Art as Advocacy: Maria Maneos on Incarceration and the Opioid Crisis
By Paula Cahill
Stepping into Maria Maneos’ North Wales, PA studio, one immediately notices a large oil painting in progress: a tree, with bare limbs painted in sombre tones, and strategically placed graphite marks indicating an unknown, eerie distance. Maria is quick to share her viewpoint: “Art isn’t only about being pretty. It’s about bringing people together and recognizing what it means to be human. I want my art to make you feel emotion and have relevance to larger issues.” Maria takes on those larger subjects by seeking and finding meaningful projects in the community to bring together people of diverse backgrounds. A common thread runs through these projects and Maria’s widely exhibited paintings. Exactly as she intends, all of these endeavors are personal, thought provoking, and deeply emotional while addressing immense social issues.
As the founder of Brush With The Law (BWTL), Maria often tells her students, reticent to participate, “I don’t care if you make stick figures. I want to see your stick figures and what they’re doing with the other stick figures. I want to see the humanness, not a pretty or perfect picture.” That’s when healing begins through art projects designed to inspire self realization and reflection. For a recent paper-making project, old probation records, divorce papers, and anything reminiscent of old hurts were shredded into pulp and pressed into new paper artworks. Maria has an image of one of her students proudly holding her pressed paper project, embedded with flowers she found on the state hospital grounds in Norristown - her new artwork symbolizing beauty and new beginnings.
BWTL is a nonprofit organization that implements community-based art projects and programs in Montgomery County and the surrounding tri-state area. Maria seeks and identifies meaningful projects, and then guides individuals from various walks of life to create public art that benefits disadvantaged communities and homeless shelters. Project participants have included local college students assigned by their professors, lawbreakers assigned community service hours by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office, and socially marginalized groups including: the incarcerated, parolees/probation, at-risk youth, the homeless, and those struggling with addiction, mental health, or behavioral issues.
Maria shares images of her daughter, Arianna, local student volunteers assigned by their professors, and community service participants creating a mural in honor of the late Lieutenant Patty Simons alongside police officers at the Norristown Police Headquarters. “Everyone was mixing, talking, and working together. They didn’t care if you were a community service person, a volunteer, or a police officer,” Maria explained. They saw each other in a new, positive light through BWTL.
Before BWTL, art, for the most part, was unavailable in the local county jail. Maria spent many months filling out forms, speaking with the warden, and securing grants to fund Brush With the Law. Some may wonder why a mom, artist, and proverbial “nice lady” would work so tirelessly to establish an art program for people accused of breaking the law. Maria is intimately aware of the real goodness and hurt inside of each person struggling with incarceration. Her son Johnny, a bright young man destined for success, unscrupulously became addicted to opioids, then heroin in high school. Eventually, Johnny was incarcerated for an addiction-related, nonviolent offense. Maria, shocked and frightened to visit the county jail, went anyway. When she looked into the eyes of her son and his fellow inmates, Maria saw their goodness, hurt, and potential. When she asked what they did all day and the answer was “nothing,” Maria decided to launch BWTL.
Once BWTL was up and running at the facility, she went on to address the opioid epidemic. Her deep interest in educating the public about the opioid and heroin epidemic ravishing our nation stems from her first husband, who became addicted to opioids that were prescribed to him after a car accident in the 1990s, and died of an overdose. The opportunity to advocate for those afflicted with opioid and heroin addiction arrived when Maneos met Patrick Rodgers, Gallery Director of the Montgomery County Community College Art Gallery.
Maria and Patrick collaborated to create a collectively produced exhibition titled “Art of Recovery” that was on display during the Fall of 2017 at the Montco West Campus gallery in Pottstown. They addressed the opioid/heroin epidemic head on by personifying its 2016 Pennsylvania death toll with 4,642 small baggies, traditionally used for encasing and selling heroin, to represent each opioid / heroin-related death in Pennsylvania that year. Each bag contains a shining crystal that stands for the goodness and beauty of the person, the soul inside of every victim. The sublime installation, entitled 4642, was immense, beautiful, and horrific all at once. It sparkled and filled the gallery’s 25-foot-tall, two-story mezzanine. Maria notes, “Just hearing a number doesn’t impact you the same way as actually seeing it.”
A second version, 5535, represents the 2017 opioid / heroin death toll in PA. It was selected for Pennsylvania Art of the State 2018 and will be exhibited at the State Museum in Harrisburg from June 24 to September 9, 2018. As 5535 and 4642 demonstrate, Maria represents the opposing attributes of beauty and the horrific simultaneously. In so doing, she enlightens us as to the immensity and horror of the opioid and heroin epidemic, along with the goodness inside of those who struggle. Maria’s installations, work with BWTL, and widely exhibited paintings offer the gift of feeling, thinking, and seeing the complexity of the human condition anew.
Maria is the 2017 recipient of Kutztown University’s Outstanding Mentor in Alternative Settings Award. Brush With The Law is funded by prestigious grants awarded to Maria including a 2018 Pollination Project Visionary Grant, multiple Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Grants, and a Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant. To learn more about Maria and Brush With The Law, click here to watch her TEDx talk and visit MariaManeos.com or BrushwiththeLaw.org.