Artist Jeff Bierk’s photographic images are stark and raw. Lights and shadow play across the folds of a hospital curtain. A man with a buzzcut and a grizzled beard stands beside a medical bed and gestures to someone off-camera. Rapid-fire photos depict street life, isolation, despair, hope, illness.
Curated by Matthew Ryan Smith, PhD’12 (Art and Visual Culture), the recent CURTAIN exhibition at Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant in Brantford, Ont., showed expressions of memory, love, death, kinship and grief.
Much more than art, however, it was also one of several community catalysts leading to the city’s recent decision to open a residential addiction withdrawal and treatment centre this fall.
Brantford has one of the country’s highest rates of hospital treatment for opioid addiction, Smith said. During one weekend in March, for example, three people in the city of 100,000 people died of opioid overdoses.
To put those numbers in context, 388 Ontarians died last summer alone from opioid overdoses, according to the latest Public Health Ontario stats. Overall, 1,022 people died in Ontario over the first nine months of 2018. In 2017, 1,261 people died from opioid overdoses – up from 867 in 2016.
In Brantford, an important part of the CURTAIN exhibition included an open discussion in which more than 150 people gathered to talk about the effects of addiction and homelessness in the community. Taking place at a drop-in centre, the conversation brought art to the people instead of just persuading people to attend the art.
“It’s impossible to anticipate the social impact of an exhibition. However, I witnessed how Jeff’s photographs acted as a vehicle for people to speak openly about their experiences with addiction and loss,” Smith said.
“Visitors to the gallery had tears in their eyes. We saw visitors using the images to mourn the death of their loved ones. We encountered visitors who recognized the actual hospital curtains in the photographs. We heard countless stories of addiction-causing illnesses, overdoses, and deaths.”
The exhibit became a vehicle for public grieving and problem-solving, Smith said. He believes it made a difference in the willingness of Brantford residents, governments and agencies to act.
“CURTAIN was an important exhibition because it attempted to visualize the opioid crisis while it was happening,” said Smith, who also curated Bierk’s CURTAIN exhibition in Grimsby, Ont., in 2017. “It speaks to themes of loss, recovery, and hope, which are universal human conditions. Jeff’s photographs of hospital curtains can speak to opioid addiction or to the loss of a loved one from illness or to the preciousness of life all at once. His work is both specific and unspecific, tragic and beautiful, painful and poetic.”
Bierk, who lives in Toronto, told of his past struggles with addiction and of the grief he felt upon the deaths of his parents and dear friends.
Sharing his experiences and allowing vulnerability during the public forum, he said, may have led to deeper local conversations about destigmatizing people with addictions “and looking at this opioid epidemic as something that requires a stronger response in the community.”
Bierk describes his photographs as collaborations – the images do not feature a ‘subject’ but show a partnership built on not authenticity and mutual respect. And while the CURTAIN series started as a visceral response to his spending time in hospitals, the distance of time since also led to his creating new photos, new memories and new contexts for this exhibition.
The Brantford show also featured a video of Bierk’s images cycling quickly through expressions of memory, love and death.
“I’m really grateful (Matt) found my work when he did and was so supportive and gave me a platform,” Bierk said.
Displaying vulnerability, he said, allowed some to set aside preconceived notions of addiction.
Said Smith, “Every artwork or exhibition makes a difference in the audience’s lives – however big or small that may be. All I want to do is show things to people that they find meaning in. If they found meaning in Jeff’s show, I’ve accomplished my goal.”
He said the exhibition and gallery discussion became “part of a larger initiative by the community to support comprehensive addiction treatment and counselling services in the city at a time when it needs it most.”
For Smith, the exhibit continues to resonate in unexpected ways.
“When his exhibition opened at Glenhyrst Art Gallery, they were very much about responding to the opioid crisis and its effect on the community. Today, weeks after my grandmother passed away, his photographs of hospital curtains speak to me about how she suffered with Parkinson’s disease in a long-term care facility. When I see his curtains, I see my grandmother in her bed surrounded by them. Yesterday, I saw his curtains as a way to help. Today, I see them as a way to heal. Tomorrow, I’ll see them as something else entirely.”
Smith sees his role as curator as “to tell interesting stories about the world we live in.”
He continued, “I lean towards exhibitions that make room for emotion, mostly because I researched how audiences use their feelings and emotions to understanding artwork during my studies at Western.
“There is certainly ‘art for art’s sake’ – you can find this in galleries and museums across the country. But as a curator of a public cultural institution, I attempt to use art as a social force that strengthens the bonds of community.”