Montana art exhibit reveals life with drug addiction

February 18, 2017 GMT

Words of former drug addicts, their witnesses and family members, are hanging on the walls of Flathead Valley Community College this month.

The black and white print shares stories of disappearing dreams due to addiction, and in some instances, the path to recovery. Yet the stories are subtle next to the art projecting images of the experience.

In one piece, a green hand with skin stretched across bones holds onto a pill, with the words “never again” written on the capsule. The piece, by high school student Chaz Gustin of Billings, is titled Shaky Hands, Blurry Eyes, Chill Pills.

The exhibit “Bitter Pill: Montana Lives Affected by Rx Abuse,” aims to give the human side of prescription drug abuse and recovery. The traveling show includes 46 pieces from amateur and professional artists from across Montana. Each shares the artist’s experience with prescription drug abuse.

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The work is on display through Feb. 27 on the bottom floor of the FVCC Arts and Technology building. Viewers can see the work Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and Saturday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Pieces vary from metal to woodworking, sketches to watercolor, charcoal to ceramics.

“All are powerful,” said Linda Ravicher with the Stop Prescription Drug Abuse in the Flathead Coalition. “It helps us emphasize how deadly prescription drug abuse is and the effect that it has on youth, adults, our community, family [and] friends of the addict.”

The coalition paired with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the state Attorney’s Office and the Resolve Montana Initiative to bring the show to Kalispell.

Ravicher said while more people are talking about drug abuse and addictions, it’s an issue that’s not going away.

“It’s a titlewave that is sweeping the nation,” she said. “It devastates families, individuals, communities. It’s readily available and powerfully addictive.”

OPIOIDS ARE a class of drugs that include the illicit drug heroin as well as prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a primary, chronic and relapsing brain disease. The society characterizes it by someone pathologically pursuing reward and, or, relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Of the 20.5 million Americans 12 or older recorded with a substance abuse disorder in 2015, roughly 2 million involved prescription pain relievers, according to the society. Out of the total Americans documented with addictions, 591,000 involved heroin.

In Montana, about one in 20 teens from 12 to 17 reported non-medical use of a prescription pain reliever at least once over a year, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug use and Health.

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From 2011 to 2013, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services recorded 369 deaths due to prescription drug overdoses and more than 7,200 hospital inpatient admissions and emergency department encounters.

ON THE bottom floor of the Arts and Technology Building, local artists’ work gave flashes of what those numbers mean in everyday life.

An oil canvas by Carlin Bear Don’t Walk of Billings shows a woman sitting near water. The woman is in the woods, surrounded by bright colors. She’s dressed in black and holds a syringe to her arm as she waits for the high.

The reflection in the water shows her in traditional pink and purple clothing. In place of the syringe is a baby.

The artist’s statement bordering the canvas explained, “as the needle keeps ripping holes, she’s dealing with bitter woes. Only time she sees her daughter is in the water when the river flows.”

A framed mixed-media piece contrasts teal and purple with darkness surrounding a skeleton, which is missing pieces of its body. A red bead is at the skeleton’s chest encircled by an “on, off” switch.

In the right hand of the skeleton is a gun, pointed toward its skull.

“I was once a bright, multi-faceted, phenomenally talented, articulate, beautiful young woman with a promising future ahead of me,” the artist, Natalie Willis, wrote in the statement.

She described a toxic relationship with drugs as she learned to live as a “functioning addict.” It was a life she balanced for more than a decade.

“I was married, owned a home, cared for my disabled parent, held down the same job, put myself through college - where I graduated with honors,” Willis said. ”... As my addiction progressed I found myself confined in a world wrought with misery, sickness and desperation.”

Ravicher said the stories across the walls reveal addiction is not slotted for one race, age or social or economic class.

It could happen to anyone, she said.

“So many people don’t realize, they think it’s safe because a doctor prescribed it for a legitimate reason, so it sits in the family medicine cabinet,” Ravicher said. “Using art is just one more way of getting that message across to our community.”

For more information about the exhibit or to request the show in your community, call 406-444-2649 or visit ResolveMontana.org.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.