Painting Past the Pain
One artist’s tragic loss leads her to fight the opioid crisis with
By Kurt Dusterberg
Photos by Rivers & Roads Photography
Cathy Martin has spent most of her life with a paintbrush in her hand.
She has taken classes, taught in schools, and painted the traditional scenes that sharpened her artistic focus. That all changed in 2004 when she and her husband, Dan, learned that their son Alex had been killed in a car accident. Their son’s life had been troubled, a reality that eventually blended with Cathy’s growing need to address a nationwide health crisis—the opioid epidemic. Eventually, she found her voice through her paintbrush. Most days, you can find her at The Red Canvas, her gallery in downtown Apex, where she works to brighten lives that have been touched by darkness.
How did you get started painting?
I grew up in Wilmington, close to the beach. I was 11 years old, and these two women who had studied in Europe had a little art school in town. It was so wonderful. They didn’t have children’s classes. You got your easel, you got your materials, and you sat down and did a lot of still life work. My father would say, “You’ve painted that damn still life for two years now. You need to change.” It was a classical experience.
Did you try to make artwork as a profession?
After I graduated from college, I taught art off and on for about 13 years. I started out teaching high school art when I was 21. Then we moved here and I taught for six years at Wendell Elementary and Reedy Creek Elementary. That was not fun. It’s really like trying to do crowd control with paint. It was horrible. So I went through a lot of changes.
You have a studio in Apex, and you’ve been at your current location for 12 years. What do you like to paint?
I did a lot of architectural landscapes, urban houses, farms. I did not have any interest in painting people—none. I went to a lot of workshops with different painters in France and Italy. I don’t know why, but one day I painted a portrait and I thought, man, this is it. I just want to do figurative work. I’d do an occasional landscape if I needed money, because they sell.
How would you describe your style?
I’m an expressionist painter; I really put myself into it. You look at these paintings and you see my personality. When I paint, I honestly feel like that brush takes off and moves. It’s pure joy. I’m a process painter. But I’m painting pretty much what I feel.
In the past couple of years, you’ve gained a lot of attention for painting the portraits of people who have died from opioid overdoses. How did the opioid portraits start?
Our son Alex died in an automobile accident when he was 25, but drugs were a huge part of his life. I thought: How can I give back somehow in his name? It took years to get to that point. Now I feel like I’m really doing it. I kept seeing these obituaries for kids [that] mentioned opioid addiction. So I started painting them from pictures in the obituary. I did 20 or 30 of them.
But these stories and photos are coming from all over the country now. How do you find out about them?
A woman named April Rovero got in touch with me. She started the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse in California. She started sending me pictures of people who had died. Her organization gave me $3,000. Before that, I was shipping them out to the families using my own money.
How many have you done?
I’ve done 120 so far. I do one almost every day. If it’s a good photograph, I can do one in a couple of hours. If it’s a bad photograph, it can take forever because you’re working with darks and lights. You want a nice, recognizable portrait of someone’s loved one. A lot of it is in the eyes.
It seems like this could be pretty melancholy. You’re painting someone who has died under tragic circumstances.
I have to see them as children who were loved and cared for, [but] who came to a tragic end. I also want to destigmatize this whole opioid crisis. A lot of people want to blame the parents. When our son died, I truly felt like most people thought we were bad parents. And you know, that’s just not the case all the time. People love their children and want what is best for them.
How much of this is cathartic, thinking back to losing your son?
It’s crazy cathartic. I got a note from a mother that said, “I got your [portrait] in the mail today. I got to hold my son one more time.” I sit and talk to these portraits like, what happened? Do you know what kind of life you could have had? And while I’m talking to them, I’m talking to my son too: Do you know what kind of life you could have had? I did a 70-year-old woman the other day and mailed it off to her daughter. She had been given opioids and overdosed. The youngest two I’ve done were 13, and they had gotten something illegal from China. They were two friends who died within a week of each other.
Part of your message in painting them, I suppose, is that these victims can be anyone, right?
I had a portrait of a beautiful little blonde girl around 20, fair skin, blue eyes. And people would walk in and go, “Well that’s not one of them, is it?” That’s why I’m doing it! Yes, she’s one of them. It can be anyone’s child. People think it can’t be that nice little girl from the well-off family.
Do you think awareness of the issue is growing?
It only gets press when it moves into the white middle class. This started in Appalachia, a lot in towns where industries left, a lot of people with disabilities getting opioids for pain. Then it comes from kids getting pills out of their parents’ medicine cabinets. Now it’s just crazy. Two hundred people a day die.
You’re calling attention to a societal issue, but it sounds like this work has changed your life.
Painting pretty much saved my life. I totally lose myself in it. If I had paint and canvas, I could live in a room and just paint. I do think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life painting. I love to paint these kids.