Disclaimer: This transcript is using AI technology. Please excuse any errors.)
Welcome to the Atheists in Recovery Podcast, where we talk about finding hope in recovery. And now your host, Dr. Adina Silvestri
Adina Silvestri 0:09
Bonjour Atheists in Recovery, and welcome to Episode 99 of the Atheists in Recovery podcast. And today we have artist John Fryer on the show with us. And a little bit about what we talked about is bringing advocacy to our recovery program, and how we balance advocacy, with recovery in those early stages. And what's interesting about john, is he created his own recovery program with interactive projects like free ice water and free hot coffee, and free nor can bike in this these projects are quite remarkable, and truly interactive. I mean, he rides around with this really cool coffee bike, I've seen him around town doing it and people just line up to talk to him. It's, it's a gift really. And so we learn how this well known artist went from these 5050 projects of being an artist slash activist to an activist who's an artist. And we also get into a little bit of the dual diagnosis piece for john how he was able to navigate having a mental illness and alcohol addiction. And he says that, you know, having the right sponsor probably saved his life, but you know, someone that really recognized that there was his mental health piece that he was ignoring. And john is is incredibly grateful for this sponsor, and we'll get on get into that too. Okay, okay. Under a guest John D. Fryer is an associate professor of cross disciplinary media, in the Department of photography and film. His projects include all my life for sale, Big Boy live IKEA, free ice, water, and free hot coffee. Fryer's practice engages accidental audiences in galleries, museums and public spaces. he explores the role of everyday personal objects in our lives as commodities, fetishes and totems and investigates how the circulation of objects and stories enrich social ties between individuals and groups. He earned his B.A. from Hamilton College and M.A. and MFA from the University of Iowa. His work has been reviewed in the New Yorker, the Sunday London Times, art forum, print magazine, and NBC today show. Fryer is a Fulbright Scholar, and MacDowell colony fellow and was an artist in residence at the lightwork and the Fanon center, Doha Qatar. Fryer has brought his social practice projects free ice water free hot coffee to the TEDx stage, has exhibited at mixed greens gallery in New York, the Liverpool biennial Fringe in Liverpool, UK and was a 2018 Tate exchange associate at Tate Modern London. Alright guys, under the show, john fryer, welcome to the show.
John Freyer 3:20
Hey, thank you so much for having me.
Adina Silvestri 3:22
I am excited for you to be here today. I've seen your artwork. We travel in some of the same circles in the recovery community. And we're in Richmond, Virginia, we have some mutual contacts. And so this is like a real treat for me to finally meet you.
John Freyer 3:38
Oh, yeah. I really appreciate the invitation to talk to you.
Unknown Speaker 3:41
So I thought we could give our audience a little bit of a background on you before we jump right in. And I'll start this conversation like I do most, which is with the question, tell us about your deepest roots from childhood.
John Freyer 3:57
Oh, fantastic question. Let's see. Well, I come from a large family in upstate New York. So I have three brothers and three sisters. And yeah, my deepest roots go to they go to Syracuse, New York. And it's a place that I grew up. And when I graduated from college, I returned to work in the field of photography, which is what my training is and what I teach here at VCU, and it's also the place that I realized that I needed to get sober in 2013 when I was visiting there as an artist in residence. So my deepest roots that go back to Central New York, from my upbringing, to my professional development to my professional career to sobriety,
Adina Silvestri 4:46
very nice. So let's jump then right into that recovery journey so that you became sober in 2013.
John Freyer 4:56
Yeah, my sobriety date is May 21 taught 2013 Yeah, and my experience in Syracuse was actually in March of 2013. So, I did a little bit of trying to do things on my own before eventually finding people as part of, you know, mutual aid groups that are anonymous here in Richmond.
Unknown Speaker 5:20
Yeah, so can you tell us a bit more about about that journey, what it looked like, how you became sober? Yeah.
