Art project in the Clinical Center focuses on overdose crisis
Exhibit provides a link between art and medicine
One of the most painful and difficult experiences for a parent is the loss of a child, no matter their age. How does one even move forward after such a devastating loss?
For Theresa Clower, her son Devin's death at the age of 32 from a fentanyl drug overdose left her bereft and grieving. She describes him as a vibrant, smart person, who was close to his family and a joy to be around. Now Devin's and other portraits are on display in the NIH Clinical Center through January 2023.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine, but 50 to 100 times more potent. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), opioids, including illicitly manufactured fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States.
Due to its potency and low cost, fentanyl is being mixed with other drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. This is especially risky when people taking drugs don't realize they might contain fentanyl as a cheap but dangerous additive. This can make the drugs stronger than their bodies are accustomed to and more likely to cause overdoses.
After Devin's death, Clower started drawing his portrait based on a photograph she had. She chose to draw in graphite pencil because she felt "it demonstrated lightness and darkness, which I think we all have inside us."
As she drew, she began to process her sorrow. She experienced how immobilizing grief can be and realized she could not live in that space forever. She describes herself as generally an optimistic person who has always been able to see the potential in all situations. So she made a decision to "move into hope" - to take the pain and give it purpose. She was still mourning but taking "small bites out of grief."
This started as a personal experience of drawing the son who was taken too soon. Once she began drawing, however, she felt she needed to continue. Through support groups and mental health organizations, she subsequently found 40 families in Maryland who had lost a loved one to overdose.
At first, it was difficult to get people to open up, due to the stigma toward addiction. Clower notes that people with addiction continue to be blamed for their disease, which prevents 90% of those with Substance Use Disorders from seeking help. It was hard to find friends and families who were willing to share their stories and struggles. However, as the project grew, she found more support.
Families or friends would send her a few images of their loved one who had been lost to an overdose, including stories about their lives. Clower would then choose one image and draw their portrait. She felt she had found a way to tell their stories using original artwork.
One mother who agreed to provide a photo and narrative about her son told Clower "You're doing God's work!"
Clower did not set out to create a national non-profit organization, INTO LIGHT Project but as she learned more, she began to see a vacuum in understanding the individuals who lose their lives to drugs. In reality, they're not "just addicts", but come from all socioeconomic, educational and ethnic backgrounds.
In the following years, the number of exhibits grew, and ranged from Florida to California. PBS also interviewed Clower for their series "Growing Bolder."
She has drawn hundreds of portraits herself, but has now found a way to expand the project by contracting with a few artists who assist her. Her goal is to find "ambassadors" in other states who can identify other lives to honor and help the project grow even more.
Clower eventually connected with Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In 2021, Dr. Volkow participated in a video shown at an exhibit opening in Florida.
At that exhibit, Dr. Volkow expressed how science can help address the overdose crisis by developing treatments and preventing overdoses from occurring.
"Here at NIH, we work to advance science on drug use and addiction, and apply that knowledge to improve health for people and communities," Volkow said. "But science is only part of the picture. Communities also need to offer emotional support and help to encourage treatment and sustain recovery."
Dr. Volkow noted, "Science and art are not often thought of together in tandem, but the intersection of neuroscience to understand how the brain changes due to substance use and addiction and art to remind us of our shared humanity, provides a powerful way to help alleviate deep-rooted stigma and inaccurate perceptions. While science can build a case with evidence and data, the emotional connection experienced through art can be an even stronger argument for changed perspectives on addiction and overdose. Exhibits like this one at the NIH Clinical Center help demonstrate exactly why this is important, and what's at stake."
According to Lillian Fitzgerald, curator of the CC's Fine Art Program (CCFAP), this exhibit fulfills the program's mission - to provide a link between art and medicine. Fitzgerald noted, "Art is carefully selected for its healing potential, artistic quality and suitability to the environment in which it will be placed. And these pieces do that extremely well."
The eight portraits chosen for this exhibit show the range of people who have died from drug overdoses, which includes a wide variety of socioeconomic, educational and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
Clower's background in fine art and organizational management has helped her turn her grief into a national organization. But mostly, she gives credit to her son. "Devin is the impetus - his energy is the driving force behind this organization," she said.
Ultimately, Clower hopes that viewers can look past the stigma of addiction and see people who are just like themselves. She hopes everyone will walk away with a deeper compassion and understanding of this disease.
The graphite drawings are on display in the NIH Clinical Center until January 8, 2023, in the East Alcove, just off the main atrium, near the Pharmacy, on the first floor. Learn more about the project online at https://intolightproject.org/.
- Debbie Accame