Physician-artist makes connections, spreads word through residency, events at ETSU that ‘Art saves lives’
Dr. Eric Avery is a visual artist, a physician, a psychiatrist, an educator and an activist. This spring at East Tennessee State University, Avery is also the Basler Chair of Excellence for the Integration of the Arts, Rhetoric and Science, acting as a resident professional teaching and bringing his craft to campus and the community.
Integration is indeed the key word. With a focus on the opioid crisis in Appalachia, Avery is acting as a catalyst, connecting numerous campus and regional programs and efforts in other parts of the country – and integrating them into two art courses he is teaching, an exhibition of his work, a lecture and other activities on campus.
“If we can find new ways to bring the two very different disciplines of arts and health sciences – very strong programs at ETSU – together, I can’t help but think that the future of our community will be a different place,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts and Basler Fellow. “To me, that’s one of the beautiful things about having Eric here. He’s a person who has worked in those disciplines his entire life. He has embodied that. To me, it’s a very special semester we have underway right now.”
Avery’s busy schedule includes four events that are free and open to the public, all occurring at ETSU’s Reece Museum on 363 Stout Drive.
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, Avery will present his Basler Chair lecture, titled “Art Can Save Lives’ at 6 p.m. “Normally, I ask the question, ‘Can art save lives?’ but this time, I am turning it around and illustrating in my talk how art has saved and can save lives.’ ”
Avery, who visited ETSU in fall 2016 as juror for the FL3TCH3R Exhibit, has combined art and medicine throughout his career as a physician, psychiatrist and printmaker. Since receiving his M.D. in 1974, he has served as medical director with World Vision at a refugee camp in Northern Somalia and on a ship rescuing Vietnamese fleeing into Indonesia, been a human rights activist with refugees at the Texas-Mexico border and documented the HIV/AIDS crisis through his prints and art activities, while also serving on the faculty at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston as AIDS psychiatrist.
“I hope the main takeaway from my talk is that one of the key functions of art is to bear witness to what’s happening in the world,” Avery says. “ ‘As an artist, I saw this and I made pictures about it and this what we are putting in front of you …’ and printmaking, historically, is the form that has been used to carry messages out into the world because they were made for people.”
On Tuesday, March 26, at 6 p.m., Avery will join with printmaker Dave DiMarchi and ETSU Assistant Professor of Printmaking Sage Perrott as panelists for a discussion of “Artists’ Book & Print Collaborations.” Artist DiMarchi works in letterpress, papermaking, silkscreen and sculptural book forms and has exhibited works on paper, installations and books in both the U.S. and Europe. He maintains a small collaborative studio in Eastern Pennsylvania. Perrott has a B.F.A. in printmaking from West Virginia University and an M.F.A. from Ohio University. Her artwork features grumpy, ghost-like creatures situated in cramped, often humorous circumstances.
“One of the reasons I knew about Eric’s artwork is because of his print collaborations,” says DeAngelis, who is also a printmaker and art faculty member at ETSU, “not only reading about them and studying them in classes, but experiencing his work firsthand at a conference featuring Eric years ago.”
Avery’s work will be on display at ETSU, as well, April 15-May 31, in collaboration with Pennsylvania artist Adam DelMarcelle, who after losing a brother to an opioid overdose, committed his life to the betterment of his community through his work as an educator and artist. The “Epidemic” exhibition will feature the print work of Avery and DelMarcelle, as well as DelMarcelle’s “social art actions.” Health-related activities will enhance the “Art saves lives” and collaborative elements of the exhibit and theme of Avery’s residency.
As with the “Epidemic” show that Avery and DelMarcelle mounted in Pennsylvania in late 2018, a 28-page newspaper-tabloid style catalog will be available for purchase at the exhibition. The tabloid features their art, statistics on the opioid crisis and potentially life-saving information on recognizing opioid overdose, administering Naloxone, steps to take when an overdose has occurred and harm reduction.
The catalog for “Epidemic” says: “An epidemic is defined by the artists as a progressive descent from physical, psychological and community wellness which is often ignored … Successful interventions during epidemics often require all persons within a community to ask themselves what part they play in the landscape of the problem and how they best participate in reducing harm and restoring wellness.”
“Remember: doing something is better than doing nothing,” the exhibition catalog says in bold text.
To get “something” started, activities at Reece during “Epidemic” and its gallery talk and reception – on Thursday, April 18, from 5-7 p.m. – may include site-specific dances and possible Naloxone, drug prevention and harm reduction training, Avery says. Details about exhibition-related activities are still being developed.
The final public Basler activity will be a more laid-back “Fold & Stitch: Making Simple Books” with Avery and DeAngelis on Wednesday, April 24, from noon to 1 p.m. The workshop is free of charge but does require reservations because of limited space.
For his special topics course, Visual Communication and the Opioid Crisis, Avery is reaching out to other programs on campus and off to integrate as many perspectives and opportunities as possible into the classroom. In just a couple weeks, he has already forged connections with the ETSU College of Public Health and Center for Prescription Abuse and Prevention, as well as with a growing number of community drug prevention and education programs.
He hopes to be the catalyst for an art education project with Carter County Drug Prevention Coalition and ETSU installation art students, and that’s just the beginning. “I’m trying to connect my graphic design students with real-world experiences for graphic designers,” Avery says.
Connections breed more connections and communication more communication and understanding. Avery’s work is storytelling, he says, and narrative has a ripple effect.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity at ETSU, because so it brings together many parts of my life ….” Avery says. “There’s a narrative structure to the pictures that I make. It’s not often obvious because I am not an illustrator. I am an artist, but if you give art enough time, to think about it, to use your imagination, you get the story. That’s what I am encouraging my students to do.”
That visual storytelling presents another connection, to the region’s drug prevention programs and the classroom, as well, the 2019 Basler chair says.
“The recovery programs are all narrative,” he says. “Telling stories is the narrative form. Recovery is rebuilding community and the narrative form is how community is rebuilt.”
So many people and groups are interested in getting the stories told and information shared that can save lives and rebuild community, Avery says.
“That would be a gift to me, if when I when leave, even more people are working across disciplines and across communities … It’s what the Basler chair was meant to do. It’s the integration of art and science. It’s beautiful.”
For more information about Basler Chair 2019 events or to make reservations for the April 24 workshop, contact Anita DeAngelis at email@example.com or call 423-439-5673. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.