In the late 1970s physician, psychiatrist and artist Dr. Eric Avery began making art to process his experiences helping Somalian and Vietnamese refugees. As HIV/AIDS became prevalent, Avery’s prints and exhibitions evolved to depict the human side of that epidemic, educate the public and empower the suffering and fearful.
In 2014, fellow printmaker and graphic designer Adam DelMarcelle lost his brother to an opioid overdose. Since that time, his projections and art activism have focused on spreading awareness of the heroin and opioid crisis in the U.S. and those who are marginalized or ignored in their time of need.
In fall 2018, the two artist/activists blended missions to present their first “Epidemic” exhibition at York College of Pennsylvania. In April and May, they are reprising the show for an East Tennessee audience, in a state that ranks second in the country for opioid use, with East Tennessee consumption the highest in the state.
The “Epidemic” exhibition at East Tennessee State University’s Reece Museum will open April 15 and continue through May 31, with a reception and gallery talk Thursday, April 18, 5-7 p.m. at the museum, 363 Stout Drive. Avery and DelMarcelle will share insights at the reception, and Mountain Movers regional dance troupe, which is in residence at ETSU, will perform in the gallery spaces at 5:30, 6 and 6:30 that evening.
“Epidemic” is part of the spring 2019 Basler Chair of Excellence events, with Avery serving as this year’s Chair of Excellence for the Integration of the Arts, Rhetoric and Science.
“In my Basler chair lecture, I showed ways that art has saved lives in my life and work,” says Avery, who first came to ETSU in fall 2016 as the FL3TCH3R Exhibit juror. “Adam and I hope to expand this to East Tennessee with ‘Epidemic’ at the Reece.
“My work covers epidemics like HIV, HCV and emerging infectious diseases. When Adam contacted me about collaborating with him, I was hesitant, but Adam said, ‘You deal with epidemics and this is also an epidemic.’ ”
The exhibition will fill galleries C and D of Reece Museum with a mixture of prints by Avery and DelMarcelle, installations, projections, body maps, scale models and even a “doomsday” clock that will tick off the number of U.S. overdose deaths during the run of the exhibition, one every 7.5 minutes.
An installation and projection will represent DelMarcelle’s brother’s room. Prints and body maps will tell stories of victims and survivors. Avery’s prints will reflect HIV, HCV and other epidemics. A life-size Adam and Eve now in Paradise Lost will overprint Dürer’s Garden of Eden. A scale model of a trailer containing a young person’s room will guide parents and others to finding drug stashes. Avery’s students’ work will add to visitors’ grasp of the breadth of the epidemic, as well as the work of Wayne, Barb and Carrie Dyer, art faculty member John Hilton, Johnson City resident Larry Thacker and graduate student Jordan Witten.
The newspaper-style catalog for “Epidemic” is also a teaching tool, with 20 pages of illustrative and instructional prints by Avery and DelMarcelle; opioid statistics; step-by-step instructions for saving lives – including administering Naloxone; and information on harm reduction, local support and recovery organizations. Copies of the catalog will be free at the exhibition.
“As an Appalachian, it’s refreshing to see artists pay attention to this crisis and to label it as it is, an epidemic,” says Reece Museum Director Randy Sanders. “The Reece Museum staff appreciates bringing the Basler chairs in all categories to campus, but it’s a special opportunity this spring to work with Dr. Avery and Mr. DelMarcelle to produce an exhibition on subject matter that is not only important and timely, but so collaborative. We are truly seeing how collaboration can produce not only wonderful art exhibits but also healing.”
Each new person reached with this information and these images is a victory in the battle against opioid abuse and overdose. “Eric and I have a strong understanding that the work we do is not pictures on a wall,” says DelMarcelle, who lives and teaches visual art in Pennsylvania. “It is purely a vehicle to the larger issues discussed in our visual documentation. We use the work to get people closer to issues they would normally avoid. This lessening of distance is what brings the best chances for question asking and possible change.
“This exhibition is my life’s work. I lost my brother Joey to an overdose in 2014. I can’t have him back the way I want, so he lives through my work … This work is me trying to heal wounds that I know can never be healed, but in the process of sharing my pain, it is my hope to release others from theirs.”
Part of the two educators’ life’s work is also inspiring others and building collaborative networks wherever they go to spread the word and the need for saving and valuing these lives, whether through art, medicine or other means.
As Basler chair and resident teacher, Avery has also created connections with Johnson City Insight Alliance, Carter County Drug Prevention, Red Legacy Recovery in Elizabethton, the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, Quillen College of Medicine and its library, the Gatton College of Pharmacy and Oddbody Press at Skillville in Johnson City. There will actually be an opportunity at the “Epidemic” exhibition to donate toward making the scale-model child’s room a full-scale reality to be used by the Carter County Drug Prevention program.
“Dr. Avery’s fresh take on the challenges and obstacles many of us struggle to overcome every day has been refreshing, while his deep care and concern for the ‘workers’ is something not often experienced by those on the front lines,” says Jilian Reece CCDP director. “It has been a privilege to play a small role in his experience in Northeast Tennessee.”
ETSU’s Dance Composition class will be bringing its artistry to the “Epidemic” effort, as well. These student dancers will perform a dance inspired by the exhibit at Reece Museum on Monday, April 22, at 2 p.m. The Epidemic piece will be a part of the Dance Composition Showcase Wednesday, April 24, at 7:30 p.m. in Bud Frank Theatre.
“When I met with Dr. Avery and learned about his work, I knew the dance program needed to be involved in exploring this important issue,” says ETSU dance program head Cara Harker. “Working with the elements of dance – time, space and energy – we hope to create a performance that reflects the emotion of his and others’ art.”
As a prelude to “Epidemic,” DelMarcelle says he hopes to provide a preview, with a projection near downtown Johnson City for First Friday.
“Through this unique mixture of art and science that Eric brings, we are already seeing changes in the community and campus and remarkable collaborations between ETSU, the medical and pharmacy schools and community organizations,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts and a spring 2019 Basler Fellow. “The exhibition will be a culmination of his and Adam’s amazing creative and interpersonal efforts to effect change.”
The means to the end may be many, but the focus is direct: Enhance understanding. Create conversations. Inspire action. And save lives.
“The work is in some ways a beautiful trick to pull people in and when they are engaged, we then talk,” DelMarcelle says. “We talk about the issue and we share stories of those affected. We leave the participants with a need to find out more. If we do this, then everything Eric and I have done was worthwhile.”
For more information on the “Epidemic” exhibition, contact Reece Museum at www.etsu.edu/reece or 423-439-4392. For information on 2019 Basler Chair events, visit www.etsu.edu/cas/basler.php or call Anita DeAngelis at 423-439-5673. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.