Theresa Clower had never drawn portraits before her son, Devin, joined the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the American opioid epidemic. The overpowering grief of Devin’s death, she said, moved her to draw a portrait of him as a catharsis that has not only helped her process her grief but has grown into a 50-state project aimed at helping others who have lost loved ones to substance abuse.
“I feel this is a gift from Devin,” Theresa said of her portrait work. “I feel him in it all the time.”
Born out of the throes of her devastation — and the release she found through the hours of drawing her son’s portrait — is the national nonprofit INTO LIGHT. The organization is focused on erasing the stigma of drug addiction through art, which allows the victims of “substance abuse disorder” to be remembered while bringing national attention to the ever growing drug problem.
LIFE BEFORE ADDICTION
Theresa said she feels she developed her love of art as a child living in a fairly ideal home situation in the Baltimore area of Maryland. One of seven children, she was always creative, organizing plays in her neighborhood and charging 25 cents to attend.
“I believe when we really look at a child at an early age, we can see their skill set,” she said.
The oldest daughter in a family that saw seven babies in nine years, Theresa said she learned early in life how to shoulder responsibility. She liked the arts and became engaged in nature, which grew to be her solace and a source of healing for her after Devin’s death.
Her early interest in creative arts led her to the where she earned a bachelor of fine arts. She then completed a public administration master’s degree focused on the nonprofit side at the University of Delaware.
“The two degrees served me well. My fine arts focus was on jewelry but my strength was in nonprofit organizational management,” she said.
She spent 35 years with the Cecil County Maryland Arts Council directing a variety of nonprofit organizations, which she helped to establish.
“Once INTO LIGHT was established, it was very natural for me to set it up,” she said.
Theresa also directed statewide initiatives through the University of Delaware, and helped launch programs for youth through the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that manages AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA programs.
While her background was in art, she never used her degrees as a professional artist. She helped start artist organizations and worked on the administrative side of the nonprofit arena.
Just before Devin’s death and prior to moving to Western North Carolina, Theresa had spent 20 years in her own floral design business that specialized in large events.
THREE DREADED WORDS
On Feb. 4, 2018, Theresa received a phone call from Devin’s dad who uttered the three words she had dreaded for more than a decade: “Devin is dead.”
At the time, she and husband, Dennis, were on the west coast visiting family. She had felt comfortable traveling because Devin had just come out of treatment and was in a sober house in Baltimore about 45 minutes away from where she lived. She had even left him her car to drive while they were gone.
“He was working fulltime and doing really well,” she recalled. “He had money and he had a date that night.”
Unfortunately, Theresa said those two things worked against the gregarious, good looking young man who she feels suffered from social anxiety. It was actually a perfect storm, she said, that led to his untimely death.
“The date was not a good thing for him. He was probably anxious and decided to connect with his old contact and lined up some drugs. Unbeknownst to him, the drugs had been laced with fentanyl. His date went great and she invited him back to her place because he was tipsy. He died there that night. Obviously, it was a very devastating situation for her.”
On Sunday morning, Theresa was browsing in a book store when she received the phone call. She said getting home was a total blur.
Ironically, just weeks before his death, Theresa said she told Devin she feared if he ever began using again, she would lose him.
DEALING WITH ADDICTION
Theresa said Devin did not die without knowing his family loved him, although they had been put through a lot of emotional and financial stress for a decade as he dealt with the disease of addiction.
“When he was using drugs, he stole, he lied, he was not my Devin,” she said. “When he was in the throes, you couldn’t count on him. He was a totally different person. This disorder robs the personality of your loved one.”
While Devin’s addiction was an incredibly emotional strain on the family, she never believed abandoning him to fend on his own was the answer.
“We couldn’t walk away from Devin’s health issues. It is a disease and treatment centers are outrageously expensive. Within the family, we tried to help in any way we could but he repeatedly disappointed. My husband and I and Devin’s father were on the same page as to how this should be managed. We would not throw him out on the street or ignore him. We always loved him even when it was not easy,” she said.
Theresa said because of the stigma associated with drug abuse, only an estimated 10 percent of people worldwide that need help seek it. She said she realized that Devin was sick and could not get the help he needed if left on his own.
Introduced to OxyContin in his early 20s, Devin was only 32 when he died. Theresa describes him as a 6-foot-3-inch, lean and active, handsome and gregarious young man.
“He suffered with this disease for a good 10 years. It seemed he squandered so much of his gifts and talents,” she said. “Yet, when you understand what addiction can do, it changes the brain. It creates a different person.”
For the families, Theresa said, it is “a living hell on earth.” So, while the loss of Devin was difficult as it would be for any parent, she said, death is also a release.
“Every single person that has had to deal with someone in the throes of addiction would realize there is that release,” she said.
Devin had been through five different treatment centers with different models. At times, he was able to help financially, as the family members worked to scrape together enough money for his care.
Theresa feels there was a medical treatment for substance abuse disorder, Suboxone, which would have worked for Devin. He tried it but took himself off the drug.
