War on Drugs at the Center of Chicago’s Newest Art Display

on Sep15

15 September 2017 | 5:13 pm

War on Drugs at the Center of Chicago’s Newest Art Display

All Images Courtesy of Ben Kurstin 

You know that old saying? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure? Well, have you also heard one man’s trash is another man’s art? No? The latter phrase may not be a popular saying, but it’s most certainly the case when it comes to 32-year-old Illinois native Ben Kurstin. Local artist Kurstin (also cinematographer/photographer and writer) has been working on a major art collection that took about three years from start to finish to complete. Currently a resident of Avondale, Kurstin spent the most of his nearly 13 years in the city in the neighborhood of Humboldt Park. This is where the inspiration for his latest project came from. While he lived on the western edge of Humboldt Park, where he had to walk a little over half a mile to the bus. Along these walks is when he first noticed a bag on the ground.

One of the first bags (designed to contain drugs) displayed a nude woman on it with the phrase “Heavy D.” Heading off thinking he’d grab the same bag on the walk back home, Kurstin looked for the bag on the way home, but it was gone. It was here that Kurstin decided that he would start to collect and clean bags he saw on his walks to and from the bus and see how many unique designs he could find. By the end of the first year alone he found 500 bags. At that point he thought if he could find about 500 more he could start to make some art pieces with them. He found over 8,000. By then the original idea had expanded into something much larger than he had ever anticipated.

A shift from just natural curiosity grew into something much more – a wakeup call to the growing drug epidemic that we face right in our own backyards. According to Kurstin, “The project at that point had grown into more than just a curiosity. I wanted others to see what I was finding.” The process was long and messy, including nearly 22 months of Kurstin collecting bags (sometimes with drug remains still in them) and cleaning them out. The official drug bag count was an incredible 8,816. Kurstin also said that while this is the official count even more bags have been collected since then. After he collected and cleaned the bags, he would divide them into colors. Then he would scan each bag individually and made a large portion of the project’s digital pieces in Photoshop. From here he began to create physical pieces, including the giant mosaic of former President Richard Nixon’s face. Kurstin said he chose to portray Nixon because he was at the center of the war on drugs, but he was also part of the larger problem, which Kurstin believes is demonizing drug users who really need help.

The collection consists of two parts. The first of which are physical pieces ranging in size anywhere between two feet by two feet up to the largest piece, which is the depiction of Nixon at a monumental 6 feet by 8 feet. In this category Kurstin says there are 12 pieces. The second part of the project is compromised of digital pieces. There are about 260 of these pieces, which include single bags or groupings of bags based on color or theme. These groupings make up 60 of the total 260 scans.

One of the things Kurstin wants people who see this project to take away with them is that the war on drugs failed miserably. That while the D.A.R.E program has good intentions, it hasn’t been effective. That the opioid epidemic is real and it’s real right here in Chicago and can’t be overlooked and ignored like these nearly 9,000 bags. So how do we do this? Kurstin doesn’t claim he has all the answers, but thinks decriminalizing drugs could be the start. “I don’t know what the right answer is to deal with this monumental problem,” he wrote in an email. “My feelings though are that those who use are going to keep using and one way to keep them safe is to decriminalize drugs. Once that’s done we can provide needles and safe rooms for users to go so they aren’t using on the streets and are under the supervision of a doctor or nurse so they don’t OD.”

Is that so crazy to think? Maybe. Maybe not. In my hometown of Las Vegas they announced this April clean-needle kit vending machines at the local health department office. With the growing HIV epidemic they wanted to provide drug users with clean needles to prevent the spread of HIV. Some places like Portugal that have decriminalized drugs have seen lower numbers of overdoses and less crime overall. A comparison isn’t being drawn here between marijuana and hard drugs like heroin, however, Kurstin also thinks that legalizing marijuana is also a move in the right direction. Legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing drug use will get drug addicts the help they actually need to get over their addiction versus facing criminal charges and serving jail time.

“What I want people to take away from the project is that the problem is here and it isn’t going away,” Kurstin said in an email. The sheer amount of bags that I found shows that in a very scary way. I’m taking what is often unseen and invisible to people, and making it not only visible, but large and demanding of attention. The Nixon is 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide and cannot be ignored, it is so big it dominates the room. People need to start seeing the problem and finding ways to help those who need it. The goal is to get this seen by as many people as I can. The more the better, it demands conversation, it needs to be debated. There isn’t enough being done right now to fix the problem, deep down at the root. We keep trying the same thing in different ways. The only way to solve it is to start at the bottom and work our way up to a new solution.”

If you’re interested in seeing these pieces brought to life or want to engage in a discussion of the current drug epidemic with the artist himself, there’s a gallery opening:

October 6th 6PM-9PM
Casa Calle 20
1538 W. Cullerton

For more information on the artist and his work visit his website HERE.

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