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Taking action in crisis: Physician-artist spreads word through ETSU residency that ‘Art saves lives,’ with focus on opioid epidemic

Contributed • Feb 15, 2019 at 3:46 PM

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 a 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, who visited ETSU in fall 2016 as juror for the annual 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.

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.

Avery’s Basler Chair lecture was titled “Art Can Save Lives.”

“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 said.

“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. ‘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 and Print Collaborations.”

Avery’s work will be on display at ETSU, as well, from 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.” A variety of health-related activities will enhance the “Art saves lives” and collaborative elements of the exhibit and theme of Avery’s residency.

The final public Basler activity will be a “Fold & Stitch: Making Simple Books” workshop with Avery and DeAngelis on Wednesday, April 24, from noon-1 p.m. Reservations are required because of limited space.

For his special topics graphic design course, “Visual Communication and the Opioid Crisis,” Avery is reaching out to other programs both on and off campus 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.

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 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, Avery 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 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 DeAngelis at [email protected] or 423-439-5673.

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