John Freyer 5:26
Yeah, so my sobriety journey is also intertwined with dual diagnosis with mental health issues. And in March of 2013, I had kind of reached the end and close to, you know, a bottom when I was an artist in residence at an organization called light work in Syracuse. And that led me to attempt to stop drinking, which was unsuccessful, when I returned to use and return to Richmond, and the things that led up to a crisis in Syracuse continued to lead up to a crisis, right here in Richmond. So, you know, there was a point where, and it was this week, eight years ago, wow, that the solutions that I had for whatever was going on, were not working, and then walked into a recovery meeting, and immediately Connect, but sobriety was a first step in kind of dealing with the health crisis that I was in, and a mental health piece was taken care of after I got alcohol out of my system. So, you know, I think about my recovery experience as something where I have to be very careful about maintaining my mental health, so I don't drink again. And I've got to make sure that I don't drink again, so that I can maintain my mental health.
Adina Silvestri 6:48
Mm hmm. What was the point at which you decided this is the time like, I need to get help now? How did you make that decision?
John Freyer 6:59
Yeah, I mean, one of the things that led to me seeking help from other people that have done this was that I tried, right? So willpower alone did not work for me, in March of 2020, it became apparent that I needed to stop drinking, and I did for about a month and a half, and then returned to use. And like many of us who've returned to use that period of time from the return to use until I walked into, you know, recovery meeting was worse than before I started, just started to quit. So, you know, I just realized that it wasn't something that I could do by myself, that I had tried to do it on my own with my willpower alone. And, you know, when I walked into the first recovery meeting, you know, the group of people in that room, knew what I was going through, and had been where I was. And I certainly felt that. And, you know, in some ways, it seemed to me to be, you know, one of my only options, you think of the idea of the nudge from the judge, like, I'm either going to go to these meetings, or you know, the rest of my life is is going to fall apart. So, it was the one thing that I could be connected to participate in, that wasn't making things worse.
Adina Silvestri 8:22
Yeah, that's great. And had you received help for the mental health piece before that? Or was this also a new step for you?
John Freyer 8:32
Yeah, I mean, throughout my life, I've had, you know, I've been in counseling and, and therapy and all of those things. But the larger piece, and, you know, the medication piece was something that it took a while to dial in, until we've kind of found a balance. And, you know, I've been, again, very, very conscious of like, the mental health part of my recovery journey, and obviously, the sobriety part as well.
Adina Silvestri 8:58
Yeah, I hear a lot in my office, you know, it's SSRIs, that that sometimes that people take for their depression doesn't seem to work. And so, you know, the first inkling is, well, maybe I should go back to using at least then I was happy, but sure. But if you could stick with it, and if you could find a combination that works for you, if you could find the right treatment team, you know, it can really help.
John Freyer 9:26
Yeah, it's it's been very helpful for me, and part of that was a very active adjustments to different medicines until we found the thing that worked and worked best. Yeah, you know, but it was it my first sponsor, that really made me take the mental health piece seriously, because I had I had been sober for, let's see, May, June, July in August. But I wasn't taken care of my mental health and my first sponsor best Simply pulled me pulled me aside and said, You know, this is, if you're not taking care of this, you're not being honest with yourself and your family and your therapist and all of these things. So Wow. So you're either going to remember this moment, very clearly, he said, You're either going to, you know, call your psychiatrists and say that you're not going to take the things that you're obviously not taking, or bring your wife out here and tell her that, where you're going to go and get the prescription that you haven't been taking, and you're going to take it in front of me. So that's your choices that you can be, you can be rigorous, honest, you can be rigorously honest, or we're done here. And that was a, that was a huge turning point in my recovery, because up until that point, you know, I this, I think this happens in the rooms, too, is that, for me, at least, like the alcohol piece seemed to be the thing I could be in control of. And the mental health was something that I wasn't in control of. So I could pour all this energy into not drinking, but it wasn't taken care of the other pieces of it took a good sponsor, who also had experienced, you know, I mean, it's it's funny in these in this space that like, my first sponsor was somebody who also had mental health challenges, and could recognize that and called me out. And, you know, if I had a different sponsor, they may not recognize that. So I don't know what you attest to that that's, you know, a good coincidence if that's higher power, or whatever the case may be, but certainly, a person probably recognized in me what they had known in themselves and reached out and helped get me to where I needed to be saved my life.
