How an art exhibit transformed into something greater

Reflections from ReThink Recovery art exhibit
Video by Amit Kehar (www.amitkehar.com)

Change entered my life without an invitation and left me feeling disoriented and broken. When thrusted into an unfamiliar world, left to figure out how to carry on with no roadmap or guideposts to navigate me forward — my inclination was to put what was once familiar on a pedestal, to search endlessly for the answers that would get me back to what once was.

Art found its way into my recovery and into my life. The process of creating art with no specific end goal, led me to unfamiliar ground which ultimately led me to recovery. My art is where I came to understand my life and its evolving narrative, where I continue to grow and find answers to questions I never thought to ask.

Four week ago my first solo art exhibit, entitled ReThink Recovery, opened at Lakeshore Art Gallery in Toronto. The exhibit curated these same works of art created over the past four years. Having never hosted an art exhibit before, I had no idea what to expect.

Beyond letting others into my process of how art allowed me to find the answers to feel complete again, the answers that no one was able to provide — 
this uniquely accessible art exhibit was designed to welcome visitors into my ideal world. Pieces were all hung at a lower height, so they can be enjoyed while sitting on the benches scattered throughout the gallery. The room was dimly lit and there was a candy jar filled with earplugs — to allow everyone the opportunity to experience and enjoy a low-stimuli environment. People were invited to touch original works of art, enabling a multi-sensorial experience.

The most noteworthy feature of this exhibit was the interactive workshop activity which allowed all participants to be fully immersed ‘rethinking recovery’. When presented with a set of broken pieces, the activity forced everyone to challenge their instinctive response to want to put the pieces back the way they once were and instead to ask themselves: what is gained and what is lost when we let go of perfect? Many were encouraged to ask their own questions about identity and opportunity. Others saw beauty in the new whole, embracing for the first time the idea that ‘different’ was ok.

An artist friend told me that once my artwork is in the public domain it will no longer be mine. Its meaning will change through time and place. The process of putting up this exhibit forced me to let go of my attachments to my art — allowing me to see these works as their own identities. Difficult at first as these works were not merely paintings, photographs, sculptures, or prints. These were all parts of me. Each piece served as a mirror — held up in front of me, they reflected back at me what I could not see, the beacons of the answers that I was so desperately seeking.

The four walls of the gallery fostered community. Visitors travelled from all four corners of the city and beyond to convene in a space welcoming and accommodating to them — to share and learn from one another. The didactic panels put words to an experience that up until now, many were not able to verbalize. Some drew pictures to capture what the experience meant to them.

The turnout overwhelmed me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. Seeing hundreds of strangers connect with these works showed me that I am not alone in this journey. Witnessing how individuals related to the exhibit and drew meaning far beyond my lived experiences of recovery from an injury revealed the universality of ReThink Recovery.

One participant shared on social media that the exhibit reminded her of the journey to motherhood. Relating to her experiences of how in the moment of becoming a mother everything she was before fell away. Of how one can feel lost and broken, trying to fit the pieces of her new life into the old expectations of her being. Inspired instead to accept who she is in the present and to take the parts that now resonate and leave those things that no longer light us up.

Perhaps what surprised me the most with ReThink Recovery is that in the end, the exhibit had very little to do with me. Although the works gave insight into my deeply personal journey — based on the reactions people shared with me — visitors walked away seeing recovery in ways that are meaningful to them. The exhibit evoked deeply personal questions. Most importantly, a dialogue was started. That to me is undoubtedly the most gratifying and beautiful part of this entire experience.

Continue the conversation #ReThinkRecovery

I am grateful to Lakeshore Arts for inviting me to host a solo exhibit and for their tireless support over the past few months to make ReThink Recovery a reality.

I would also like to acknowledge the Ontario Arts Council for their generous support through the Exhibition Assistance Fund.