“Get high.”

The words on a sidewalk sign in downtown Portland 18 months ago attracted a lot of attention from pro-marijuana types. But social artist Michael Libby’s nearby installation and related activities were not about pot or advocacy, despite the setting in a mini-park frequented by addicts at certain times of day.

Between 1992 and 2012, Libby lost three of four siblings in alcohol- or drug-related deaths. Over the years, art that he had created in conscious or unconscious response to the losses began to look like something that could be used for a higher purpose: to spark open dialogue about addiction — literally on the street and in other public places.

Libby, 57, a recently certified alcohol and drug counselor, believes the answers to the current heroin epidemic and other serious addictions will evolve mostly from a community response.

The majority of his installation is on display at Forage Market, 180 Lisbon St., Lewiston, through April 30. The public is invited to a reception, April 7, from 6 to 8 p.m., with an art talk at 7 p.m.

Where were you raised/current residence? I am a 10th-generation Mainer whose English ancestor settled on Richmond Island in 1637. I was born and raised in Waterville and Fairfield, and now live in Lewiston.

You’ve been involved in art almost all your life, including a fine arts degree from USM. What do you think catalyzed your vision of using your art to address the terrible effects of drug addiction? Shortly after my brother Reno died from a heroin overdose in 1992, I started walking around the edges of Portland parking lots unconsciously documenting my grief. After a couple of years, I began turning the crude notebook sketches into large abstract paintings. I realized, in hindsight, that counting steps in the empty lots kept grief at a safe distance, free from judgment. The unspeakable feelings of shock and loss were objectified and contained within the spaces on the canvas, which first hung in The Sacred and Profane, a dramatic annual art event I founded that year in a torch-lit grotto on Peaks Island, and over the years I have learned firsthand the potential of art to bring people together.

Why can’t incarceration, our current “go-to” response, or counseling, which is gaining momentum, be answers to the problem of addiction?This current heroin epidemic can’t be easily solved. Addiction is not a war that can be won. Professional responses polarize remedies with punishment vs. prevention or abstinence vs. harm reduction. This rhetoric may help fund the correctional and treatment industries, but don’t facilitate community involvement, which promotes connectedness and belonging.

How would a community approach work? First it’s critical to understand that heroin is not the problem. It’s the addict’s attempt to solve the problem of disconnection — his/her comfort method to remedy alienation. Recovery demands reconnections at every point and level — a mending of the very fabric of society, and doing away with us vs. them. We need a long-suffering love cure, which motivates us to ask more compassionate questions instead of using overly simplistic and ineffective responses.

Tell us a little bit about your brother Reno. A couple at Forage Market was reading my artist statement. As I introduced myself, the man responded, “You’re Reno’s brother?” I replied, “Did you know Reno?” He said, “No, I just read it on your statement.” It had been so many years since I had heard his name spoken. Sacred and profane — our relationship was that strained. He was charismatic, a talented wordsmith, comedian and athlete, but nobody really knew him, and he seemed to want it that way. We were not close, and that distance was our bond.

One of your pieces depicts a hot-air balloon with the molecular structure of heroin. Did the idea originate from L-A’s annual balloon festival? And do you envision making an actual balloon and flying it to encourage more community dialogue? I was inspired by a picture of a 3-D chemical compound of heroin, and immediately saw the molecular structure flying as a hot-air balloon. Lewiston’s festival could be a launching platform. I can see an actual full-size heroin balloon flying over many mill and former mill towns of Maine. Hot-air balloons have the ability to attract attention and draw big crowds.

Your installation is currently at Forage Market in Lewiston. Where to after that? A doctor friend just said to me: “You need to get sewing in Deering Oaks Park (Portland).” He was referring to the fact that I’d started sewing a prototype of the balloon in Congress Square Park last September. In addition to finding public sites for the art installation, I intend to sew in other public parks in southern Maine, where people are using heroin and dying of overdoses.

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