'Faces of Recovery' illustrates the struggle of staying sober
Self-taught artist Keith Lawrence uses empathy, art to explore the struggles of battling addiction.
ROCHESTER — A series of portraits on the third floor of the Rochester Art Center might look familiar to some people even if they never met the subjects in the work.
These are the “Faces of Recovery,” an exhibit by self-taught artist Keith Lawrence.
Each one represents a face along the road from addiction to recovery — a path Lawrence is familiar with.
“These are people that I’ve actually met before that I know have the same problem with addiction,” Lawrence said.
The most compelling piece in the exhibition is also where Lawrence says he never wants to find himself again.
“That’s ‘Pre Contemplation,’” Lawrence said. “That’s addiction right there — a nightmare.”
The piece is haunting and the eyes in the portrait exude pain.
At the other end is “Maintenance,” a work that shows a man confident and happy. Lawrence said he has known the man in that portrait for six years.
“I’ve never seen him high, drunk or anything,” Lawrence said.
That’s where he would like to see himself, but a relapse always seems to be around the corner depending on life circumstances.
“It’s been a struggle for 27 years,” he said.
Lawrence said his original idea for the “Maintenance” portrait was more complex than it turned out to be. Work and other struggles in life distracted him from putting the hours into the portraits that he intended, he said.
“If they were the only thing I was doing, they would have been the only thing I was doing,” he said. “But I like sleeping indoors and eating,” he said.
Distractions can be a good thing, Lawrence said. Positive distractions such as relationships, work and other things have helped him stay sober for stretches of time. However, unemployment, stress and other factors can end those streaks. Creating the works was one of those good distractions, he said.
“In my opinion, the first two are the best,” he said. “I just didn’t have the time to do them the way I wanted to.”
A Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council grant helped pay for the work. Rochester Art Center Curator Zoe Cinel connected Lawrence with the opportunity to exhibit his work.
Lawrence, a native of Georgia, came to Minnesota in 2007 by way of Chicago. He learned art by reaching out to other artists, learning from them and finding books that taught him the techniques he wanted to learn.
He studied graphic design at the now-closed Art Institutes International Minnesota and explored a career in that field, but making digital designs for commercial purposes wasn’t for him, he said.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Put your hands on the paper, get them dirty.”
The work Lawrence prefers to do is creating intimate portraits and capturing people’s personalities on paper. The “Faces of Recovery” exhibition led him to create more abstract art than he’s used to while also capturing the personality of each subject.
In “Contemplation,” a man reflects in his thoughts as a reflection of himself stares back at him. To illustrate “Treatment,” a woman’s thoughts move like spheres from her head. In “Preparation,” a man rolls up his sleeves. His face is cartoonish.
“The guy, we’ve been close friends in recovery for a while,” Lawrence said. “He’s a comedian, he’s a character, he’s a good guy.”
Despite having on-and-off success fighting to stay sober, Lawrence notes his successes have added up. In 27 years of work, he estimated he has a decade of sobriety. He said the works are a nod to the people who continue to battle addiction regardless of where they’re at in that fight. It also illustrates that the fight is never linear and people find themselves in familiar places again and again.
“I can’t really explain it, except that it’s a mental illness,” he said. “You continue to keep doing this, but you know what’s going to happen.”
"Faces of Recovery" will be up through Feb. 19, 2023.