Adina Silvestri 11:47
That's a powerful story. Wow. Thank you for sharing that. So I thought we could switch switch gears now. And our mutual friend, Tom Bannard, who I know is a colleague of yours, also, VCU, you had said that, you know, make sure you ask him about balancing advocacy work with personal recovery, especially in those early days of your recovery. And so maybe you could talk a little about that.
John Freyer 12:19
Yeah. So you know, one of the things that, you know, so I teach in the School of the Arts at VCU, and, you know, one of the things that all of my art practice, throughout my life has been intertwined between life and art. So when I'm making things they intersect with my life, so a lot of the work that I've done post sobriety has been in and around ideas of addiction and recovery. And there's an advocacy piece to that. So, you know, one of the things that I started in very, very early sobriety was a project called free ice water, which was a project that was designed about creating space for people to be in conversation with each other. And they took place over these blue mason jars, where people would sit across from each other and have an hour long conversation about a turning point in their lives. And was something that came out of my experience in recovery. And the things that I learned from sitting and talking with a sponsor and talking in mutual aid meetings, and all of those things, were listening and talking to each other really, like played such a big role in in my recovery journey. And I wanted to share that with the non recovery public. So again, we just set up a way for people to sit across from each other with, you know, tape, I bought a bunch of tables and chairs and these blue mason jars. And people would sit for an hour and have a conversation about turning points in our lives. And I've done various iterations of that project, where it's just individuals having conversations, sometimes it's in a gallery space, sometimes it's out on the street. And I've done it with like large groups of people. So at one of the recovery conferences that that Tom hosted, I basically did a breakout session with everybody and, and, you know, people talked about their experiences and, you know, some of recovery and advocacy and that kind of thing. So, but I think what Tom is referring to there is that I got very involved in that project. There's a follow up project called the free hot coffee bike. And those projects, you know, in some ways, like, you know, if the ice water project was about kind of sharing what I learned about listening, and face to face conversations, the importance of that. The free hot coffee bike is a project where we have this bike, it goes out into the queue community we make pour over cups of coffee. The coffee we serve is called recovery roast. The bike itself is operated by persons in recovery and their allies takes three to five minutes to make a cup of coffee, we generally serve it in cups you can't take away so people have to hang out and have cups of coffee with us. And that became a, you know, it became a way to do advocacy to do service was a way to give back. And in the period of time between ice water and a free hot coffee by and this is another project called free hot supper. So you're noticing, you'll be noticing a theme here, there's a free theme,
Adina Silvestri 15:41
there's a free theme. How do you think these these projects, although I mean, so fascinating? How did they help you in early recovery? Was it sort of reinforcing some of these ideas? You know, that you had learned along the way like this, this conversation piece this listening piece? Yeah,
John Freyer 16:00
yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, for me as an artist, and as an artist that works in that kind of space called Mark called social practice, or performance of this project that did this, as part of my MA MFA thesis called all my life for sale where I sold off everything I owned on the internet auction site, eBay, and travelled around the country visiting the people that bought stuff from me. So I think by incorporating the things that I was learning and recovery, and talking about them, and making artwork about them, and engaging with the public about them, it was a way to, to reinforce what I was learning to share what I was learning, and in some ways to, like lay down a marker that this was the place that I was in. And this is where I want to stay. And so you know, again, being very public about being a person in recovery, learning the language about, you know, that's one of the reasons that, you know, depending on who I'm talking to, I'm, I'm talking about mutual aid versus things like a na na, or recovery meetings, and so on and so forth, because of just because of the traditions that are connected to different mutual aid groups. So, you know, I've learned a lot about ways to be a person that recovering out loud without involving all the other pieces of recovery, trying to respect the traditions that people care about, you know, so, yeah, I mean, I think part of it was a way to process and share the things that I was learning with a wider, wider public. But I would say that, you know, I think Tom's question to you was, or, you know, statement to was that, in that, that became a lot of the, the, the way that I was not just advocating for people in recovery, but it became my own personal recovery program. And that was that becomes complicated, because advocacy is not recovery. Right? I can't invent my own recovery program. And it was actually working with Tom and specifically with the students from ransom recovery, that kind of changed the trajectory of my recovery journey. Because you know, a few years into my recovery, my sponsor would come in and out. And so I was no longer kind of tethered to the meetings I was used to go to, and I would, I was one of those people that would go to meetings at my anniversary, I'd go and pick up a chip and smile and wave and then come back as needed. So six months later, or a year later, and it was actually, you know, a student from Ramsey recovery, who just asked me what my recovery program was.
