After her son Nick died of a drug overdose, Robyn Houston-Bean said she “tried anything I could think of to heal”: therapy groups, books and articles, Facebook support groups.
So when she heard about The Opioid Project — a visual art and oral storytelling program for those affected by the opioid epidemic — Houston-Bean, who “can’t even draw a circle,” signed up immediately.
“Grief is isolating,” said Houston-Bean, from Braintree. She doesn’t remember much of what was said at the workshop she attended in Jamaica Plain in May 2016.
But she does remember how she felt: at first, nervous. Then, after four hours of painting, sharing her pain and telling the story of Nick, her talented and compassionate son, she felt calm.
“There were a lot of tears,” she said. “Just getting to share a piece of my son with everyone else was beautiful.”
Since starting in 2016, The Opioid Project: Changing Perceptions Through Art and Storytelling, has reached hundreds affected by opioid abuse across Eastern Massachusetts. The project is a collaboration between cofounders Annie Brewster, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Nancy Marks, a Boston-based visual artist.
“Our goal was to create a healing space for people dealing with stigmatized loss,” said Brewster. “Subsequently, we wanted to use what’s created in that workshop to create change with community gatherings and teaching, and to give people managing the loss a sense that they are fighting the epidemic.”
The project has two parts: workshops, where the art gets made and the stories recorded; and exhibitions, where the works get displayed for public viewing. The Opioid Project is nomadic. Workshops and exhibitions have been held in different communities across the state — Medford to Newton, Natick to Fitchburg.
Brewster and Marks originally tailored the project to friends and family of those who died from opioid use. They have since brought in survivors who have battled opioid use themselves.
At the workshops, participants are given paint, glue, pastels, and a 20-inch-by-20-inch canvas to create a visual memorial for the person affected. (Survivors use the canvas to express their feelings on addiction and recovery.) Brewster and Marks ask participants to bring in an object that reminds them of the departed: gloves, sheet music, flower petals, a guitar capo. The participants often adorn the artwork with these objects, as well as favorite colors, symbols, sayings, and memories of the victim.
As the group paints, Brewster, an audio expert, pulls individuals into another room for a recorded conversation. In the recording sessions, she asks about the deceased as a “full, contextualized person,” one who suffered from drug abuse but who also contained joy, talent, and humor. She then edits the conversations to less than four minutes in duration.
After the workshops, the finished works of art and stories are exhibited by partner institutions in the community. Marks says The Opioid Project has held five workshops and seven multimedia exhibitions.
“For a lot of people, going through a near-death, life-changing experience opens your mind,” said Charles Draleau, who attended the Medford workshop in May 2017. Draleau used drugs for 15 years but has been clean the past few and now works part time at a treatment center. In February, he presented his artwork at the Fitchburg Art Museum, the same building where he attended arts classes in middle school.
“Every single person in recovery has a creative aspect to them. People don’t realize that. That’s one of the beauties of recovery, that people wake up to that,” Draleau said.
In 2016, drug overdoses in the United States killed more than 63,600 people, more than all American deaths during the Vietnam War.
Erica Nazzaro, a Boston painter, attended the Newton workshop in October 2016 in memory of her friend Barry. She was impressed by the other attendees who, despite not being artists, “really connected with their creative self.”
“In a one-day workshop, they were really able to portray their sadness and grief onto the page,” she said. “They were able to express themselves through color, line, words, shapes, composition, to create something tangible and solid. It’s a remarkable thing when you think about mourning death, which is so intangible and vague in so many ways.”
At the exhibitions, communities come together for frank conversations on addiction and treatment. At the Fitchburg Art Museum, the exhibition packed the gallery, which included medical professionals, substance abuse counselors, and the presiding judge of Fitchburg District Court. Survivors and local advocates gave speeches on how the epidemic has affected their loved ones and neighborhoods. Musicians led a performance of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
The next workshop is planned for September, in collaboration with McLean Hospital. The workshops cost $3,300, charged to a partnering community organization, for up to 10 participants. Funds go toward the rented space, art materials, laminated wall labels for the exhibition, and, for participants, digital prints and audio recordings. Marks and Brewster say the work is “mostly pro bono,” and Marks recently won an arts and culture grant through the City of Boston’s Opportunity Fund.
Past participants in The Opioid Project appreciate how the exhibitions aim to destigmatize addiction and humanize the victims.
“Nick was more than his disease, ” said Houston-Bean about her late son. “We’re an everyday family. We’re not outliers. You have to know that it can happen to anybody.”
Marks and Brewster don’t pretend to be experts on the opioid epidemic, and they emphasize that the project is not a one-stop panacea for addiction or grief. Still, they say, almost all participants express gratitude for attending.
“They’ve told their story, were witnessed in their pain, and they benefit from leaning in rather than leaning away,” said Marks. “A lot of people don’t want anyone to see the pain they’ve gone through. People take a step back and realize, ‘I am loved.’”