INTERVIEW: Artists In Recovery | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Artwork by PFW Wolf

It all started at George Street Social, a cafe which provides a safe, alcohol-free social space for people in recovery. “I was sat with Russ Coleman and Kirk Teasdale, and I said ‘have you noticed how many people we know are in recovery?’” remembers Mark Anderson. “And between us we reeled off ten names of active artists who were also in recovery from drugs or alcohol. This then led us to discussing how we could get them all together and do an exhibition.”

From this one conversation the collective Artists in Recovery, or AIR, was born. Despite not being an artist, Mark, whose background is in marketing, stepped up to organise the group. “From the three of us, we reached out to a few people we knew, and they reached out to a few others. We’ve now grown to be a group of 21 practicing artists. This isn’t outpatient art therapy. We have artists with PhDs and professionals who have worked in the field for over 30 years.”

Mark’s efforts have resulted in AIR becoming a Community Interest Company, fully operated by volunteers. AIR have exhibited at Tynemouth station and West Jesmond station, as well as exhibiting at St Nicholas’s Cathedral in Newcastle. “I usually don’t give the artists a brief, and what’s so nice about that is that the exhibitions are just so varied, I’m completely surprised all the time,” Mark notes. Indeed, as the group is made up of painters, sculptors, illustrators and even musicians, the diversity of the work on display is remarkable. “Our art is considered, expressive work that is always to a high standard,” says Mark. “The artists in AIR are artists first, who just happen to be in recovery.”

Whilst recovery is rarely an explicit theme in AIR’s work, promoting recovery is integral to the group’s exhibitions. “Addicts will always say: ‘we are still addicts, we just don’t do it anymore’,” Mark, a recovered addict himself, is keen to emphasise. He sees AIR as a way to promote the support available to those that need it. AIR’s exhibitions have been marked by people approaching Mark with personal stories, often seeking help. “We support all recovery organisations, and we really try to get that information out at our exhibitions. It’s really useful to have all the information available. You just can’t recover on your own.”

Indeed, for artist PFW Wolf, the support of other people was integral to recovery. “In early sobriety I was homeless for nine months,” she remembers. “I was lucky enough to have friends who allowed me to sofa surf, one in particular saving my life.” Realising how terrified she was of this happening again, the extremely talented painter embarked on what she describes a ‘portfolio career’.

This isn’t outpatient art therapy. We have artists with PhDs and professionals who have worked in the field for over 30 years

Surprisingly, initially she had followed a different path, studying psychology at university. “I did a third year module on art, the mind and the brain, which was all about how we decide we like art and how we produce things. There was so much in that course I was inspired by.”

It was during her final year that she started the recovery process. “Initially I really struggled with where my creativity came from without alcohol,” she says. “The creativity is still definitely there, but you just have to work so much harder to find inspiration in sobriety.” PFW Wolf’s work is now characterized by her experimentation in using bright colours, different textures and even glitters. Life-drawing is a huge part of her work, as she says it helped her to level out her own body image, and she has since created a series of extraordinary paintings. “Art is trying to find a fully formed thought,” she says. “I’m probably happiest when I’m freestyling with very little planned.”

PFW Wolf’s work both contrasts and compliments the work of fellow AIR artist, sculptor Russ Coleman. “I’ve always been interested in the physical material world,” Russ, who originally trained as a monumental mason, tells me. “I like to know how things are made and what they’re made of. I’ve always wanted to be a sculptor.”

After doing an art foundation course, Russ remembers how it felt like he’d run away with the circus. It was during this course that he got sober 29 years ago. “My adult art career is entirely the result of me being sober,” he says. “It’s given me the wherewithal to carry on practices, and I’m doubtful that I would still be alive if I wasn’t sober.” Russ sees his creativity as a way of paying back the help he’s received over the years, as well as noting how recovery has granted him a resilience in dealing with the precarious lifestyle of an artist.

Coming up to his thirtieth sober year, Russ is embarking on a project entitled 11,000 Days to commemorate his recovery. The project involves creating 11,000 blocks, which he will then give away. “I’m celebrating sobriety by giving a piece of work away. I recovered with Alcoholics Anonymous, and for that I was never charged, the help was freely given.” Russ notes that his involvement in AIR is flexible enough for him to focus on 11,000 Days whilst also preparing for AIR’s next exhibition at The Word in South Shields, which opens next year.

For many of the artists, a community has been found in AIR. Mark hopes that the AIR model can be exported to other cities. “Where there’s poverty, there’s addicton. I want little organic centres in cities like Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow based on the model that we’ve built in Newcastle. Just like every Alcoholics Anonymous is independent, I’d like a national AIR to be run along those lines.”

For Mark, PFW Wolf and Russ, an integral part of AIR is sending a message to those in recovery. “I guess our main message at our exhibitions is ‘recovery is possible’,” Mark says. “I want people to look at all of these wonderful people alive and well, who would be dead if they hadn’t recovered. Addicts are not bad people. We are simply sick people trying to get well.”

Visit AIR’s website for more information and to view artists’ work

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