Addicted to Art
New Exhibiting at Baltimore’s AVAM

Jonathan Lowe





Just before the rain began to fall on a chilly Friday afternoon, I wandered over to the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), rated as the nation’s fourth best art museum (according to a recent poll.) I, fortunately, live downtown and have the ability to walk to the Inner Harbor with ease, and the museum is located just on the other side of the harbor in Federal Hill on Key Highway. However, in all my journeys to the harbor, I’ve never actually made it past the ice skating rink. It was a quiet afternoon, and the closer I got to the museum, the more interested I was in what it had to offer. AVAM defines visionary art as "art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without any formal artistic training, whose works arise from an intensity for innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself."

Coming in, I pay the man ($6 for students,) and I look for some pamphlet or something describing the newest exhibit. However, the more I look, the more I’m disappointed. There doesn’t seem to be anything around describing the exhibit. There isn’t a sign, nothing. Finally I ask, "What’s this exhibit called?"

"High on Life: Transcending Addiction," is the quick reply from the art-nerd, indie, Elvis Costello-looking dude working the counter.

So, traveling up the walkway, I’m immediately greeted with the first section of this exhibit, "Temptation." In this section, the art exhibited represents the original temptation (i.e. Adam and Eve) along with some of the temptations of everyday life (i.e. drugs, lust, etc). This first exhibit grabs your attention immediately, with huge portraits of city landscapes picturing lottery, liquor stores, strip clubs and drug dealers. All of the art in this section is on a dark, brick red walk backdrop, which accents the temptation. Eric White’s Expulsion From Paradise strikes my eye immediately. I can’t quite figure it out, but it’s an exceptional painting. Except the name, it really could have fit in a completely different exhibit.

In the back room of this first floor sits the second section of the exhibit called "Descent." This section is based more on the downfall of man, the falling for the original temptation, the original sin. In this section, one can picture the sin, but not its affects. Immediately I notice Fire Door by William S. Burroughs. It’s really an amazing depiction of the descent, as you can picture the artist making that choice, going through the wrong door. I was a bit surprised to see something by Burroughs, as I only knew him as the author of "Naked Lunch", however, I learned that he was also an artist who had great influence on many (if not all) of the other artists in these exhibits. I found more and more of his work as I walked through the museum, and each time he impressed me even more than the last.

Another artist in this section, Welmon Sharlhorne, interested me. He was one of those "prison" artists. He usually put beasts (like dragons) in his work. Most of all, though, he has always had a rough time holding on to money, and the parts of his life that he hasn’t spent in the prison, he’s spent on the streets, homeless. The passage did add that people are always surprised that when he shows up for public events, he’s always "dapperly dressed," even though he’s basically a bum.

Walking up to the second floor, the next section is called "Constant Craving." This section is based mostly on heroin and what it does to people. Noel Rockmore’s Clinic Madonna immediately strikes me. It’s a portrait of a skeleton of a woman sitting with her child in her hands, and although the view outside the window is beautiful, she doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. You can see the addiction in her eyes and body. I hear an upper crust, older, yuppie woman says to her similar looking friend, "This is really depressing." And she’s right, it is depressing. This section is full of heroin related art. One can imagine the devastation attained from heroin use, the utter helplessness of its addicts.

The next section is much more positive. It’s called "The Third Eye." It’s more based on the use of drugs as a religious type experience. These pictures portray the enlightenment and visions associated with drug use and religion. These paintings are much more colorful. They look more at the positive states that people go through while using drugs. Just now, a man answers his cell phone saying, "I’m looking at the images of psychotics" Once again, truth from the patrons.

I wander around the corner and find the next section of the exhibit, "Plants of the Gods." This talks of and shows the Shamanic uses of mushrooms, peyote, cannabis and ayahuasca. Some of these artists are part of an ancient tribe of people living in Mexico, the Huichol or "Feather Healing" people. These images, too, are much less depressing. In this section, there is a portrait, that catches my attention, of Charles Manson made with marijuana seeds, done by Douglas Thompson called No Name Maddox.

Also on the second floor, I find "Dispensation." This section is epitomized in the first painting of the section, Laurie Lipton’s Happy Hour. It shows four older business people drinking smaller glasses of alcoholic drinks. Their bodies and faces are a bit blurry, showing the effects of the drink. The rest of the pieces in this section of the exhibit deal with alcohol as a dangerous, yet socially acceptable, drug. Which leads me to the final room of the exhibit, titled "Just Say Know." This section deals with the drug problems in today’s society, paying special attention to the abuse of alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. It forces the viewer to ask themselves if alcohol isn’t a worse drug than the illegal drugs, because it’s easier to get and hence easier to abuse. This section also adds some undocumented facts about more crime coming from alcohol related abuse, claiming that about 23% of those in prison were under the influence of alcohol when they committed their crimes.

Although it was a bit depressing, it was definitely worth it. I spent my walk back home thinking about the images that I saw, grateful for the opportunities that I have and the blessing it’s been in staying away (for the most part) from these addictive chemicals. I did brew a pot of coffee, and I threw on an album side when I got home, abusing my two favorite drugs.

Go to the Visionary Art Museum. Check it out (it’s website is It’s well worth it.