Long ago, David Ash found that he no longer needed beer to bolster his self esteem.
The 69-year-old Lutherville man recalls many years of drinking socially— often a little too much — and diving deeper into alcoholism after two years of partying overseas with fellow soldiers. But after 32 years of sobriety, he can’t imagine life any other way, he said.
“I drank enough to have been [overseas] for 10 [years] but I don’t do that anymore,” Ash said last week.
On Saturday, Ash will lead one of 50 teams made up of those in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, their friends and their families, in painting depictions of their recovery journeys onto dozens of mature trees at Oregon Ridge Nature Center, in Cockeysville.
The outdoor installation seeks to publicly display the aspects of the participants’ recoveries through the blending of art and nature and to raise money for others who may need treatment.
The project is hosted by the Baltimore-based Nikki Perlow Foundation, a nonprofit created in memory of Nikki Perlow, foundation president Gary Perlow’s niece, who died in 2007 at 21 after an accidental drug overdose.
The foundation provides financial, emotional and logistical support throughout the recovery process and educates the public on addiction prevention and recovery.
“If people get the right type of treatment and support there’s a whole other side to [addiction],” Gary Perlow said. “People do recover.”
In August, participating teams met with Baltimore-based artist Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen to brainstorm what their projects might look like.
Later that month, with permission from Baltimore County officials, who operate Oregon Ridge, volunteers primed the bark of the trees with water-based, white latex paint. The foundation’s resident artist, Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, then sketched out the participants’ designs on the trees.
The teams will come to the nature center Saturday morning with their families and friends to fill in those sketches with color, Perlow said, adding that the goal of the project is to create a nationwide movement that celebrates recovery and shares stories of triumph over addiction with the public, he said.
“This is a project to show the other side of addiction, which is recovery,” Perlow said. “For every horror story in the paper there are 50 stories of recovery.”
Each tree will feature 25 linear feet of artwork. Though there is no cost to participate, teams are encouraged to raise pledges for the foundation on a paint-per-foot basis.
A monument to recovery
The trees also represent a celebration of the effort it takes a recovering addict to reach the point where he or she can say “no” to drugs and alcohol, Ash said.
“The idea of the trees is that they have roots and are strong and are there a long time,” Ash said. “It’s a fitting place to have a testament or monument to recovery.”
Ash started drinking as a freshman in college and took his last drink in 1985, following the end of his first marriage, he said. His tree will feature a painting of a pond, which, he said, will represent the “ripples that reach out, just like someone’s recovery.”
“There are times when I take my sobriety for granted,” Ash added. “It’s become ingrained in me, but I don’t know how I’d be able to live any other way.”
For Rebecca Gibson, of Pikesville, recovery has been harder but no less fulfilling.
Gibson, 31, started drinking when she was 15. Though underage, she had no problem taking advantage of Happy Hour specials, where she sipped $3 Long Island Iced Teas, she said.
Her drinking worsened when, at 18, her boyfriend of three years died by suicide while the couple was drunk.
“It really spiraled me off into drinking heavily,” Gibson said. “I had legal problems and had to get a lawyer. I had problems with my parents.”
Gibson will celebrate more than nine years of sobriety with a tree featuring the 12-step program she credits with changing her life.
Her black and white cat, Oreo — who is evidence that, now sober, she is capable of taking care of herself and another being — and a telephone will also occupy a prominent place on her tree, she said.
“My parents would stay up in the middle of the night terrified that the phone would ring and I would be dead,” Gibson said. “The phone is a representation that we were ruled by the fear of this phone call. Now there’s no worry.”
Viewing of the outdoor art installation is open to the public with painting expected to start at around 10:30 a.m. The artworks will be on display as long as nature allows, Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen said.
Following the tree painting, teams, friends of the Nikki Perlow Foundation and the public are invited to a recovery celebration picnic in the park at 12:30 p.m. The barbecue will honor those in recovery. Tickets for supporters are $25 for adults and $10 for children.
The Oregon Ridge Nature Center is at 13555 Beaver Dam Road, in Cockeysville. For more information, visit http://www.nikkiperlowfoundation.org/forest-of-hope/.