Interview with Baltimore City muralist, Justin Nethercut


Concerted Care Group Baltimore, a community-based integrated care center located in central Baltimore, has commissioned a mural on the outside wall of their facility with a powerful message: recovery from addiction is possible and achievable. The artist, Baltimore City muralist, Justin Nethercut, discusses his work and the relationship between art and mental health.

Why murals?

Street art and murals and all types of public art are really great for poking at ignored issues and trying to put them in the public light. It’s a very, not always when it is legal,  but it is a very uncensored form of art and it’s a great method to tackle difficult issues and sometimes in a way that is a lot easier than politics.

How has mental health issues and/or substance abuse played a role in your life and relationships? 

I would say an extra reason this project is important to me and meaningful is it affects me personally, as well. A lot of it is just growing up in Baltimore and seeing a lot of the city and a lot of people struggling with addiction and there’s not enough resources to help. And personally, having friends who have overdosed and ones who are currently dealing with addiction and trying to conquer it. The subject is something that I have stayed away from, maybe because it is personal and maybe because doing work that deals with addiction in the public light is sometimes difficult to do in the right way and in a way that everyone wants to see it. It’s a lot about symbolism and tying meaning into images that are beautiful and still touching on the issues.

Can you explain some of the symbolism in the piece that you’re working on?

In the piece there is a central character that is standing in water. The background is water and a sky that transitions from nighttime to sunrise. In talking to a lot of the patients at CCG, there were a lot of concepts that everyone felt, and one of them was the act of stepping out of the darkness into light and how hard it is. People talked a lot about flowers, which is something I was excited about. You can deal with very intense issues with flowers and it brings a lot of beauty and speaks to the deeper issues. She is holding a lotus flower, which has a lot of symbolism including overcoming hardship. She’s turning toward the light and away form the dark. The lotus is symbolic of the beauty of her character, her strength, and she is trying to save it as petals drift into the dark. On the dark side, the moon is setting while on the light side the sun is rising. And to pay tribute to and honor the people who have unfortunately overdosed in the city, we are going to have a star for every person who overdosed last year, to pay tribute to everyone who fell victim to this disease.

Individuals experiencing mental health or substance abuse issues experience a lot of stigma, discrimination, and stereotyping. Do you think art can play a role in challenging that prejudice?

Absolutely, that’s my way into this issue. It’s very interesting…It’s a staple of the discourse in the city. In Baltimore, as I see it, there is a large amount of people addicted to drugs, mainly opiates, who try to get help but there’s not enough treatment centers in many neighborhoods who need the most help. So it creates this situation of “recovery deserts.” Because of that there are clusters where there are a high number of clinics. And neighborhood associations, who are mainly homeowners who value the beauty and property value and other factors of their neighborhoods, understandably. They don’t want to see addiction visually in their streets. On the other side of it, because a lot of these neighborhoods have people experiencing addiction who are looking for recovery and they should have that option. Everyone kind of wants one next door but not in their neighborhood.  Art is a really good way to jump into it. From my standpoint, there is a lot of political bickering and conflict but the thing that is really positive and great about this issue is a lot of the centers and neighborhoods want the same thing. They want a beautiful community that is kept up by all and they want the people that are struggling in the neighborhood to get help. And the centers play that role. Art can play to a lot of the mutual interests of both the clinics and the neighborhoods.  Because murals and the things that may happen because of a mural, like the landscaping and other efforts, all of a sudden you have a bunch of people who are victims of the stigma and looked down upon by a lot of the neighborhoods and home owners; these are the people who are creating concepts for murals, helping paint murals, cleaning lots and doing landscaping in the neighborhood. The mural and the beautification projects is a way for everyone to try to step to. Right now the problem is there’s so much stigma and discrimination against those who are struggling and need help, there’s just no conversation. And you can’t have positive growth without talking.

It seems that people aren’t offered many opportunities that are easily accessible to give back to their community and to see something they’ve contributed to.

And it is work practice, and getting your hands dirty and developing some skills, hopefully.  Just getting your strokes in on the wall means a lot to people.

One thing I say a lot is own your city. This is your city; take responsibility for it. Don’t shrug it off to the next person. That is what created a lot of the problems in Baltimore from really all sides. When people take ownership of not only their own recovery, but also the recovery of others and the recovery of their neighborhood, that’s just great.

Have you experienced stigma or discrimination in your professional life?

I have been trying to push this conversation and I’m glad its happening.

In the Baltimore art scene, because of limited resources, because of the long history of segregation, the redlining and all these other factors that have created two Baltimore’s:  black Baltimore and a white Baltimore. This has very much crossed over into the art scene, as well. Since the uprising there’s been a real focus on unity and bringing people together from different walks of life, different areas of Baltimore, different color skin, and so on. It’s been really interesting and birthed a lot of murals in Baltimore, which has been really great. But with stigma and growing up in such a segregated city its been something that, a lot of the work I do is saying, there’s all these invisible lines and barriers that exist, I’m just saying screw it. I’m not living by where I’m told to go, the neighborhoods I’m told to collaborate with, a lot of the content I’m supposed to speak to.

Does that play a factor in where you create and display your art?

In part because it is where people are more comfortable with my content, but a lot of struggling neighborhoods that’s where you find my a lot of my art. Partly, because I’m into it for my political and social reasons, and because those are the issues I care about and that is where I want my content.

When I cross over Fulton or Eutaw, or whatever line there is in Baltimore, a lot of that is saying screw theses boundaries. The conversations that I have with people and the content I develop, that’s always really a remarkable thing.  Just talking to a white boy from north Baltimore if you’re a black man or woman from west Baltimore or anything like that, those types of experiences where we collaborate together is what breaks down those barriers. A lot of it is I like meeting people, working with other people, developing relationships with people all over the city.

And art is your avenue for that?

Street art is how I am able to do that rather than painting on a canvas indoors.

What is the inspiration for your character and why do you see only part of the face?

I decided to cut off the top of the characters face for two reasons. One reason is, I want it to be someone that everyone can see themselves in, in a certain way. I wanted the character to be anonymous. The character being anonymous directly speaks to a lot of the stigma of addiction. Working with many people in recovery, a lot of people are embarrassed; they don’t want to get help, they don’t want to label themselves as an addict. There’s stigma and pre-conceived notions and negative stereotypes.

I really want to have an actual figure in the piece because talking to a lot of people, there is, and in my opinion rightfully so, an incredible pride in going through recovery. You know, I’ve never been addicted to opiates. I’ve never kicked that habit. I can’t honestly say anything I’ve done in my life is that hard

I was talking to a CCG client the other day who said he has this rap sheet, there’s a lot of stuff on it. Whether its burglary, possession, distribution. And when someone goes to apply for a job they see that, and say, ‘someone did all of that?’. And he says, “Yes, I did that stuff but I did that when I was high on dope. And now I’m not and that was the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever made and I am a totally different person now.” And to me, I see that you overcame that. That’s very impressive and shows incredible strength where a lot of people see it as an incredible weakness.

– by Calla Jamison


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