“He didn’t feel good, so he weaned himself off,” she said. “Some people think you are trading one drug for another. No one should question that in my opinion. There should be no judgment on that level.”
FOCUSING ON FACES
Theresa and her husband had been planning to move to the Western North Carolina area and decided to keep their plans after Devin’s death. It kept them busy and was a good thing for them, she said. Theresa knew she wanted to get back into graphite work, a form of art she had not pursued for 45 years. When her daughter suggested she do a portrait of Devin, she gulped because she had never drawn a portrait before.
“I did it taking my time. For about three days it was just like I was visiting with him. I didn’t want to stop. I knew the last step would be a difficult and powerful one. I put it away and when I took it back out, I signed my name. That moment was when I said goodbye to Devin,” she said.
That experience changed Theresa’s mission in life. She felt she had to keep focused on the faces of the victims of drug addiction.
“I just kept drawing faces and at the same time I was grieving and doing solo walking with the dog and meditating,” she said. “I thought, ‘I am going to be doing portraits anyway, so why not do portraits that others can connect to like I did.’”
Theresa began drawing portraits of “people who have loved and lost.” She wanted her art to help pull people together who could help bring public awareness to the problem and the stigma of the disease. She first pulled people together in the Baltimore area where Devin died.
“My dear friend Laurie named the project. She said ‘I see it as light.’ The drawing is a metaphor for light. Everyone is made up of shades of gray and black but no one should be defined by their darkest moments,” Theresa said.
Drawing on her background in nonprofit organization, Theresa began to map out a plan and build a solid support group for INTO LIGHT. Several mothers “took the leap of faith” and sent her photos of their children who had died of an overdose. She also enlisted a professional writer who donated her time to interview and write narratives to go with each portrait as part of the exhibition for the Baltimore area.
With the photos from the family in hand, Theresa would begin drawing, focusing on the eyes as if seeing into the soul of her subject.
“By the time I have finished, I’ve visited them (the subjects) for about 10 hours. It is hard to say what I see in their eyes,” she said.
For the exhibitions, which began in Baltimore and now will be held in each of the 50 states, Theresa accepts 40 submissions and includes Devin’s portrait as the 41st in each exhibit. All drawings are scanned and sent to the families for approval then professionally framed. The exhibits are held in proper galleries.
“It is important they get professional framing and are very elegantly, very lovingly displayed,” Theresa said. On the last day of each exhibit, the families and closest friends of the loved one come back for the gifting of the portrait.
DEVIN’S GIFT OF LOVE
Theresa said she considers her success with the portraits and the exhibits as a gift from Devin. “I feel his love, his support every day,” she said. “I know it is because of him this is happening.”
The Baltimore exhibit held at the Gormley Gallery at Notre Dame of Maryland University was so successful it drew close to 1,000 people. Theresa said she didn’t have a clear vision of where the project would go.
“The media was constant. There was a lot of public interest. The families were so touched by this. I received so many beautiful notes,” she said. “One 9-year-old child’s father was in the exhibit and I have a beautiful picture of him holding his father’s portrait. His grandparents said this process helped him understand and helped him in his grieving. I knew it didn’t have to stop here.”
INTO LIGHT’s next exhibit is slated for Asheville, North Carolina, and Theresa has drawn and has most of the 40 portraits framed. The exhibit was scheduled to be held at the Mission Health/AB Tech Conference Center Gallery from Oct. 19 to Nov. 20; however, due to COVID-19, the exhibition has been postponed until it is safe to gather, she said.
Exhibits are also in the works for Ohio, California and Virginia.
To reach all 50 states, Theresa said it would take her until 2030, which would put her at 80 years old. By then, she said she would have some 2,000 drawings. Her goal is to document the human side of addiction and help eradicate the stigma of the disease that claims thousands of lives a year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention some 750,000 people in America have died since 1999 from a drug overdose. CDC records from 2017 notes that approximately 130 Americans died each day from an opioid overdose. Sixty-eight percent of the deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid like the fentanyl that killed Devin. Since the opioid crisis gained national attention calling on physicians to limit opioid prescriptions, CDC records indicate overdoses have decreased, killing 47,000 people in 2018 with 32 percent involving prescription drugs.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Theresa realizes that in order to reach her goal of having an exhibit in all 50 states, she is going to need some additional help with the art. With a goal of rolling out 10 exhibits a year, it is too much for her to manage alone. Theresa is seeking portrait artists in each state who could assist with the portraits.
Fundraising is also very important. Each exhibit includes framing the artwork, a narrative for each portrait, a catalog, travel and a reception for the families and can cost up to $30,000, she said. Having devoted her life to nonprofit work, Theresa understands the necessity for fundraising and having sponsors. The Asheville exhibit, for example, is being underwritten by Dogwood Health Trust and other individuals. Ambassadors are being sought in each state as well, to help INTO LIGHT connect with local contacts.
Already recognized by a local TV station as “Person of the Week,” Theresa is invested in helping move the needle on drug addiction and to eradicate the stigma that goes along with the disease.
“I believe we have to get past that judgment,” she said.