BALTIMORE — One of the things Theresa Clower remembers the most about her son Devin was how easy it was for him to make people laugh.
“He was very outgoing, gregarious, very funny,” she said. “He could have been a standup comedian.”
Clower said her son was “a very sensitive soul,” “a very, very bright young man,” articulate and a whole slew of other positive attributes.
But following a 10-year battle with drug addiction and shortly after coming out of the Ashley Addiction Treatment rehabilitation facility in Havre de Grace, Devin passed away from a fentanyl overdose in Baltimore in February 2018 at the age of 32.
Devin’s death brought about a level of pain for Clower and her family that, up until then, seemed unimaginable.
“Losing a child is like nothing anyone has ever been through before,” she said.
Clower lived in Cecil County for many years and in the area for almost 45 years in total before she and her husband purchased a home in North Carolina to be closer to Devin’s older brother and two of their grandchildren. However, Clower's husband still maintain's a law practice in Elkton, and both are still involved in the Cecil County community.
Clower had been wanting to get back into graphite drawing, which she had done when she was younger, and her daughter suggested she draw a portrait of Devin. The suggestion gave Clower pause as she had never drawn a portrait before, nor had she even considered doing one, but she decided to go forward with it anyway.
That first portrait of her son inspired Clower to start “Into Light,” a project in which she would create 50 graphite drawings of loved ones whose families had lost them to drug overdoses.
Currently, Clower is focusing the project on the Greater Baltimore area — including Cecil County — and she has found 20 out of the 50 individuals that she will be drawing.
The project will culminate in an art exhibition to be held in Baltimore this fall around the time of Devin’s birthday. He would be 34 at the end of this year.
An opening reception for the exhibition will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Nov. 2 at Notre Dame of MD University and will be open to the public. The exhibition will remain open there from Oct. 28 to Nov. 22. The university will also be using "Into Light" as a launchpad for ancillary panel discussions, lectures and other programming, according to Clower.
The exhibition will welcome the portrait subjects’ families and members of the public to honor those loved ones and share in the complex emotions associated with losing someone to a drug overdose.
The title of the project, “Into Light,” is meant to shed light on substance abuse and overdoses, while humanizing the people affected by the issues, according to Clower.
“It’s honoring and elevating those that have been loved and lost,” she said. “It’s bringing more focus or light on them as individuals rather than defining them by the darkness that surrounds their death. ‘Into Light’ is looking at them as whole people, as individuals, as contributing members of the community and celebrating their accomplishments.”
Clower plans to display each artwork with an accompanying narrative about the subject’s personality, talents and achievements to help tell the story of the people behind the addiction.
“It’s not just about the portrait,” she said. “It’s about the narrative of each individual that will be done. It’s about community. It’s about erasing the stigma and the isolation that many family members and the loved ones that have been lost feel. I wanted to mount a much bigger project than just drawing.”
After the exhibition, she will hold a private gathering for the families where she will give them the original framed portrait of their loved one as well as a catalogue of the 50 drawings and a narrative of their family member.
With walls full of the faces of people who have lost their lives to drug overdoses, Clower hopes the visual representation will drive home her point that more needs to be done to increase resources to help those affected by substance use disorder and raise awareness so people don’t turn down that path in the first place.
Clower has launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of raising $43,000 to fund the production, matting and framing of the portraits; commissioning of the writing and production of the narrative booklet; renting of a gallery space for two to three weeks; installation of the exhibition; hosting the opening reception; and administering the project. So far, Clower has raised over $5,000. People can donate to the project at https://www.gofundme.com/f/into-light
As families contact her to create a portrait of their loved one, Clower said it is important to her for this project to be about more than just “white boys from the ’burbs.” Instead, she wants the project to reflect the diverse populations that opioids and other substance addictions touch.
In doing so, Clower is working with organizations all across Maryland from Baltimore City to the Eastern Shore.
One Baltimore-based organization, Love in the Trenches, will be launching later this year and is being founded by a group of mothers whose children are either in recovery or have suffered from an overdose.
Another group Clower is working with is Mariah’s Mission, a Talbot County-based charity, which was founded in 2014 to honor Mariah Albee, who lost her life to a heroin overdose in September 2012. The group raises money to provide support groups and resources to families and individuals struggling with substance use disorder. For more information about Mariah’s Mission, people can visit https://www.mariahsmissionfund.org/
In creating black-and-white portraits, Clower said she enjoys the simplicity that a graphite pencil and paper offer.
“I love the fact that you can pick up a pencil and have a piece of paper and there’s no fuss,” she said. “It’s just simple, direct, you and the page. There’s no mixing, there’s no tubes, there’s no hauling stuff around. It’s so simple, and yet in my mind so beautiful and effective.”
Although this first exhibition will focus on the Greater Baltimore area, Clower said she is in talks to create a second show in Portland, Ore., in 2020 and she would like to eventually take the project across the nation — similarly to how the AIDS Memorial Quilt has traveled around the United States and to nearly 30 other countries.
For Clower, “Into Light” could be a nationwide expression of what is already a nationwide epidemic.
“If we could have an ‘Into Light’ exhibition in all 50 states, that would be a pretty cool accomplishment,” she said.
Although she never saw herself being a portrait artist, Clower now feels that the path she is on was somehow meant to be.
“I like to think it’s a gift from Devin, and he and I are working through this together,” she said.