University of Alaska Anchorage art teacher Steve Gordon instructs a unique painting class for beginners.

"For the last two years, at the beginning of each of my classes, I've been doing large projects," Gordon said. "They usually involve hot-button topics, homelessness, Syrian refugee crisis, sexual assault. Over the summer, I read about the opioid crisis in Alaska. It seemed like it would be a good timely topic."

Gordon reached out to local opioid task forces to turn the focus from the nationwide crisis to Alaska.

"I contacted Kim Whitaker and Mark Weaver and met with them," Gordon said. "I asked them if they would come and speak to my class so my students could hear their stories. I wanted my class to focus on a specific person and not just numbers, in the abstract. Then we'd take a photo of them and paint the photo."

In late January, Mark Weaver, vice president of Fallen Up Ministries in the Mat-Su Valley, shared his story of addiction and his recovery along with two more people.

"We wanted our art to tell a person's story who struggled with opioids," Gordon said. "We really didn't want someone who was actively using because we wanted to inject an element of hope."

Kim Whitaker, president of the opioid task force, R.E.A.L About Addiction, was another person Gordon asked to speak to the class. The focus was to share the story of care for people seeking recovery.

 Whitaker's daughter is an addict.

"We didn't think Kim's daughter would come," Gordon said. "We thought we would just have Kim maybe holding a portrait of her daughter and we photographed her, like a double portrait even though she wasn't there."

However, she was there. Kim's daughter decided to join the group in late January. She surprised everyone by attending Wednesday night's mural unveiling.

"She came back again and she's wanting recovery," Kim Whitaker said. "That is the most important thing to me is the day that I do have my daughter back, completely whole." 

Kim's daughter says once you fall into addiction, most people can't get out.

"For me, to quit, I am going to have to come to terms that nothing will ever feel as amazing again," she said. "So, that is hard. It's like I'm on this broken rollercoaster that keeps going faster and faster and faster and I can't get off even if I want to."

Whitaker's daughter says a reason it is so hard to fight addiction, especially in Anchorage, is the lack of help.

"Let's say I or someone wanted to quit," she said. "Say I decided tomorrow, hopefully in a week or two I'd be in. Maybe even without insurance. As far as treatment goes, again, a week or two wait. So, the wait is just too long. You get so sick of waiting, you eventually say, 'screw it' and you're back to your old habits. I think for those who are in, one or two relapses should be okay."

The abstract art intends to spread awareness and hope regarding the opioid crisis in Alaska and also show that addicts are real people.

"The artists are great, I am so proud of them," Whitaker said. "I'm stunned, I'm overjoyed, it's beautiful and I think it's going to be very impactful for our city and whoever is going to see these. To understand that we are real people. That we love our children and there is real hope. These gold rays mean hope. If you are somebody who is struggling, please reach out."  

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