Hugh Mandelert Retrospective: Art & Addiction

If you ever find yourself googling “Chippewa Valley artwork,” you’re very likely to find a broad range of results, including from students, professionals, and the various studios around the city. However, mixed with these results is the paintings of Hugh Mandelert. Capturing the essence of the Chippewa Valley by elevating local scenery into art, Mandelert stood out as one of the most popular painters in the area, and remains so even after his death in 2001. But while many see the beautiful twists of the Chippewa River and peacefulness of the bandstand in Irvine Park, very few paintings bore witness to Mandelert’s recovery from alcoholism.

The Hugh Mandelert Retrospective: Art and Addiction, now on display at the Heyde Center for the Arts, is an exhibit hoping to serve as a catalyst for a community dialogue about chemical dependency issues in the Chippewa Valley. Mandelert’s status as a well-respected, professional artist can help decrease the stigma attached to chemical dependency as well as inspire compassion, community support, and explore ways to move forward.

A native of Chippewa Falls, Hugh was born on October 23, 1927 to Gertrude and Charles Lloyd Mandelert. According to his nephew, Jim Mandelert, Hugh started abusing alcohol when in his early teens. He attended school in Chippewa Falls until his senior year of high school, which was spent at The Hill School in Pennsylvania. He graduated from The Hill and spent his next three years studying art at the Minneapolis Art Institute before finishing his formal training by going on an art tour of France and Italy for sixth months.

For the next twenty years, Hugh would be working in New York in a few artistic categories: fashion advertising, wallpaper design, and package design, just to name a few. It was there that his ongoing addiction to alcohol, resulted in a stay at New York’s Bellevue Hospital with the Delirium Tremens (aka DTs). Mandelert moved back to the Chippewa Valley with the help of his brother, Joe, in 1972 where he started a new career as the art instructor at the Chippewa Valley vocational school. After that program ended, the artist instructed painting classes in the building that was formerly known as the “McDonell Memorial Catholic High School” [but now houses the Heyde Center for the Arts], and eventually his home studio until his death on October 2, 2001 (The Chippewa Herald).

In researching Hugh Mandelert, his artwork, and his life, I found it extremely difficult to find almost anything about his struggle with alcoholism. To better understand why, I interviewed Dr. Douglas Matthews of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who teaches courses in the psychology of addiction. Matthews states that while addiction cuts across all demographic boundaries, including race, class, and religion, it is strongly influenced by environmental and personality type. Additionally, while some addicts may choose to talk about their addiction as part of their therapy, others choose not to, preferring to handle their addiction more privately.

It is common to judge addicts as people who make bad decisions or are weak-willed, even though the situation is typically much more complex and individualized. While Matthews believes society is beginning to move away from stigmatizing addiction, more research would be a helpful tool in demonstrating the biological basis of addiction, and increased recognition that addiction is not solely based on an individual’s decisions. A large part of the stigma arises from people judging others for falling short of their own personal standard of living without recognizing the situation of the addict is different than their own. It is easy to judge a situation without sympathizing with it.

Art serves as a tool for cultural as well as personal expression. Art is the soul’s expression of what the mind cannot comprehend or put into words. While therapy must be tailored to the individual, art therapy can still be a powerful tool for some in exploring inner struggles. Dr. Mickey Crothers, a clinical therapist and professor at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire says it is sometimes easier to reference the lyrics of a song or a piece of poetry rather than put one’s addiction experience into words. Additionally, Crothers theorizes—she maintains she is not certain of this—art can potentially take the place of self-harm as a way of expression; something harmful can be turned into something healthy and beautiful. Sharing one’s art is also a way to build community and connection, which can significantly decrease isolation and help create a support system for the recovering addict.

Dr. Matthews maintains that changing one’s context is extremely important for a recovering addict, “One of the reasons addicts relapse so often is they continue inside the same context they’re in, and that could be location, that could be friends, that could be job… the problem most addicts have is they go in, recover, they come out clean, and they go right back into the same environment they were addicted in. Is it any wonder that they fall again?”

In Mandelert’s situation, moving from New York City to Chippewa Falls may have been one of the key aspects of his recovery. Moving on and recovering from addiction includes more than just leaving the substance behind, it is also about leaving behind the lifestyle, the environment, and the feelings that come with it.

Finally, Dr. Crothers states, “Sometimes the pain people in addiction can experience is beyond anywhere language can go…The heavy stigma, more so than most mental illnesses, but the stigma of failure, and that’s worse, I think, for addiction than anything else in terms of knowing someone who has gone through it and recovered. That feeling of being alone is huge.” Feeling alone entails the idea that no one can understand your situation; sometimes you don’t even realize what you’re feeling. By returning home and changing his context, Hugh Mandelert made isolation less likely. By changing his environment, he changed his habits for the better. He showed the Chippewa Valley the extraordinary aspects of day-to-day ordinary scenery. By focusing on the community all around him, Mandelert created a place for himself to heal.

Written by Courtney Pagel, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Intern

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The Chippewa Valley Cultural Association, aka the Heyde Center for the Arts, features theater performances; art exhibits; local, regional and international music; dance and much MUCH more.

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