Maine’s heroin problem is getting worse, and Jonathan Schwolsky is trying to do something about it.

“This is were the fight is happening,” said Schwolsky from inside one of Lewiston’s historic mills, now converted to an art space.  

Schwolsky made Lewiston his home after graduating from Bates College partly because Lewiston reminds him of where he grew up in New Jersey.  

“Lewiston is sort of like the New Jersey of Maine,” Schwolsky said while talking about the good people that he’s met on the streets of Lewiston and New Jersey.

“There is no reason for anyone to discount anyone,” Schwolsky said of the stigma that comes with both Lewiston and drug addicts.   

He landed a job as resident artist at Warehouse 550 and uses art as a tool to help those who have fallen into the world of addiction. 

“I’m no counselor. I’ve been in counseling, but I’m no counselor,” Schwolsky said. “My way of counseling is directing a show.”

Schwolsky is overseeing 272 Lenses, a multimedia arts show being held March 25-26 in response to the 272 overdose deaths in Maine in 2015. 

“Two-hundred-seventy-two people is a lot of people,” curator Marty O’Brien said.

O’Brien is the founder of Grace Street Recovery Services, a behind-the-scenes place of belonging for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

“The opposite of addiction is finding a place to belong again,” O’Brien said. “We are known as a place that treats people really, really well.” 

Grace Street Services is inside the 165-year-old Pepperell Mill. Warehouse 550 is a continuation of Grace Street and is used for art space and hands-on projects. 

Patients repurposing old pallets into coffee tables and restoring an old Harley-Davidson panhead from the 1970s are examples of those projects, O’Brien said.

“That way, they don’t have to listen to another lecture on coping skills,” O’Brien said. “They can learn that right here.”

Schwolsky is hoping 272 Lenses resonates with those who battle addiction as well as “someone who does not know the world of addiction.”

Videos made in-house of patients telling their stories have been sent to Gov. Paul LePage’s office. An invitation to the show has been sent to the governor as well. 

The show will feature 272 wooden shoe forms that were once used in the mill to make shoes.

“Each shoe will represent someone who overdosed and died,” O’Brien said. “We are trying to show tragedy with dignity and elegance.” 

The show hits close to home for O’Brien, who knew some of those who died. None comes closer than the death of his 19-year-old niece, Erin. She was in college and on the path to recovery when a relapse in a parked car killed her. 

O’Brien said many overdose deaths are the result of a sudden relapse. The fatal injection is most often the same amount of heroin the user was used to using, but the time spent sober lowers their tolerance. 

The same amount of heroin used once to get high now adds them to a list that O’Brien fears will only get longer.

“The heroin problem is getting worse,” O’Brien said.  “When prescription drugs dried up, we saw this coming.” 

Thirty percent of O’Brien’s patients were heroin users three years ago. The rest were addicted to opiate-based prescription drugs. 

Today, 90 percent of his patients are addicted to heroin. 

“We will be telling a story of loss,” O’Brien said of 272 Lenses.

Following the Saturday evening show, O’Brien will walk beneath the tree roots hanging from the ceiling, under the metal bed frames used to hang lights and past the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man and Scarecrow standing in a field of painted poppy fields.

He will lock up the vast open mill space, and hopefully feel a bit of accomplishment, “if there is a mother who lost a daughter who can leave here feeling a bit better,” O’Brien said. 

“In a warehouse in a storied mill town, we are changing the definition of the war on drugs through 272 Lenses,” Schwolsky said. 

What: An open discussion on the effects opiate and heroin addiction have on our community. 

Who: Panelists include representatives from local schools, law enforcement, treatment and recovery facilities and physicians.

Where: Lewiston Middle School Auditorium.

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 31.

What: 272 Lenses is a large-scale multimedia arts show being held in response to the 272 overdose deaths in Maine in 2015.

Where: Warehouse 550 at 550 Lisbon St. in Lewiston.

When: March 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. 

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