“If hope was an image, what would it look like?”
Master of Public Health student Christian Arthur (SSW’20) posed this question last fall to clients at Wyman Recovery Home and Transitions, two residential recovery programs on the City of Boston’s Mattapan treatment campus. Their answers—from depictions of nature and the environment, to poignant symbols of pain and perseverance—were recently captured in a series of murals at the facilities, created by local artists who have also experienced substance use disorder.
The striking artwork is part of a project that Arthur first conceptualized in an assignment for a Planning and Program Development course in the School of Social Work in summer 2019. A dual-degree MPH/MSW student who received his Master of Social Work degree in May, Arthur designed a mural project plan that would promote recovery and build self-care skills and leadership in a hypothetical Boston community.
Now, with funding from an Activist Bucks grant by the SPH Activist Lab, as well as matching funds from the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services where Arthur interns, and additional support from local arts organizations, Arthur has turned his summer class assignment into actuality with the illustrations of positive images and messages that brighten the community spaces at the treatment facilities.
“Arts organizing is a part of who I am,” says Arthur, an artist and creative writer who has organized spoken word and poetry events for almost a decade, and who has served as the digital organizer for MassLEAP, a Massachusetts youth poetry and social justice organization. “I’ve produced performance and visual arts in the community, but never something on this scale, so this project was a point of growth for me.”
To get a better sense of the images and messages that the clients wanted the murals to portray, Arthur began conducting interviews, focus groups, and surveys at the treatment centers last September. He also participated in creative writing workshops at Transitions, led by the Writers Without Margins nonprofit, to gain ideas and inspiration from the clients through poetry writing and analysis. After conducting qualitative and quantitative analyses of the assessments—“the project management and software skills from the core classes at SPH were super helpful,” he says—he partnered with 24 Hr. Power, Inc., a local recovery graffiti nonprofit that creates art to reduce stigma around substance use disorder to create the artwork.
On Sunday, May 31, volunteer artists from 24 Hr. Power, joined by City staff, gathered at the treatment center to paint murals on the fences surrounding the center’s outdoor recreational area. Arthur also helped paint parts of the illustrations, which included many elements of nature, such as a caterpillar chrysalis turning into butterflies, as well as suns, sunflowers, an ivy plant that spells the word “love,” and an orchid with a heart in its center.
“Butterflies are a classic recovery symbol, in terms of metamorphosis, and becoming something new and different,” he says. “It’s about seeing the beauty in yourself, and flourishing and thriving.”
The artists have also created murals on canvas for indoor display at Wyman. One image of a two-part mural depicts a heart composed of stained glass, with a hand replacing a missing piece of the heart.
“This mural is true to the spirit of one of the ideas that came out of the assessment, which was to create a heart with stitches and show that it is mending,” says Arthur. “The artist decided to add the stained glass element and introduced this concept that feeling fractured doesn’t preclude being beautiful–in fact, it’s the imperfection that makes it beautiful.”
Susie Lordi, founder and president of 24 Hr. Power, says that the mural activities have helped ease a tough time for people in recovery, a population that has been significantly impacted by COVID-19.
“24 Hr. Power Artists 4 Recovery have been incredibly blessed with Christian’s support,” says Lordi. “His vision and hard work allowed us to create positive artwork for Wyman Recovery Home and Transitions, who are especially dear to 24 Hr. Power’s heart.” Wyman had previously helped the artists host events for traumatic brain injury residents in recovery, she says, and now “it’s so beautiful to be able to pay this forward.”
Indeed, Arthur says one of the most enjoyable aspects of the mural project is seeing so many artists come together to create positivity and support for the recovery community, of which he is also a member. He celebrated four years of sobriety on June 3.
“Addiction is a sickness that is everywhere in your life,” he says. “I never would have been able to do something with this level of complexity, or listen to people in the way that this project demanded, without going through recovery.
“But it’s not about me,” he says. “I’m just stoked to be able to play this facilitator role and see the art and the ideas of the community. Being a part of that and seeing it to fruition is really great.”