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‘Epidemic’ exhibition at ETSU brings together community, campus, art to increase awareness of opioid crisis

Contributed • Apr 12, 2019 at 3:50 PM

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 blended missions to present their first “Epidemic” exhibition at York College of Pennsylvania. Now, they are reprising the show for an East Tennessee audience, in a region that has among the highest opioid prescription and addiction rates 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, from 5-7 p.m. at the museum, 363 Stout Drive. Avery and DelMarcelle will share insights at the reception, and the Mountain Movers regional dance troupe, which is in residence at ETSU, will perform in the gallery spaces at 5:30, 6 and 6:30 p.m.

“Epidemic” is part of the spring 2019 Basler Chair of Excellence events, with Avery, who first came to ETSU in fall 2016 as the “FL3TCH3R Exhibit” juror, serving as this year’s Chair of Excellence for the Integration of the Arts, Rhetoric and Science.

“My work covers epidemics like HIV, HCV and emerging infectious diseases,” Avery said. “When Adam contacted me about collaborating with him, I was hesitant, but he 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 works by Avery and DelMarcelle, as well as several students and local artists, including prints, 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.

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 and 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.

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 asking questions 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.”

As Basler Chair and resident teacher, Avery has created connections with Johnson City Insight Alliance, Carter County Drug Prevention, Red Legacy Recovery in Elizabethton, the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library and Oddbody Press at Skillville in Johnson City, as well as the Quillen College of Medicine and its library and the Gatton College of Pharmacy at ETSU. There will be an opportunity at the “Epidemic” exhibition to donate toward making the exhibit’s scale model of DelMarcelle’s brother’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.

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.”

“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.”

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