For roughly a quarter-century, Ben Peabody has lived a second life as an artist, having left behind a career in politics and government. He is best known for his three-dimensional, colorful and detailed depictions of fish and other marine life.
Along the way, though, Peabody produced a series of works with a message seen only by himself and those who came by his Old Goodwood home and studio. Peabody won’t sell them, but he wants them seen.
Called “Art and Addiction,” the 34-piece collection covers the gamut of substance abuse — denial, dysfunction and the desperately difficult road to recovery — with colorful, highly complex and detailed pieces filled with symbolism.
It's a subject Peabody knows through research and his own experience.
In 1999, as an administrator at Baton Rouge Community College, Peabody was pressed into service to fill an art faculty vacancy. He was open about being in Alcoholics Anonymous, and students responded by telling him about their experiences with substance abuse and recovery.
Peabody said his drinking stretched back to his days in junior high school, and it was a problem as he tried to follow his father, Ben Peabody Sr., into local politics. And while the younger Peabody served in the administration of East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Woody Dumas and on the Metro Council, it didn’t come naturally to him.
“I could be the introvert, but when I drank, I could be the extrovert and I could go out and meet people, and I could be political,” he said.
Peabody joined AA when he was 42 — he's 70 now — and counsels those trying to recover.
When students insisted that he create an exhibit for the school art show, he produced “Serenity and Suffering,” which contrasts outward appearances with the inner turmoil of those in recovery. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, that was the first of many such works.
Conversations with students, and later with those he counseled in AA, expanded Peabody’s insight into substance abuse, and he used individual accounts as the basis for much of the artwork that followed. The ironically named “Higher Power” depicts a churchlike structure in which bottles serve as twin steeples. It is inspired by a man in an AA meeting who said he once treated the whiskey bottle the way Christians do the Bible.
“He says, ‘People have a Bible by their bed. I had a whiskey bottle by my bed. The first thing I’d do in the morning was take my chug-a-lug, and then I’d be off to the races,’ ” Peabody said. “He wound up losing everything, of course. He lost his job. His parents kicked him out of the house. He became a complete alcoholic and finally turned his life around.”
There are several recurring symbols in the series. Skeletons or skulls, reflecting the influence of Peabody’s study with Mexican printmaker Guadalupe Posada, represent the living death of those in addiction. Medusas depict the inexplicable thinking of those in the grip of drugs. Carnival shows and games symbolize how recovering addicts look back with bemusement over how they thought they were in control of their addiction.
Most of the themes are based on those delusions. Many addicts think relocating will solve their problems, not realizing they bring the problems with them. Likewise, they think they harm only themselves, not seeing the effect of their addictions on those close to them.
A lack of self-awareness is common among abusers, with a young man providing an example to Peabody at an AA meeting.
“He was high when he came to the meeting,” Peabody said. “He went outside to talk to me. He pulled out his cigarette pack and pulled out an already rolled joint that he had. He didn’t even know he was doing it. I said, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ … That’s pretty common.”
Comments from people who saw the addiction art convinced Peabody that it contained a message that could spread awareness of the breadth and depth of the drug problem. But conventional ways of displaying it didn’t work for him. Galleries insist that he put at least some of it up for sale. Museums that expressed interest are booked three years in advance.
So Peabody is taking a different approach. The addiction series was the headline feature of the Mental Health Association of Greater Baton Rouge’s Feb. 1 fundraiser, and Peabody said he is contacting treatment centers and philanthropic groups to use it to inspire discussion.
“I think doors are going to open up for us to show and have different avenues to show it as soon as people realize it’s an educational platform more than just trying to sell something or benefit myself,” Peabody said. “We’re trying to open a dialogue here about people and their problems.”