease his epilepsy).
In fact, the overuse of the color yellow in his work can be attributed to these addictions: one of the side affects of the overuse of both absinthe and Digitalis is seeing in yellow, or seeing yellow spots in front of your eyes.
Artistic drug use wasn’t just limited to Van Gogh. Jean-Michel Basquiat used several different drugs when he was painting, and he died of a heroin overdose when he was just 27 years old.
Gustave Doré, who created the illustrations for some of Charles Dickens’ works, enjoyed opium and created detailed illustrations depicting opium dens.
And in more recent years, promising artist Dash Snow, whose works were exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery, also died at the age of 27 of a drug overdose in Lafayette House, a hotel in Manhattan. His death was described as a “junkie’s end”.
Creative people do tend to turn to drug and alcohol addictions and so these problems are quite common in artists. Much like cancer or depression, recent scientific research has shown that addiction is a disease: and much like those other illnesses, it is one that needs treatment and recovery.
The Addiction and Art Project
Because of this new research, the Addiction and Art Project was started by the former Innovators Combating Substance Abuse, a National Program Office of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The aim of the project is to use art to get people talking about addiction.
Because people enjoy and feel comfortable about discussing art, it can be used to start a dialogue about something that people feel considerably less comfortable talking about: addiction. Since the project began, Addiction and Art exhibitions have been held both in local communities and at professional substance abuse conferences.
There is also an Addiction and Art book which discusses the project more extensively. Via the Addiction and Art Project’s website, artists are sharing their work so that anyone can access it, view it, think about and discuss it. The artists then share their personal stories or inspiration for the artwork they have created.
This image of a crow and serpent, entitled “The Hand that Feeds”, is by artist Carrie Napora. She shares that: “This image’s meaning parallels Vendizotti”s “The Crow and the Serpent” fable. The crow, driven by hunger, seized a serpent, who twisted around, sinking venomous fangs into the crows’ leg. The bird shrieked in pain, for the food he hoped would sustain his life had instead caused his death.
My own experience of watching a loved one craze over what he thought he couldn’t live without reminds me of this story, The moral is that when acting in one’s own interest, consider the harm one’s action may cause others, or risk coming to a miserable end…in his case, a suicidal death.
As well as encouraging people to talk about addiction and share their stories of how addiction has touched their lives, there is a new school of thought that art can actually help overcome addiction.
Art Therapy for Recovery Addicts
In local recovery programs across the United States and worldwide, art therapy is being used as a technique to help drug and alcohol addicts overcome their addictions. Art therapy is a recognized form of therapy that encourages people to express themselves through painting and drawing.
Sessions are led by a trained therapist, and often creative sessions are followed by one-on-one counseling sessions. Art therapy is the perfect tool for those who have difficulty expressing how they feel, or feel too ashamed to talk about the negative activity their drug taking has caused. Instead they can express their feelings and vent their frustrations through their art work, and discuss this work with their therapist instead.
The American Art Therapy Association represents more than 5,000 professional art therapists in more than 40 chapters around the world. So it seems that as well as well as being more susceptible to substance abuse in its many forms, artists can also help other addicts to overcome their problems and re-enter society.