Michael Libby, 58, was the oldest of five siblings. He is now the oldest of two. In 24 years, two brothers and a sister have died drug- or alcohol-related deaths. Libby’s latest exhibition, “On Getting High: Mapping Addiction at Home,” is his personal narrative told mostly with paintings and photos, beginning with his brother Reno’s heroin overdose death in December 1992.
The exhibition is on view at the gallery at Oak Street Lofts, 72 Oak St., Portland, through December. But hours are limited. The gallery, which occupies the ground floor of an apartment building, is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, though the exhibition can be viewed from the street through large windows, and the space is well lit at night.
This is the second time in a little more than a year that Libby has shown this work. In September 2015, friend and musician Denis Nye hung nearly this exact show in this same space. Nye died this past July, and Libby wanted to exhibit this work again for his friend.
Through his work, Libby hopes to draw connections between his loss and his art and participate in a community conversation about addiction. One Mainer per day is dying of addiction, according to state statistics. Drug overdose deaths in Maine through September surpassed the total for all of 2015. Through Sept. 30, 286 Mainers died from drug overdoses, according to the state Attorney General. “My personal story is part of a much bigger dialogue,” Libby said. “If there is a solution, it has to start with us, with society.”
After his brother Reno died in 1992, Libby processed his grief by walking all over Portland. He was drawn to open space and, in particular, to parking lots. He began sketching parking lots on paper and turned them into large abstract oil-on-canvas paintings that feel like the spine of a human skeleton. Libby calls the paintings “more like tombstone compositions for my brother’s ashes. The markings reflected an empathetic madness and a peculiar resting place for my weary mind, finding calm between the ordered white lines of the parking lot.”
He also constructed a family timeline, arranged on the floor of the exhibition. It includes two rows of information. On one side are photos of his siblings and parents and their dates of death. On the other side are examples of his work and how his art relates to his personal journey.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a quilt that Libby made called “Opium: A Comforter.” He made the quilt in traditional log-cabin style, with red center squares of stamped poppy pods. The quilt is a metaphor for the drug. A comforter conveys warm and happy feelings, which are at the root of heroin addiction. “Heroin is a pain reliever and very effective,” he said.
Libby, who is studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor, believes the first step in dealing with addiction is recognizing and acknowledging the benefits of using. Heroin is like a warm quilt. It creates a sensation of love. “As a society, how can we expect the user to give up a substance that makes them feel loved, if another love is not offered in its place? The health of a society is measured by how we treat our most vulnerable members,” he writes in his artist statement.
Libby was born in Waterville and now lives in Lewiston. He earned his bachelor’s in painting from the University of Southern Maine and is working on his master’s in psychiatric rehabilitation counseling, also at USM.
As part of this project, Libby is sewing a hot-air balloon, another metaphor for heroin. When the balloon is finished, he intends to fly high. “I’m scared about it,” he said. “But heroin is scary too. I think I need to go up in this thing that I make, this heroin balloon.”
WHEN: 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through December
WHERE: Oak Street Lofts gallery, 72 Oak St., Portland
Correction: This story was updated at 8:45 a.m. on Dec. 20 to correct several errors. Michael Libby is 58, not 57. The address of the Oak Street Lofts gallery is 72 Oak St., not 92. The last show of Libby’s work was in September 2015, not April. Denis Nye’s name was also misspelled.