Adina Silvestri 18:51
Can you tell what Rams recovery is real quick for people that didn't?
John Freyer 18:55
Yes. So, you know, I partner with this great organization that's on campus called Rams recovery. It's a collegiate recovery program. And they do direct supports for students that are in recovery from substance use disorders. So it's a group that's on campus, they have a clubhouse space, they host mutual aid meetings, recovery meetings, smart recovery, a Na Ma, and so on and so forth. You know, it's a place that I partnered with to build and staff the the free hot coffee bike. And it was actually like, I think we were taking the coffee bike out. And one of the students who was helping make coffee, one of the things that they when I, when I originally started the coffee bike, I described it as the people that made coffee as people in recovery. Right? So coffee would go out into the community and the people that were serving the coffee, were people in recovery. And one of the students said, Well, you know, my recovery program is anonymous. So I don't like to identify as a person in recovery. And, you know, immediately we change the language to people in recovery on their allies. ally ship has become really important. It's important component of things that rands recovery is doing on campus. But it's also for me, it's been a way for people to be connected who are in recovery, but don't identify as in recovery. So they can be an ally, I have a we have a choir, that's called the recovery ally, choir. It's, it's, it's made up mostly of people that are in recovery. But when we perform in public, it's the recovery ally choir, so anyone can be part of it. So so nobody there has to necessarily identify as and recovery. Yeah, so in one of these, you know, one of these conversations so that the coffee by goes out, we make cups of coffee, it takes a little while to make a cup. And I'm having a conversation with a member of rands recovery, who just asked me about my recovery program. And this is this is probably three or four years into my recovery. And I'm like, Well, I, I do this advocacy. And I do this. And he goes, What Yeah, but are you connected to a or na, or ma or smart recovery? And it's like, oh, no, I'm not really because well, how are you in recovery? If you're not actively working on this, because making coffee is great, but it's now the thing that we're doing, right? I mean, and
Adina Silvestri 21:20
I feel myself getting defensive for you right now. I just want to jump. Well, you know what?
John Freyer 21:27
I think I'm remembering it a little more direct and harsh. And I think I'm remembering what I heard, not what was said, How about that? Yeah, I mean, it really was just, you know, here a person was who's 19, or 20, has gone through a full crisis that has led them to recovery, they're trying to make it through the university environment, which is recovery, hostile, and they're being advised to do X, Y, and Z. And they're asking me, like, what I'm doing, like, actually, like, very, you know, very typical of, oh, what are you doing that that could help me get through the thing I'm going through? And my answer was, you know, I'm doing these things. See bike? Yeah, I'm doing. Yeah, and there is advantage to that. But it was something that stuck in my craw, so to speak. And, you know, it was something that I basically redoubled my connection to the recovery community, and, you know, got plugged in and got a home group and took a service position, and all those things that, that they tell you to do in those first 90 days that I didn't do in those 90 days. And that is, you know, that's been very good for me to be to be more connected. I think it's made me more useful, actually, in some ways. I mean, I had a, I have two students who former students who were art students, who knew that I was a person in recovery, and then the last year of both got sober. And three years ago, if that had happened, you know, I might have pointed them in the direction of rands recovery, but they've graduated to there. So they're not, you know, necessarily connected to them. But I wouldn't have been able to reach out to a large network of people across the country that I've engaged and interacted with via zoom, and all of these other things that were when a person was in crisis. And they were in another place, I could plug them into the network of people that I had built from, not only the work that I was doing as an advocate, but also just the work I was doing as a person in recovery. So that was Yeah, I mean, that was, I didn't realize that until recently that that I was that, that that network that I had been building this kind of underground network was really useful to, to these students, former students.
