Of the 53 works of art on display at the second annual Heroin & Opioid Art Exhibition in Newark, some directly evoke the pain of addiction like a needle in your soul. For more subtle pieces, like a photograph of 6-year-old Ava at a memorial mass for her dad, who died of a heroin overdose, mom Allison Willis tells an anguished story.
“It was very emotional,” said Willis. “Our whole family was there. We lit a candle for him which we got to take home. But that’s all my daughter has, is a picture of him and her necklace she’s wearing in that photo actually has his ashes in it.”
Willis wanted people at the art exhibit to understand how terribly this addiction epidemic impacts kids.
“It’s sad when people are dying of drug addiction, but nobody realizes all these kids that are being left behind without parents,” she said.
“What I couldn’t speak, I could do on the canvas,” said artist Debbie Rappaport Pine. She says she thinks many others may feel that way too.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was one of the sponsors of the exhibition along with several non-profits.
“This epidemic we have right now is crushing, not only in New Jersey but throughout the country. And this is just another way to make people aware of the problem,” said DEA New Jersey Division Special Agent Carl Kotowski.
The sponsors awarded ribbons for some of the artwork. Tyrone Gause of Monmouth County won first place for a piece he called, “Living in Vein.” Gause has fought heroin addiction for 40 years.
“It’s a person that spent his whole life addicted to heroin,” Gause says of his work. “And now he realized that his body and soul was taken away from him by dope.”
“I can see how it won first place,” said attendee Sharon Phillips. “It really depicts the face of heroin addiction.”
Gov. Christie delivered remarks at the gallery opening. “I view participation in events like this is about removing stigma,” he said.
According to Christie, federal drug enforcement has been “minimized” over the past seven years, but he says that he is looking for change. Christie’s Bridgegate defense attorney, Craig Carpenito is the likely nominee to be the next U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.
“And I hope when we get new leadership at the U.S. Attorney’s office, that we’ll return to a time when we are once again aggressive about drug enforcement. That’s part of what needs to be done,” said Christie.
But the governor, who heads the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, would not comment on the Trump Administration’s slow response to the issue. Two weeks ago, President Trump said the opioid epidemic is a national emergency, but his administration has yet to make a formal declaration. Without it, states are unable to access $1.5 billion in federal disaster relief funds.