Art is not what you see but what you make people see.
The creative process and the healing process arise from a single source. When you are an artist, you are a healer; a wordless trust of the same mystery is the foundation of your work and its integrity. Art has always worked for me in mysterious ways. Its a feeling, its an expression, its a desire to connect. Often these connections are new and bring about a change. And change by definition is an act of transformation. Once changed, things can not be reverted to what they were. I AM… memoirs of addiction recovery is exactly such a project. A journey and an experience where art is an agent of change.After nearly half a year of telephone and email exchanges plus discursive developments with Mark Prest from PORe, on a cold stormy day in Feb 2013, I travelled to Manchester to meet up the rest of the partners from Italy and Turkey, hosted by Clive Parkinson from Arts for Health at MMU. It was a chance to familiarise with each others contexts and methodologies. This was followed by several rounds of funding applications submitted to Arts Council England, who could not see any artistic value in supporting it. Their loss really! All it did was kindle our spirits even more albeit with a smaller budget! Two other artists, Cristina and Selda were brought into the project and all partners along with the artists met in Pescara, in autumn 2013. The journey had been long and tiresome, yet deep down Mark and I knew the project would happen come what ever may. For the residency this year, my flight to Italy was confirmed two weeks before the dates!
Incontro were first of the partners to host the residency in San Felice in Pistoia. Sitting on top of a mountain, San Felice has a picturesque setting. At this facility, ‘patients’ (according to Incontro) and ‘participants’ (according to me), are at fairly early stages of recovery from mixed misuse of substances. I was travelling with Leon, an artist in recovery from Liverpool, a mentee in a voluntary capacity assisting me in the activities planned for the residency/workshops. The collaborative support and guidance from Incontro team was invaluable. Between the team leaders; Manuela, Tiberio and Paola, key insights were provided and enough ground work done so we could delve into engagement with the participants straight away. I am forever grateful, particularly to Paola for not only being a fantastic interpreter/translator, and still finding head space to bounce off ideas and stay fluid within the constantly shifting time constraints of the participants and a have a laugh!
A balance of collective and individual activities were planned throughout. However, reality of the matter was that with different medication times for everyone, it was almost an impossible task to have all people together. The only collective time afforded to us all, was during coffee breaks or lunch times. The initial presentation was followed by lots of queries. The over riding question being, “what are we going to make?” I explained that beyond the notion of creating collaborative portraits, I didn’t have a clue. Claudio; a participant and an artist in his days of sobriety, confessed he didn’t like working in groups and the idea of making something collective was abhorrent to him. In response to the question, I pulled out an old time favourite theatre warm-up. Each person donated a movement starting from one side of a circle and moves were built upon the first. By the end an entire sequence was self choreographed. It illustrated best my methodology. Building together from whatever best people could bring in to create something beautifully complex. It was a eureka moment for the group.
The atmosphere quickly changed from suspicious side glances with arms folded across the chests to early morning greetings of “buongiorno Ali e Leo”, to breaking bread together while attempting each others languages. Making the portraits was a joy, similar to adding moves on top of moves, the photographs are collaborative shared-self portraits. I interviewed all the participants. There were inevitably moments of heightened emotions and shedding of tears without shame. Paola or Manuela would translate (my questions in Italian and their responses back in English) so I could conclude the interviews successfully. However to edit a short film from hours of interview footage, it would require someone with a thorough command of both languages to create subtitles first. And currently there are no resources available to do so. Hopefully soon, I will be able to create a short film which illuminates the subject in depth.
Alessandro, one of the participants, brought a letter he had written to his mother after we finished his interview. This potent and un-edited take which became an iconic representation of addiction recovery. Even without understanding the meaning of what he read, both Leon and I held back tears till he finished reading it. I find it powerful as it is and chose not to use sub-titles on the film. To read the translation click on watch on Vimeo tab. Thanks to Nico for translating the letter into English!
The hugs and kisses and tears of the last day will remain forever with me when Jackie (in recovery from UK, who accompanied Mark during part of the residency) narrated her story. The participants saw her in a different light, with renewed respect and empathy at witnessing vulnerability and strength together. It was then I understood that the process of recovery is taking one day at a time. It was beautiful for all to collectively trace their paths that had led to being under one roof at San Felice. Before we parted ways, I showed the portraits, which till then had been an interaction strictly between each individual and I. Watching the portraits together was amazing as everyone brimming with admiration for each other and respect for themselves.
I could express my emotions. | Talking to a girl who overcame drug addiction, gave me strength. | It helped me for I feel I can help others. | It awakened my self-esteem, to talk about me made me feel important. | I felt ‘ugly’ maybe because I feel ‘dirty’ and the photos make me change idea, in the photos I feel beautiful. | The experience helped me to believe more in myself. | The funniest thing was the last photo of all together.
As it was my first time ever working in the context of art & health and in a language foreign to me, the group leaders were very appreciative of the quality of engagement and curious as to how I knew what I was doing. I have only this to share… we are all artists and we are all healers. Our wounds make us gentle with the wounds of others. Our vulnerability connects us to the vulnerability in others in compassionate and loving ways. As a healer, as an artist, you see things differently and you function as a conduit allowing others see that potential too.
I am forever grateful for all the beautiful energies present in this project!