“It’s a self-portrait,” said artist Michael Gute, describing “Detroit Figure,” one of his paintings featured in the Together We Can Exhibition, whose purpose is to bring awareness to the struggle of addiction and recovery. It’s on display now through Jan. 10 in the Affirmations LGBTQ community center’s Pittmann-Puckett Gallery. The oil painting depicts the Detroit skyline behind its subject; there is turbulence in the water.
“And it’s a self-portrait of a guy who has no idea what he’s doing, and he’s about a year sober,” Gute continued, explaining that the facial figures in the space that occupies where the brain would be, represent the different voices and perspectives that can lead one astray.
“I always say the best voice to listen to is not the one above your shoulders. It’s in your gut, it’s in your heart. Some call it intuition, others call it their inner voice,” Gute said. “But there’s no inner voice in this painting. When you’re a year sober, you’re really trying to figure out, ‘Who am I and what do I want? What am I doing with my life, and where’s my truth?’ That’s really where the painting’s coming from. It’s one of confusion on the brink of discovery and truth.”
The exhibit was the brainchild of Affirmations’ lead gallery volunteer and this exhibit’s curator, Chris Chapman, who himself is both an artist and in recovery. As a result, a portion of the proceeds from sales will benefit the scholarship fund for Together We Can — an annual LGBTQ substance abuse recovery conference to be held March 15 to 17, 2019, in Troy.
“The scholarship program was there for me when I couldn’t afford to go to the program,” said Chapman, adding that he was inspired by a “painting with a twist” exercise at a previous TWC conference. He said he found great interest among area artists — some in recovery, and others who simply wanted to support a positive cause.
That’s where Gute came in. Before this exhibit, Gute had not publicly shared his struggle with alcohol. Though he has been sober for more than five years now, he said the exhibit presented an unexpected opportunity to bring elements of his world together in one space. He said he had never before considered the relationships between his experience as an artist, a professional, a gay man and as someone who overcame an addiction.
Currently a philanthropy officer at Wayne State University for the Honors College and the College of Education, Gute’s career as a professional artist began at the age of 16 when he sold his first serious painting at auction. He credits fiber artist Marti Liddle-Lameti, one of his high school teachers, for being an advocate and motivating his artistic and academic career.
“She solidified for me that art absolutely belongs in education; art is completely imperative to becoming a person,” Gute said, later adding how pivotal higher education was for him as a gay child, in that it enabled him to leave home and find his way in the broader world.
After studying fine arts painting and graduating with a degree in art history from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids on a full scholarship, Gute went on to attain a master’s degree in historic preservation and museum administration at Eastern Michigan University, where he painted “Detroit Figure.” Now Gute is also a student at WSU’s Mike Ilitch School of Business to prepare him for a leadership role at a creative nonprofit.
Long Road to Sobriety
However, Gute’s artistic, academic and professional success belies the fact that his struggles with alcohol were more than a mere bump in the road. He said that his years-long journey was marked by both homelessness and heartbreak.
Until the age of 12, Gute lived with his family on a horse farm in Owosso. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to a trailer park but said that the transition from a country to an urban setting made it difficult for him to adapt. That change paired with an unhealthy living environment led Gute to leave home at 16.
While still attending high school, he attempted to support himself by selling his artwork. He was forced to sleep at friends’ houses and occasionally a local donut shop. That’s when he said he started drinking. He said that only later did he realize that the “couch surfing” he was doing was a form of homelessness.
“As a gay person I felt so lonely, and I didn’t know any other gay people,” Gute said. “Alcohol really relieved me of the sadness I was feeling and the loneliness. I was sleeping at Benny’s Donuts. Trust me, there weren’t gay people there. I really did get called faggot. And I did get called queer.”
When Gute began college, his high school “partying” spiraled into a consistent drinking habit. Soon, he entered a relationship with a man several years older, whom he said he loved wholeheartedly — not aware that his boyfriend, too, was an alcoholic. Gute added that he also didn’t recognize that the relationship was abusive.
It was when Gute’s boyfriend died of liver failure at 26 — a direct consequence of his addiction — that Gute was forced to make a critical decision about his own life. He said that at first, he decided to self-destruct. It wasn’t long before his studies, art, health and job prospects deteriorated, until one day, at 24, he experienced an unfamiliar pain. Certain he had a choice to either quit drinking or die in six months, Gute chose life. That’s when he entered rehab.
Drawing Inspiration and Providing It
Now living a far healthier lifestyle, Gute is also quick to dispel the notion that his creativity was fueled through his addiction. In fact, for him, it was the opposite.
“I can’t paint if I drink,” he said. “If I’m drinking, I’m not myself. So I didn’t paint for a lot of years. I even forgot that it was the greatest joy of my life. And I’m so grateful to have learned all those lessons so quickly, and to now have my joy back.”
Since that realization, Gute discovered Affirmations and its regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He said that’s where he found a network of support, highlighting that he is also grateful for the center’s other functions in the larger LGBTQ community.
“I can’t imagine my life without Affirmations,” Gute said. “It is incredibly important for me in my journey through sobriety — which is a life-long journey — but it’s also incredibly important for me for my journey as a spiritual being, as a social being and as a gay person trying to navigate the world that we live in.”
Gute emphasized that as a gay person who has overcome addiction, he feels that being open about his struggles in a place like Affirmations where others find support is an “incredible responsibility” for him.
“Part of that is being open and talking about it, being an example to younger gay people, and older gay people; that’s how I view that,” he said. “Being an artist is the gift, the opportunity that God gave me, to be able to do that on a platform that is public and can communicate with people.”
To find out more about Together We Can visit twcdetroit.com. More information about Affirmations can be found at goaffirmations.org.