When meeting emerging artist Jenna Walchuk, one wouldn’t think of her as being anyone other than the 27-year-old mother of two young boys she is today. She’s warm, inviting and quick to smile.
But everyone has a story. A chapter of Walchuk’s involves the downward spiral of addiction, and it will be on display in her first art show, Drug Therapy, opening Thursday.
“Part of the reasoning behind doing the show was really to create awareness regarding all addiction as a health issue instead of being a moral issue,” Walchuk said. “I thought that was really important.”
Walchuk was born and raised in Whitehorse. After some time away at university, she returned and chose to go to work in a bar; she was 18 at the time.
She began to shoot cocaine. And once she started, she couldn’t stop.
“I became addicted from the first hit,” she said.
Walchuk had no indication of a predisposition to become addicted to drugs. There was no family history of addiction, and she did well in school and excelled in sports. She has no history of trauma or abuse.
She tried to move out of Yukon to get away from the people that she knew supplied drugs. But, after short stays in Toronto and Edmonton, she returned to Whitehorse and kept using.
After five years of trying to help her, Walchuk’s parents evicted her. They didn’t want to enable her in her addiction, and there were younger siblings in their home.
“That was the most devastating thing for them, they couldn’t help,” she said. “They had to let me go. They couldn’t watch me die.
“Emotionally, I got to a point where I was content with – I was no longer living with an addiction, I was dying with it. I was dying. I was going to die.”
Walchuk became homeless. At one point, she lived in the campground, at another she took respite in Kaushee’s Place.
As a result of her addiction she took leave from work on numerous occasions.
“It took me about six years,” she said, “but I went all the way to rock-bottom.”
“I honestly feel like there was six years I don’t remember, that I don’t have. I just have the emotions and the feelings. I feel like I stepped out of my life – checked out, and I lost everything.”
Walchuk made several attempts at treatment, including four trips to detox. During one stint, the centre asked her to leave after 24 days due to a drug-induced psychosis.
Walchuk had been in counselling for almost three years before becoming clean. She says it really was more about harm reduction at that point, because she needed to be monitored.
“And so what I want to get out there is to keep trying. To keep going through the different options until you find one that works for you,” she said.
For Walchuk, one of those paths included an art class offered by local artist Emma Barr.
“I picked up paints and I haven’t stopped,” Walchuk said. “I went the next day and purchased material to paint with and it just came out of me.”
She had uncovered a hidden passion for painting and the Kitchen Table Studio was founded – literally her kitchen table.
The table now carries splashes of colour from each of the creations that have come to life on it.
“I did a little research regarding colour therapy and for me, drugs were an escape and when I can use art to escape it kind of is that Band-Aid I needed,” she said. “The colours represent so much to me. Like there’s just so much incorporated into art that can be therapeutic.”
This exceptional young artist’s upcoming show is fashioned from mixed media including photographs, integrated stencil work and acrylic paints on stretched cotton canvas.
The work is impressionistic, bold, bright and commanding.
The photographs have been manipulated to evoke an emotion that represents what she was feeling at the time and then incorporated into the artwork.
Inkblot tests are used to create impressions that she couldn’t encapsulate with a photo.
The photographs were taken during her addiction. Some are of her, some are taken by her; all are photographs that she had left in a box on the shelf as part of her life that she wanted to forget.
“Part of the premise of Drug Therapy was to finally open the box and start dealing with the emotions that the photos depicted for me,” she said.
Each piece tells a story.
A piece titled Paranoia was inspired by Walchuk’s hallucinations of police lights. It would appear when it was dark and continued until she was six months clean.
“It was so prominent, the feeling of paranoia. It was still something that I needed to work through so that is what this particular piece represents to me. I tried to incorporate the police lights and the emotion,” she said.
“But Paranoia might represent something else to somebody, so I wanted there to be a certain relate-ability.”
Another painting, See Right Through Me, depicts the point in addiction where it becomes evident that the biggest lies told are the ones the addicts tell themselves.
The piece titled Friendship Hotel holds an image of a close friend of Walchuk’s. The canvas represents stretching the boundaries of friendship, because during her addiction she became an undependable friend that checked in and out.
It includes a quote from a song, Please Forgive Me, by David Gray.
“I got half a mind to scream out loud, I got half a mind to die.
“So I won’t ever have to lose you girl, won’t ever have to say goodbye”
Walchuk wants viewers to see her artwork with an open heart and mind, to remember that change takes time and to know that all things are possible.
The show includes 32 canvases with sizes ranging from 10 x 10 inches to 48 x 48 inches.
Drug Therapy opens Thursday, May 24, 2012 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Gallery 22.