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April 22, 2009 > The Art of Recovery

The Art of Recovery

Sketches and Stories from 12 Step Meetings

By Denny Stein

If you've been clean and sober for over 30 years, and suddenly find yourself living in Fremont, rather than Brooklyn, where do you go? Joe's Corner, in Niles, is a natural meeting place for groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and other addiction programs. Tino Parro, the owner, offers a non-alcoholic bar, food, meeting rooms, entertainment, and a self-perpetuating support system, in this re-vitalized historic building. So when Marty F. moved out here to live near his son, he found Joe's Corner, "a hotbed of 12 Step programs," a friendly and welcoming hangout.

Lively, witty, and inquisitive, this mustachioed man from New York, comes complete with a native Brooklyn accent, accounts of personal and career successes and speed bumps, frustrated publishing attempts, a national fencing rank, and the information that today's USS Bainbridge was named for one of the first pirate fighting captains in our national history. An hour spent with Marty F. cannot be boring.

Marty arrived in Fremont with more than an accent and funny stories, though. He carried with him the sketchpads that he has traveled with for many years, from one AA or OA meeting to another. AA meeting participation, I've been told, is spontaneous, probably a bit like Quaker Meeting, people stand and speak when moved. Others listen, empathize, cheer, or nod as the spirit moves them. Marty F. listened and sketched, just as spontaneously and quickly, catching facial expressions and body language, whatever moved him. His sketches capture the anonymity of the meetings in the artful ubiquity of speakers' podiums, folding chairs, old couches, and bodies lounging against the walls. The black and white, pen and ink drawings feel immediate, in the moment. As outsiders we feel privileged to have a glimpse into the struggles of addiction, as human beings, we feel a kinship with these people.

Marty F. states that this is the first time anyone has captured AA or OA meetings, in drawings, from the inside. He has hundreds of images, drawn in meetings, conventions, retreats, where "nobody ever objected." Linger on any one of these sketches and you will see yourself and your community - a gentleman with legs crossed, ankle on knee, one arm over the back of the chair next to him, relaxed, open to possibility. Next to him, a woman is sitting erect in a straight chair, arms folded, barricaded, across her chest, bangs covering one eye, resistant, shy, scared. An older man sits still, elbow on knee, chin in hand, listening intently to the speaker, nodding gently. At the podium, a minister speaks, or a man in a suit gestures with his hands, wind milling his experiences. A woman eats an apple, head cocked, listening or dreaming? The grandmotherly woman, in a buttoned up Peter Pan collar blouse and long skirt, leans forward and laughs. Marty says that his sketching at meetings generated interest, but never censure, and he has changed people's features and names to preserve their anonymity, in the AA tradition.

Marty F. trained as an artist at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the School of Visual Arts, after graduating from Brooklyn College as an Art History major. He says of himself, "I wasn't a very good art designer, but I was a hell of a writer. Once, I was fired from a job as art director in an ad agency, only to be rehired 5 minutes later as head writer!" Marty's work has been exhibited in Madison, New Jersey and almost at his synagogue back east. But the general belief, that "Jews don't drink," put the kibosh on that opportunity. The sketches belie Marty's self-deprecatory estimation of his artistic abilities; I would not be surprised to come across them in The New Yorker magazine one day.

This is a show that goes beyond art; it embraces the universality of heart and mind, individually and collectively. The exhibit will run from April 24 through the end of May. Matted and framed copies of the original sketches are available for sale.

The Art of Recovery
Mocktail Party (soda and snacks will be served)
Friday, April 24
7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Joe's Corner
37713 Niles Blvd., Fremont
(On the corner of Niles Boulevard and J Street)
For more information call (510) 648-2681

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