From director of an art gallery to living in a homelessness hostel, Portraits of Recovery founder Mark Prest’s own lived experience led him to launch Greater Manchester’s first Recoverist Month.
It was December 2007, almost Christmas, and I was in my dream job. A northern working-class boy had shaken up the status quo and risen from exhibitions officer to director of the City Gallery in Leicester. Until my world came crashing down.
The launch of the Annual Open, our most popular show of the year – more than 100 guests including arts professionals and local government – were invited to view works by amateur and professional artists from across the region. It was a big night. And the gallery director, man of the moment, was inebriated, slurring his way around the show, making barbed comments.
When squeamishly reading the incident report, my crashing into an exhibiting artist’s sculpture leapt off the page. Thankfully no damage was done – the damage was all to my reputation. I ended up suspended, narrowly avoiding dismissal for gross misconduct.
By that point, I had been struggling with alcohol use for seven years. The doctor’s response? Simply ‘don’t drink’. I eventually engaged with drug and alcohol services, but nothing stuck. I was in denial. Time off work meant more drinking time, and things got worse.
Crossing the line
I can pinpoint exactly when I crossed the line from social to problematic drinker. It was after a night out on ecstasy with friends whilst on holiday in South Africa in 2000. I suffered a panic attack. A friend suggested a glass of wine to calm my nerves. It worked. From then on, I self-medicated my acute anxiety issues with alcohol.
The period between Christmas 2007 and April 2008 was a blur. My drinking was out of control, and I rarely went out unless it was for further supplies. Just before Easter, the telephone rang, and I answered – a rare occurrence at this point, as I neither opened the curtains or the mail.
It was a friend from home, and he said he was coming to fetch me. An intervention I now know, as he hadn’t heard from me in ages and feared the worst. I’ve no recollection of him arriving or the 120-mile drive to Oldham, my hometown. I was – I was later told – deposited, a stinking, shaking wreck, at my mother’s house. What I do remember is waking up the next day without booze, suffering two withdrawal seizures, being hospitalised, and having psychosis.
After a spell in rehab, during which I lost my job, I left and quickly relapsed. Worse was to follow.
My poor old mum was due to go into hospital for a long-awaited hip replacement. I was drinking again, and she was rightly fearful of leaving me in the house. So, she called my brother for help.
He arranged for me to stay at a homelessness hostel. I remember waking up the next morning with no clue where I was or how I had got there. I had hit rock bottom. Somehow, I got sober. All that I had learned fell into place, and after getting myself back to AA, I started working a programme.
Arts in recovery
During my time in rehab, I had begun to think about the value and role of the arts within recovery. Undoubtedly the arts were in my blood. Prior to gallery work, I studied for a degree in contemporary glass. From 1991-95 I set up my own studio, selling my work internationally, including to Liberty in London.
The only exposure I had to creativity in rehab was some time-filling, pedestrian colouring in. The arts were only seen as diversionary activity rather than a parallel tool for recovery itself. A seed of thought, planted by a therapist, started my musing on how exploring self through self-portraiture might help socially reintegrate recovering people by redefining their relationship with themselves and their place within the world.
Out of rehab, feeling more stable, and having permanently relocated to Oldham, an opportunity presented itself. I approached the director of Gallery Oldham with a proposal. He was an arts colleague who I knew very well. I was honest about what had happened and explained that if he gave me desk space, I would deliver two arts recovery projects.
To my amazement, he agreed, getting on board with a series of artist-led self-portraiture workshops by painter David Hancock alongside an exhibition of artworks for and by people in recovery. Called Portraits of Recovery, the title later became the name of the arts organisation I now run.
My second proposal was for an R&D project called Addict, with artist Melanie Manchot. The central premise was an art dialogue in recovery exploring descents into and out of addiction, and for mapping journeys of recovery. This took some six years to realise, later becoming the multi-channel video installation Twelve, which toured nationally.
The Portraits of Recovery pilot was a success. Participant outcomes included enrolment on local arts courses and increased confidence for volunteering. Local drug and alcohol services’ ears pricked up and gallery audiences responded positively to the authenticity of the works on show. What I also realised was that new life opportunities had opened up for me through combining my cultural assets with my lived experience. If it could work for me then why not for others?
In 2011, I founded the visual arts charity Portraits of Recovery (PORe) – an organisation that works with contemporary art, artists and people and communities in recovery to create inspirational art for reimagining the world we live in. It was a slog working from home with little funding. PORe was just me, but I had done it. A raft of projects followed, in a range of art forms, and working with multiple partners. A 2015 project called Typecast saw people in recovery work with clay, to create an exhibition at Manchester School of Art. In 2017, young Asian men in recovery took part in workshops with artist Sutapa Biswas. The work resulted in a bold, neon artwork at Rochdale bus station, now in the permanent collection of Touchstones Rochdale.
In late 2022, I had some incredible news. After a lengthy process, PORe had secured Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) status. Alongside securing three years’ regular funding, it also meant national recognition for changing the conversation around addiction and recovery through art. We were now able to run regular programmes throughout the year.
A long-time ambition was to mark International Recovery Month, and PORe’s Recoverist Month launched this year – an annual programme of cultural events for celebrating the aspirational hopes, fears, and dreams of Greater Manchester’s recovery communities. In case you’re not familiar with the term, recoverist = recovery + activist. The programme’s aim is to put recovery communities centre stage by increased visibility and directly supporting the voice of lived experience.
PORe’s aim is to establish Recoverist Month as a yearly flagship cultural event, as a parallel to Black History Month and Pride. As the UK’s only contemporary visual arts organisation working in recovery, we take our mission seriously.
This November, we host a post-Recoverist Month stakeholders’ event at The Whitworth gallery with speakers including mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. Sharing our success, we hope to garner support from decision makers for embedding Recoverist Month within Greater Manchester’s annual cultural calendar. No mean feat but after that, who knows: the world is our oyster!
Mark Prest is the founder and director of Portraits of Recovery
DELIVERED OVER MANCHESTER PRIDE WEEKEND, artist Harold Offeh set up a vintage radio show-themed art installation in city’s the gay village to explore conversations on chemsex. A packed-out panel discussion featuring high profile figures from Manchester’s queer community followed at Manchester Art Gallery
Coronation Street actor Sue Devaney’s premiere of Didn’t You Used to be Somebody? sold out at HOME arts centre and music producer Quieting recorded thoughts and stories on recovery and homelessness for a musical sound experience at The Stoller Hall.
Melanie Manchot’s first feature film, Stephen (2023), blurs the lines between fact and fiction to examine addiction and recovery. The preview sold out quickly and was moved to a larger screen.
Finally, To the Sun, Moon and Stars saw textile artist Lois Blackburn deliver a series of arts and recovery workshops at Gallery Oldham (back where it all started), commissioned by Oldham Council’s substance misuse team.