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How a New Hampshire Museum Is Using Art to Reach Families Affected by the Opioid Crisis

The ‘Art of Hope’ initiative encourages participants to draw connections between works of art and their own lives

Claude-Joseph Vernet, "The Storm," 1759 (Courtesy of the Currier Museum of Art)
smithsonian.com

In Claude-Joseph Vernet’s “The Storm,” nature’s fury is overwhelming. A mass of black clouds and crashing waves threaten to capsize a ship out in the distance. Closer to land, a lone man struggles to bring his boat to safety. On shore, a dazed mother wraps her child in her arms, while a couple mourns over the corpse of a drowned woman. From slightly higher ground, a small dog takes in the scene with its tail between its legs.

The work is a vision of chaos, but also a recipe for redemption—a dichotomy easily picked up on by attendees at a recent “Art of Hope” session, as chronicled by New Hampshire Union Leader’s Shawne K. Wickham. The free art therapy-inspired initiative, which launched in January at New Hampshire’s Currier Museum of Art, draws on the gallery’s collection, as well as guidance offered by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, to help those impacted by the opioid crisis.

To participants, most of whom are the parents or family members of individuals struggling with addiction, the maritime canvas’ story taps into their own sagas: One mother notes, “There’s blue out there beyond. It’s going from chaos to sunshine and glory.” Another attendee draws attention to how the survivors are helping each other, saying, “It goes to show when there’s some disaster, people do pick it up.”

According to Hyperallergic’s Zachary Small, the Manchester-based museum hosts regular “Art of Hope” sessions that incorporate both introspective art analysis and hands-on creative projects. Designed to provide participants with coping mechanisms and healing tools, the program also serves as a safe space for those undergoing similar experiences to “discuss methods of resilience, self-care, social connection, shame and hope.”

New Hampshire is one of the states most affected by the national opioid crisis. It shoulders the country's highest overdose deaths per capita from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Lynn Thomson, the Currier’s assistant director of education, tells Small that the initiative began with an assessment of how to best serve the more than 110,000-strong community of Manchester, the state’s most-populous city. Museum director Alan Chong suggested collaborating with the nonprofit Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, which assigned three parent-mentors to consult on the program, and “The Art of Hope” moved forward from there.

Wickham of the Union Leader notes that sessions typically begin with group observation of a specific artwork. Participants are asked to connect the art with a weekly theme (for example, Vernet’s “The Storm” raised questions of social connections), and the majority of the time, this analytical back-and-forth segues into discussion of the group’s shared struggles. As Thomson commented during the Vernet session, “They’re all there together, working as a team”—a description equally applicable to the figures in the painting and the individuals in the room.

Following group discussions, participants move on to crafting exercises such as designing cards to send to estranged loved ones or creating clay coil pots. No artistic finesse is necessary, Thomson tells Small. Instead, the activity is “mostly just about slowing down and taking a few minutes to breathe.”

“Folks are just constantly going,” Thomson adds, “especially when you have the weight of such a heavy problem on your shoulders like substance abuse.”

The agenda for upcoming “Art of Hope” sessions isn’t set in stone. For instance, Thomson agreed to try and incorporate a still-life after the group expressed admiration for a painting of flowers. One participant called attention to how the serene scene contrasted with the uncertainty dominating the lives of those in the session. In an incisive quip, she noted, “We don’t have a still life.”
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