Adina Silvestri 23:51
Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's I mean, that's, that's great. You have this, this huge network now that you've plugged into plus your advocacy work. I mean, and it's, and it's so creative, the free coffee bike, the Narcan bike, I'm not sure what other projects you have going on. But
John Freyer 24:14
since 2013, let's see free ice water, which was about face to face one on one conversations and sharing like that thing that we learn in recovery is to learn to listen and to be present and to there was like lots of instructions with that project where I had people turn their phones off and put them in an envelope and you know, wow, I'm not sure I would have stayed for that price I know. And then the free hot coffee bike and again, these are also timed with, like different places in recovery, right. So like, by the time the free hot coffee bite comes out in 2016. You know, I have some sobriety and service becomes an important component of that and giving back so that becomes an end level of exchange. So sitting for an hour and talking to somebody is a quite a commitment and a big ask. But sitting and waiting for a cup of coffee with some friendly person who's making your really great cup of coffee is a pretty light lift. Although there are plenty of people that run up to the bike and say, I'll take a coffee to go and we hand them, we hand them the hand grinder to grind for the next person. And they're like, this is not my thing. I'm so funny. So yeah, that was 2016, there was the following project was free hot supper. And that was about creating, basically, a community meeting and meal that centered around conversations about recovery. So I've done visiting artists, like I was a visiting artists at the University of Georgia. And the first night I was there, did free ice water. And all of these different people came in from the art school and from the recovery, there's a collegiate recovery program there. And the following day, we generated a custom edition of recovery roast, which the free hot coffee by enrichment serves an edition of like the first edition of recovery roast was generated by our coffee partner lamplighter roasting company. So that's, that's who who rose our dish, our coffee, but we've done 10 additions of recovery roast around the country and the world. So there's an addition at Tate Modern, there's an addition in Liverpool, there's an addition at University of Georgia at Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech now, at UVA, where we work with a local coffee roaster. We have people in recovery, taste a bunch of different coffees from around the world, they determine they like this coffee, and that coffee, and then that becomes a unique edition of recovery rose specifically for that recovery community. So that's something we did in in Georgia, we brought the coffee bike out. And then anybody we interacted with, with a coffee bike, or the ice water project, we give a wooden token to that had the date and time of an upcoming dinner. So in the end, you know, we work with work with a local coffee roaster or a local caterer. And they produce kind of like a it's almost like a church supper meal, right? Like I the budget is $10 ahead. So like we need to feed everybody who shows up so yeah, it's pasta, or it's I think, I think in Georgia, it was Brunswick stew. So yeah, so and that becomes we don't know who's coming, right? It's because you hand out these wooden tokens. They're good for a meal. People hand them to people, they walk by in the street, or they hand them or they come themselves or friends and family. Yeah. So like the level of investment from the first project ice water where people have to make time to be together versus getting a cup of coffee versus, you know, sitting and sharing a meal. And where you are in your life. Yeah. And those projects reflect kind of where I was in in my life. That's right.
And then the most recent project is this is the free Narcan bike.
Adina Silvestri 28:11
Yeah, tell us about that?
