A local mother’s grief sparks artwork that aims to end stigma around drug addiction

‘INTO LIGHT’ puts a human face on the disease of drug addiction

LYNCHBURG, Va. – When Theresa Clower’s son died after an overdose in 2018, she turned to art as a way to cope. Her first project was a pencil drawing of her son. That portrait sparked “INTO LIGHT,” an art exhibit that works to end the stigma around drug addiction.

Clower's portrait of her son Devin Hart Bearden. She says he was caring, athletic, bright, witty, and attractive. He was 32 when he passed away and lived with addiction for 12 years. (Theresa Clower)

The exhibit showcases portraits of different people in Virginia who passed away from drug addiction, along with a description about who they were and their story. The portraits are a way to put a face to the disease.

Before this project, Theresa had never done a portrait drawing before, but now she has done more than 250.

“The families participation to is every bit as important as the portrait and narrative,” said Clowers. “By sharing their loved one, by sharing their images and their stories, they are really saying to the world ‘these were people who, just like all of us, suffered from a disease and they deserved much better care than we were able to give.’”

After the exhibit closes, each portrait will be gifted to the families.

Clower hopes “INTO LIGHT” will help those who struggle with drug addiction and those who see the disease from the outside.

“Because of stigma, 90% of the people who suffer from substance use disorder do not get the help they need. We need to change that. [Substance use disorder] is a treatable disease. It is my hope that by viewing the portraits and reading the narratives of people who have suffered from this insidious disease, people will begin to change their attitudes about what addiction is and come to see those who have suffered as people just like all of us,” said Clowers. “We each have our light side and our dark side. No one should be defined by their darkest moments.”

“INTO LIGHT” exhibits have also been hosted in Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Each features portraits of people from that specific state. Theresa hopes that exhibits like this will one day pop up all over the country.

“There is such a need everywhere. We hear statistics — 93,000 people died last year from overdose — but we don’t see the faces of these people, so we offer that,” said Clowers.

Future exhibits are planned for Florida and California. The goal is to have them in all 50 states.

In conjunction with the exhibit, a public workshop will be held at the university at the end of the month. It will focus on healing the stigma of addictions.

The exhibit opens at the Daura Museum of Art on Oct. 5 at 4 p.m. and runs through Nov. 12.

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