Refuge: Center for Artists in Recovery started out three years ago as the personal project of businessman-in-recovery Bill Current. Though the name conjures up a pricey private hospital staffed by social workers and shrinks, it's something else entirely—a quirky Skokie art gallery, occupying the front half of a building shared by Current's equally oddly named corporate design firm, Asylum. Refuge offers artists who've struggled with addiction the therapy of a gallery wall and reconnection to the world. A nonprofit, it's got a half-dozen exhibits under its belt, a roster of artists, and a growing reputation that attracts work from all over the country. But it's still largely a one-man operation, funded out of Current's pocket. The budget last year, after a fund-raiser and a grant from the Illinois Arts Foundation, was a minuscule $11,000. Current says he'll be happy if he's able to add an intern this year.
Current, 53, grew up in Morton Grove and started drinking in seventh grade. By the time he got to Northern Illinois University, alcohol was a necessary part of his daily routine and he was regularly bingeing on weekends. That pattern continued into his professional life as the owner of a typesetting business that eventually became the design firm Asylum. "For better or worse," he says, he managed to escape the "big consequences that can make people reflect and change their lives." Take for example the time he rolled his car, hit a tree, and walked away. And owning his own business proved to be a sort of crutch: "When you have an organization beneath you, they cover for you," he says. "They're doing a lot of the work." If you scramble enough and compartmentalize enough, you can last—"dancing close to the fire"—as long as you can keep the work coming in.
One morning in 2000, Current awoke with chest pain so severe he was sure he was having a heart attack. He wasn't. But what the pain turned out to be—a muscle injury he'd been too drunk to notice—started him on an odyssey of doctor visits, steroids, and painkillers.
"My life was totally out of control. I blamed the doctors for making it worse," he says. But "addicts are notorious liars. They'd ask, 'Do you drink?' and I'd say 'Yeah, I have a couple glasses.' They didn't ask how big the glass was."
After three years, one doctor figured out that Current was downing a fifth of vodka with his pills every night. He was 48 years old and "pretty beat up" when he began a 12-step recovery program five years ago. "Once I admitted that I needed help everything fell into place," he says. "It was that point of surrender that made the change. I don't know if I'd be alive today if it hadn't happened."
No longer absorbed with trying to hide his addiction, Current found he had extra time. He also had extra space in his building, and, a photographer himself, began to think he could put it to use helping artists who'd been down the same road he had. Although the popular myth says art feeds on derangement and addiction, Current says it's not unusual for even established artists to lose their gallery representation when their demons get out of control. "They stop producing, or don't deliver on time, or show up at openings and make fools of themselves," he says. He wanted to create a gallery where those artists could begin showing their work again, and where stories about addiction and recovery could reach the public. When he started talking about the idea, the response was enthusiastic. Performance artist Julie Caffey became one of his first board members, as did Doug Stapleton, assistant curator of art at the Illinois State Museum's Chicago gallery.
Finding artists for the first show turned out to be more difficult. Anonymity is the rule in recovery programs, Current says. "And if you're [exhibiting at Refuge] and getting your name published, you're outing yourself." With this in mind, the criteria for exhibition were crafted to allow wiggle room. A Refuge artist might be a friend of an addict. Artists are also allowed to identify themselves by first name or initials only, though most don't. Since the first show, Current says, recruitment's been much less of a problem: in the gallery's short history, about 275 artists have shown there.
The current show, Love & Hate, is the gallery's first invitational and features ten artists. It includes Joe Boudreau's "suit-guy" collages (headless men in suits), Pate Conaway's fuzzy lifejackets, and a beautiful split-image, semiabstract watercolor by Michael Imlay. Two John Calderon works hung side by side—a mixed-media portrait of dejection, Dead Channel, and an exuberant folk-art-style pastel, There Are No Mistakes—suggest the distance traveled by Current and the Refuge artists he's aiming to serve.
The work is for sale, but not by the gallery. As a tax-exempt organization, Current says, Refuge can't take on the role of agent. According to William Rattner of Lawyers for the Creative Arts, which guided Refuge through the incorporation process, "the IRS has taken the position that a tax-exempt gallery cannot generate profit for private individuals." Though the rule's quietly broken on a regular basis, Rattner says he knows of five gallerists who've been told that they can't get a tax exemption if they sell art on behalf of the artist. "The tax lawyers I know all think this is wrong," Rattner says, "but until someone tests it in court, it stands." Refuge's solution is to provide a price list and contact numbers for the artists, and Current says exhibiting artists who sell something are usually moved to make a donation.
Love & Hate is up at the gallery, 4811 Main, Skokie, through March 25. Hours are Tue-Fri 11 AM to 5:30 PM, Sat 11 AM to 2 PM. The next show, PostMarks: I'm Sorry ..., opens April 11. Artists and writers in recovery are invited to submit art on a four-by-six-inch postcard via snail mail, to be received no later than March 21. It's an inclusive show, Current says: "You send, we hang."v