John Freyer 28:12
yeah. So this is a this is a project that came out of, you know, Saranda recovery has had been connected to AmeriCorps for the last, I believe, five years. And one of the things, one of the initiatives that came out of the AmeriCorps program at Ramsey recovery, was doing the lock zone and Narcan training on and around campus. So they've trained upwards of 3000 students, faculty, and staff and community members, wow, trained and distributed the life saving, overdose reversal drug Naloxone. So, you know, as a, as we have this project that was really successful, the free hot coffee by and, you know, one of the things that we found is that when we would bring the coffee bike out to the places where we're doing Naloxone or Narcan training, we would go through all the Narcan and Naloxone because people would stop for the coffee. And then, you know, have a few minutes in order to be Narcan or Naloxone trained. So we kind of looked at that as Oh, you know what, like, one of the things that it's great that the coffee bike goes into, you know, it's great that we're able to do the training that we're doing on the campus and around the community. But there's greater need and harm reduction works when you get Narcan and Naloxone as close to use as possible. So we designed a bike that's it's electric powered. You basically put the kickstand down, inflate an inflatable mannequin, and you're up and running. So it's really light in terms of its ability to kind of go anywhere, we put the kickstand up and can do training and distribution anywhere. You know, I think it has 100 mile range. So anywhere within a 50 mile radius of the ranch recovery clubhouse we can we can Roll the Narcan bike up and do training. And we've partnered with the Richmond city Medical Reserve to do the distribution and do the training. Oh.
Adina Silvestri 30:11
And so, I wonder if people are thinking, you know, why john, the coffee bike? Why the Narcan bike? You know, it seems like a lot of work.
John Freyer 30:24
I mean, I
think I think yeah, I think like for me, I don't necessarily know why. Right. Like, I think, again, as far as the free coffee free hot coffee bike, it was a way for me to internalize the ideas of service and advocacy. So again, I think it did serve for a little while as that as my program of like, how I'm a person in recovery, how do I exist in this world? And how do I give back. And then when I think about the meloxin bike or the narc hand bike, you know, this is a place where I'm approaching eight years of sobriety. I've been connected to rands recovery almost the entire time, the, you know, the opioid crisis is such a huge looming problem in in the Richmond area, but also in the country. And it's a way for me to do something about it. And, you know, I was talking to someone about, you know, being an artist and an activist and that and then, you know, when I think of the ice water project, the artists piece is much larger than the activist piece, like the activism part is, hey, let me share this idea of conversation with you. And the coffee bike really becomes a kind of 5050 project of like, Oh, I'm going to do some advocacy. And, you know, I'm not going to require a lot of people, a lot of people and so the advocacy piece is larger than the art piece. When I when we get to the to the narc, and by the advocacy piece is the largest piece, like I don't, when when artists look at the icewater project, they can see the conceptual kind of framework and, and some of that when they're looking at the, at the coffee bike, when they look at the network and by beyond. Beyond that, it's like well designed and color coordinated, and well branded, and, you know, speaking the same delight design language that I've used for all of my projects. The advocacy piece is such as such a much it's a much larger piece of what that thing is. So I've become from an artist and activist to an activist who is an artist.
Adina Silvestri 32:44
It's amazing. Well, that's probably a really good place to stop today, john,
great. You again for coming on. This has been such a pleasure. And I wonder now if you could tell the listeners where they can best find you check out your work and just kind of say hi on the social.
John Freyer 33:03
Yeah, so we're on Facebook at 5050 projects. 5050 is the moniker for kind of the umbrella for all of my projects. Were on on the web at at free nor can bike or free Naloxone bike, calm. Both those will work. You can find my work at john fryer.com. So it won't be hard to find me. We're on Instagram at at recovery roast and also at free. narc handbike. So find us there and reach out and I'll get back to you.
Adina Silvestri 33:37
Yeah, sounds great. Okay, well, thanks again, john, for being on.
John Freyer 33:41
Hey, thank you so much for having me.
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“I tried to do it on my own with my will power alone and the group of people in that room (recovery room) knew what I was going through and had been where I was…it was one of my only options. It’s the one thing I could connect to and participate in that wasn’t making things worse.”
“I’ve gone from an artist who’s an activist to an activist who’s an artist.”
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