Last December, Alex Bierk started a painting of OxyContin pills. The muted palette and hazy background invoke Monet’s paintings of waterlilies, but instead of lilies, the subject is the pill at the centre of the opioid crisis. A couple of weeks into working on it — a single painting can take Bierk a month or two to complete — a childhood friend overdosed on fentanyl. A few months later, while working on a grant application for his next series of works, Bierk received a call that another friend in recovery had overdosed and died. In the past two years, he estimates, roughly 20 people he knows have died. The painting of OxyContin is titled, “Lost a Friend to an Overdose.”
Bierk, 37, grew up in Peterborough where he started painting as a child. An addict, Bierk entered recovery 13 years ago. His father, the Canadian painter David Bierk, would pay him hourly to come to the studio and work on paintings to keep him out of trouble after he dropped out of high school at 17. “If your dad was a mechanic, you would intuitively know how to fix a car,” Bierk says. “My brothers and I grew up around a dad who was a painter, and so we became part of his studio practice and his projects and painted alongside him. It was a normal thing.” Bierk, who is one of eight siblings, grew up with four of his brothers, three of whom are now professional artists (the other is a former professional hockey player).
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In 2002, he moved to Toronto. Then, five years ago, he moved back to his hometown with his wife and their three children, who now go to the same school he once did. “I was feeling my own mortality in the environment, in the places that I had grown up,” he says. “I was watching my children experience the very same things that I had experienced.” He knows that his children may face the same challenges he did. “I have to have faith that they won’t deal with it the same way I did,” he says.
Bierk started exploring both his past and present in his art: alongside the painting of OxyContin are works done from photographs of his life now. “As I moved back, I started to obsessively take photographs, as I'm driving, as I'm picking my kids up from school, as I'm walking, as I'm experiencing things, and then sort of slowly started to form those ideas over time,” he says.
The city he returned to was facing its own struggles: Peterborough, like many cities across the country, is facing an opioid crisis. The presence of purple heroin, a lethal drug mixture, and fentanyl have driven an increase in overdose deaths. According to Peterborough Public Health, between April 1 and November 6, 2019, 111 suspected opioid-related overdose calls were received by Peterborough Paramedic Services. The city’s population is roughly 85,000.
Bierk’s show The Place at the End, which ran at Toronto’s General Hardware last year, featured works that reflected different stages of his life and the life of his community. “The story of the show The Place at the End had to do with addiction in the way of thinking of what happened to me growing up in this place and seeing where it was at in 2000 and now seeing the current state of the place and being fearful looking ahead at my children's generation and my children having to grow up here,” he says.
A painting titled “96’” features a poem Bierk wrote, in which he reflects on his childhood — “long before the pills / and the methadone” — and then directly addresses his son:
our backyards stained and how’s the water?
I hope to save you these troubles
my perfect family
Davy, you and your sisters
sitting writing you this letter:
Today you played in a snowbank on our front lawn
while I shovelled and your mom made dinner-
the perfect family
Bierk refers to the poem as an artist statement for the show, which both looks back at the memories he has of Peterborough growing up and then again through the eyes of raising his family there. Nocturne-style paintings of the streets of Peterborough, based on photographs Bierk took with his iPhone, feature sleepy, unpopulated streets broken up by fluorescent streetlights and car headlights. They could be of any small town — the absence of people suggests lives lived behind closed doors. Bierk captures the essence of a particular place, similar to Alice Munro’s short stories and Edward Hopper's paintings, and unfolds a narrative within a snapshot.
Previously, some of his works explicitly addressed the opioid crisis and addiction: a pile of OxyContin pills; a zoomed in self-portrait, eyes glossy, painted texts of slogans recited in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In addition to visualizing this reality, Bierk has sat on numerous panels, summits, and boards related to the opioid crisis. In 2018 he participated in the Peterborough Drug Strategy, which invited people with lived experience to give feedback to local institutions that dealt with addiction and mental health issues. He has also organized roundtable discussions that include education on properly administering Naloxone, a drug used to lessen the severity of an overdose.
Bierk isn’t entirely easy with the idea of being an advocate. “It's very uncomfortable for me to be put in that position because it feels like it's some sort of like a moral victory over addiction, and that's really not the case. It sometimes feels like this token success story,” he says. “I think that's why I'm more comfortable to speak to these issues within the work, where I have total control of the narrative. Because I'm able to do it in a way that feels right to me.”
After The Place at the End, Bierk took a brief break from the subject of addiction to focus on paintings about love — mainly, portraits of his wife. “The idea is to let the life dictate the work,” he says. “Either things will get better and my work will evolve into something else, or they won’t, and I’ll be even more invigorated to push advocacy with my work.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Alex Bierk has been in recovery for nine years. In fact, it has been 13 years. TVO.org regrets the error.
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