Art and Addiction: An Interview with Artists in Recovery

Writing by Ali Gavin. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.


Mark Anderson founded Artists in Recovery (AiR) in 2018 after coming to a realisation as he sat with two friends (both artists) in a café in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He thought of the amount of artists he knew whose work focused around their recoveries from addiction. Naturally, he wondered whether there might be a link between the two.


Mark himself is a recovering alcohol and drug addict who - through hospitalisation, rehab, and 12-step recovery programmes - has been sober for eight years. He told me of his long-standing interest in art, artists, culture and creativity and, being an artist, these were the interests that he began to rediscover during his rehabilitation.


Following his realisation in the café, Mark came up with a list of practising artists he knew who were recovering from addiction. Having a background in marketing and exhibitions, he had the knowledge needed to organise the first exhibition in Newcastle Cathedral. He decided to go a step further, creating the collective and setting it up as a Community Interest Company and, following the first exhibition, a brand was created.


AiR established a community of diverse artists, many of whom have experienced various forms of trauma. “Addiction itself can definitely be considered a trauma,” Mark tells me, “it is extremely traumatic to find yourself addicted to a substance and unable to control your life.” A lot of the artists prior to joining the group, had become isolated, and, due to social anxiety, practiced their art alone. AiR provides a space for them to work through their trauma, talk to other artists and exhibit and sell their work.


I spoke to one artist involved with the group - Si - about the effect that recovery has had on his artistic process. Si enjoyed art at school and wanted to pursue it after he left, but was worried about his financial prospects. As a result, he decided to study graphic design at university. Soon, he grew tired of being stuck on a computer, and instead trained as a tree surgeon and dry stonewaller, which was his profession for the next 14 years. The dream of becoming an artist, however, did not leave him.


After admitting to himself that he had a problem with alcohol, Si decided to get sober about four and a half years ago. This decision proved to be the driving motivation for Si to pursue his passion for art. He set himself a goal to draw every day until he became a full-time artist. Even when, about six months into his sobriety, his vision was temporarily affected by snow blindness, he persisted. In fact, this damage to his eyesight brought about Si’s distinctive drawing style; when he found himself unable to open his eyes, he started drawing with his eyes closed. Now, despite his vision being back to normal, he maintains this habit - “all the drawing and painting starts with a kind of blind drawing that I do, and then it creates these really distorted, expressionist images.”


As for sobriety’s impact on his art, Si makes it clear that addiction put a stop to his creativity. One of the main reasons for his drinking when he was younger was a desire for confidence. Beginning recovery, he felt that his only option was to overcome that lack of confidence, or else go back to drinking. Since going sober, he tells me that his confidence has improved not only in his art, but in every aspect of his life. He believes that his career as an artist would never have happened if he hadn’t stopped drinking - now, Si has been a full-time artist for three years. “For me, the creativity really comes when I sit down and do the work,” he says. As soon as he began the process of recovery, he started going out and showing his artwork, and was involved in over a dozen exhibitions within the first year of sobriety alone - including a couple in Spain.


In our culture as a whole, there’s a pervading image of a ‘tortured artist’, and I wondered whether this trope deters artistic people from seeking help with their addiction. Mark tells me that one particular artist involved with AiR was, for years, worried about exactly that. He thought that his creativity was linked to his abuse of drink and drugs and that, without these substances, he would be unable to create. However, there is no suggestion that there is a link between the two - this artist has stopped drinking and taking drugs, and continues to make art. Si backs this point up completely, emphasising that for him, drinking was a huge hindrance to his art, and that it is actually sobriety which has been the vehicle for his creativity.


Addiction, in general, has a significant impact on one's self-esteem and confidence. This puts it in direct opposition to the ability to achieve potential - the creation of art included. Mark has this to say about the debilitating nature of the illness:


“In addiction, your self-esteem becomes crippled because you’re doing something against your will. The rest of the world tells you that you’re weak, that you’re stupid, that you’ve made a lifestyle choice to take drugs and alcohol to the point where you can’t function anymore.”


Repeatedly being told these things has an obvious and very serious effect on both confidence and sense of self. One of the most vital parts of recovery, it seems, is overcoming these effects. According to Mark, AiR hopes to reaffirm the message of the 12-step recovery programmes it promotes; that “you are not a bad person, you are a sick person.”


According to the WHO, addiction can be viewed as a “discrete disease entity, a debilitating disorder’ - and yet it continues to hold the popular reputation of being almost a moral vice and a sign of weakness. This is a view which becomes all the more dangerous when found within the medical community. Mark tells a particularly dark story about going to his GP well before he began recovery. He told his doctor that he had a problem with alcohol. This doctor’s response was along these lines:


“Mark, I like to play tennis - I’d rather be playing tennis now than sat here working with you. But because I’ve got responsibilities - and self-awareness and self-control - I’m here working. You need to take the same attitude towards your drinking. Just pull yourself together and stop.”


This response kept Mark drinking for another two years. Although he’s hopeful that things are getting better, he says that there’s still a long way to go - especially in the UK.


As for addiction’s role in the work created by AiR’s artists, it seems to be mixed. Many say that their addiction is separate from their art, while others say their art is all about their addiction and recovery. Si, for example, says that addiction and recovery aren’t generally found in the explicit subject matter of his work, but play an important role in the background themes. In his drawings and 2D work, the subject matter is usually a portrait - but within these portraits, he says he is exploring human emotion and connection. A key theme behind Si’s work is mental health and the building of healthy daily habits which have a big impact over a long period of time. In fact, that’s why he’s incorporated origami into his work. He views origami as “a really peaceful, mindful practice” and, over the last six months, has been using the Senbazuru tradition - the practice of folding 1,000 cranes. Si has now taken to uploading origami videos and tutorials onto his YouTube channel, and is planning to lead an origami project involving schools and care homes in his local area.


Both Mark and Si look at recovery as an ongoing process, rather than a finite solution. Mark sees himself as “an alcoholic that doesn’t drink,” and Si recognises that “there’s still the reason why you drank, and that doesn’t just go away.” They both agree that addiction - alcoholism in particular - is often normalised within certain communities, including their own communities in the North East of England. This fact can be a huge barrier in the way of people seeking help, but Mark wants to break this down; “if it’s causing you a problem - even if that problem is just you constantly thinking, ‘my god have I got a problem?’ - then that in itself is a problem.” He urges people to research 12-step fellowships, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and not be afraid to reach out to them.


Although the pandemic has had obvious negative effects on the working of the group, AiR has plans for the future. Next year, the group expects to hold an exhibition commissioned by South Tyneside council involving “art inspired by the written word.” Eventually, Mark hopes that AiR and its aims will have spread beyond Newcastle to cities across the UK. As for the main message emphasised by the group, this is what Mark wants people to think about:


“Addiction is an illness. Recovery is possible. People in recovery are human beings just like you and me. See the human and not the addiction.”


To find out more about Artists in Recovery and its work, visit https://www.artistsinrecovery.co.uk/ and watch this short YouTube documentary about the group https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbUjWjQnsUk


To see more of Si’s work, visit his YouTube channel https://m.youtube.com/channel/UC1dPpjOfbJ2jXaX0yFLxF5Q and his Instagram account @si.origami


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