It’s a metaphor that just keeps on giving.

A few years ago, artist Michael Libby began thinking about the heroin epidemic in terms of a hot-air balloon floating into uncertainty.

He had lost a brother to a heroin overdose and he responded to that tragedy in a variety of ways. He walked the perimeters of parking lots and tried to make sense of his feelings by sketching what he saw.

He studied to become a substance abuse counselor and did an internship at a suboxone clinic.

Four years ago, acting on pure artistic intuition, Libby made a 3D illustration of a heroin molecule and the balloon metaphor emerged. It brought things into focus and a new idea lifted off.

“It’s the metaphor that I have been chasing – the idea of lightness, levity and a new perspective,” Libby says. “An intuitive, emotional connection to the balloon and to not knowing – wondering where it will land.”

Libby, a 58-year-old who lives and works in Lewiston, followed up on this concept in ways that might seem fanciful to the non-artist – he started looking into the idea of making a balloon in the shape of a heroin molecule, with plans to fly it over five Maine cities.

Fanciful? Maybe. But by hooking up with famed balloonist Brian Boland, Libby has been learning not only how to build a hot-air balloon, but how to fly one.

To Libby, the complexities of addiction are illustrated by the image of that free-floating balloon.

“Learning how to fly just strengthens the metaphor,” Libby says. “Of course there’s a risk factor. I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot easier getting high than it is coming down. The experience is like stillness in motion. You have no sense of movement while you’re in the balloon. It’s like the illusion of the ground moving beneath you. It’s very much ‘other.’ I can’t compare it to anything else. The experience is daunting. Once you’re in the basket, it’s about total surrender. You just go. You have no idea where you’re going to go. It’s freedom in that regard.”

‘BREAKING INTO EDEN’

In a vast and dusty space inside the sprawling Pepperill Mill on Lisbon Street, Libby has assembled the materials that will ultimately become a 32,000-cubic-foot, one-person balloon. His plan? Fly them over five Maine mill towns in hopes of generating some talk about the heroin problem.

Maybe a little more than just talk.

“The heroin epidemic – that’s how the news is framing it, but I think it could also be framed as an epidemic of indifference,” Libby says.

He knows that indifference is a problem because, in spite of his own sad history with the ravages of opiates, Libby has personally felt reluctance to wade into the murky world of heroin use. In particular, he felt that ambivalence while working at the suboxone clinic, where addicts were using medication in an attempt to kick heroin.

“I was confronted by my own prejudices,” Libby says. “Despite my personal story, I’m sitting with addicts and feeling really uncomfortable. As a professional, and not having much experience with this population, I asked myself a question to try to push back against those prejudices. I asked: What’s the benefit of using heroin?”

As is almost always the case, Libby responded to this inner debate through art. This time, instead of pacing parking lots, he taught himself how to sew, and used that new talent to create a quilt with an image of – you guessed it – an opium poppy at the center of each square.

“The hope was to challenge my beliefs and to move toward empathy and compassion,” Libby says. “I think that’s the core of the projects that I’m working on.”

The image of an opium poppy – or of a heroin molecule floating across the sky – might seem particularly vivid to those trying to combat the scourge of opium abuse. Libby isn’t trying to celebrate drugs, but believes that society has to take a different intellectual approach to the problem if it is ever to be solved.

“It’s intended to be provocative,” he says. “I’m wondering if we as a society can talk about getting high. How can we know about replacement or treatment if we don’t understand the benefit?”

Libby wants to understand why people are so drawn to opiates. Part of that understanding has come from speaking with addicts, and some of them are more than happy to describe the allure of heroin.

“I’ve heard testimony that it’s like a warm hug from Jesus,” Libby says. “Another person said it’s like breaking into Eden.”

It’s all very lurid, this talk of getting high, but Libby believes that it’s an important part of the discussion. Assigning all addicts to the category of junkie hasn’t proven very effective so far.

“The professionals don’t have the answers,” Libby says. “I mean, society wants the professionals to solve this, but it’s not fixable. But the beauty of it is that it offers an opportunity for us, because the health of a society is measured by how we treat our most vulnerable. This is what motivates me, as a professional, but more importantly as a member of society. I think we can do better. It’s about getting people’s attention. I just want them to feel uncomfortable, because I think that discomfort can be motivating. Connection is the antidote. Community offers an antidote to this heroin epidemic, I”m convinced of it.”

UP, UP AND AWAY

Brain Boland, of Post Mills, Vermont, knows as much about hot-air balloons as anyone. A retired teacher and experimental balloonist since 1970, Boland has flown balloons all over the world. He runs his own balloon museum as well as a manufacturing facility. If Libby needs guidance on how to construct and fly his own balloon, he probably couldn’t have found a better mentor.

Last fall, Libby completed a two-month apprenticeship with Boland in Vermont, where he went out for 21 flights including five solos. When it comes to both heroin addiction and hot-air balloons, Libby is learning as he goes.

“I met all the requirements for my pilot’s license,” he says. “That’s not really my motivation at this point.”

Libby estimates that with Boland’s help, he’ll be able to sew together his heroin molecule balloon – once he figures out how to use the 1970 double-needle sewing console he plans to use for the task. He reckons that if all goes according to plan, he could be flying his balloon over those five mill towns by late October, although Libby stresses that the schedule is subject to change.

The great unknown right now is how people will respond to the sight of a giant heroin molecule floating overhead. Libby’s hope is that many will see the symbolism the way he does and that people will start talking about the problem.

“I’m thinking it symbolizes openness and maybe a new perspective,” he says. “It’s very engaging and inspiring, really.”

And while he hopes that the end result of his flight will be action, he also recognizes that on a personal level, it’s therapy – between 1992 and 2012, Libby lost three of four siblings in alcohol or drug-related deaths, beginning with his brother, Reno, who died of a heroin overdose in 1992.

“When my brother died, my world just kind of tilted,” Libby says. “It got off balance.”

Libby, a friendly fellow with an intense gaze and a bushy beard, has been trying to bring his life back into balance now for 26 years. Part of that balancing act is trying to help those who are suffering the ravages of heroin addiction.

“As a society, how can we expect the user to give up a substance that makes them feel loved, if another love is not offered in its place?” he asks on his project web page, milltowntour.com. . . .

“As a metaphor, the hot-air balloon brings lightness to an otherwise heavy, stigma-laden conversation about opiate addiction,” he says. “The balloon as a beacon signaling empathy and community as antidote.”