A 5 by 4 grid of painted square portraits with bright colors of pink, green, and brown, all hang on a brick wall, surrounded on the left and right with small rectangular pieces of paper with text too small to make out.
All: Installation of Opioid Portraits at The Jewel Art Gallery

Opioid Portraits

Alexandra Blair

Nestled within the edges of the hills of Appalachia and the Ohio River sits Ashland, Kentucky. Known for the production of coal and steel, the city reflects the charms of an early 20th century industrial town. Old banks, grocery stores, and factory buildings remain largely untouched even as varying businesses take the place of what once existed. But the walls, and the people, never forget.

When a member of the community passes, even if an individual does not know the deceased personally, there are always connections that lead back to them. The strings that tie  communities together could be something like the deceased’s mother being the high school teacher to a cousin, or someone who grew up on a road that was just a  few streets away from your childhood home. It is within the familiarity of streets, buildings, passing stories from others where the strings of community are struck. Where historians recount the factual history of cultures, artists recount the emotional history—and Appalachia is no different.

A series of portraits by Ashland-born John Paul Kesling depict the collective mourning and the close-knit communal feeling of the area. The Opioid Portraits remember those who lost their lives to the opioid crisis in the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky and Southern Ohio, accompanied by a small bit of text from a family member about the deceased. 

Beginning in the 1990’s, doctors relied more heavily on the use of opioid painkillers for patients after surgeries and other procedures without a real idea of how addictive these painkillers could be—and what doors to other drug abuse would be opened because of them. With less restrictions on these medications, it became rather easy for patients to continue having them prescribed despite their pain actually being long gone. Even the families of these patients would steal the medications for themselves, and the spread of opioid addiction would soon increase drastically.

The Appalachian region, spanning across the Appalachian mountain range in West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and Southern Ohio, saw the worst of this. With a severe lack in resources and transportation for those experiencing substance addictions to recover, especially those in the near 50% that live in poverty, the epidemic only got worse. Even when drug restrictions on opioid prescriptions finally rose in the 2010’s, Appalachia’s lack of intense enforcement and police presence in many areas meant many areas would not change. And with substance abuse beginning to dig its way deeper and deeper into the culture, habits become harder to break. Especially when people turn away from opioids as they become harder to find and turn to drugs such as heroin.

The portraits themselves are simple. They vary in their colors, which gives them a feeling of life—the colors are bright, with many portraits containing vivid yellows and pinks, instead of dull hues that would somber the portraits. These portraits do not scream “opioid crisis” as one may expect, but rather give a sense of familiarity. These are people you may know, and they’re happy, looking as they did in life. The notes range from family members discussing how much they miss the deceased and how kind they were to friends who speak of their own sobriety after the passing of their friend. The portraits and notes are inviting, and speak to the communal feeling amongst Appalachia in the way that they feel inviting and familiar. Though the familiarity is felt within the “selfie” nature of the photos, the notes are the emotional punch to the way the works’ meaning. They are not untouchable figures, but feel as though they could be your neighbor, your friend, or a coworker.

According to Kesling, the artist found himself connected to those he spoke to when creating the portraits of their loved ones.These sentiments of heartbreak and pain can be felt in the very brush strokes, emotion, and care taken, evident in the way the portraits invite the viewer to come and learn about them, to know about them even after passing. For the artist, it was important that someone from the area be the one to paint these portraits. No one else could truly understand the mourning rituals and showcase the emotional ties amongst those from Appalachia.

Connected to the Opioid Portraits are a series of Kesling’s painted still lives. These still lives are all of various flowers, painted similarly to the portraits in their colorful palette and visible brushstrokes, that harken back a feeling of classical vanitas artworks. These vanitas paintings are a type of still life memento mori that showcases motifs of life and death.1 Here, the deceased’s painted pictures are the representation of death, and the flowers represent a juxtaposition of life that will bloom eternally.

In Appalachia, funerals are a big deal. Mourning is a long and personal process. When a member of the community passes, it is a personal obligation to attend at least the visitation. Whether the deceased is family or not simply doesn’t matter—what matters is showing love and support to those around you. The funeral home will be full of flowers from friends, families, and those acquainted with the deceased, as well as a myriad of  photos that all come together to create an atmosphere for the sharing of memories and stories.

Through these bodies of work, Jewel Art Gallery has become a kind of Appalachian funeral home, and the portraits have become the points through which stories and memories can be shared. In this public space, grief and emotion can be processed collectively with those around. Combining the modern practices of funerary homes and the art historical practices of memento mori, Kesling and the Jewel Art Gallery have created a haven for art history to continue its work, keeping the emotional record of the past. Those who have lost their lives to an epidemic that has deeply wounded the Appalachian region can be remembered, spoken of, and emotions can be worked through.

Art is a beautiful way to continue the traditions of grieving. Amidst the sadness, there is something joyous in the way that Appalachian funerals bring people together and to tell stories that will keep the deceased in a state of immortality through words, as Cicero would say. Similarly, art can create spaces for the stories to thrive, for people to be remembered, and for a sense of immortality to be reached so long as the communities continue to come together and share stories through their grieving.
A portrait painting of a person’s head with a light skin tone and long brown hair, who is wearing a red bandana and a reddish shirt. The style overall is loose but is made up of many smaller hard marks.

A portrait painting of a person’s head with a yellow cartoon-like skin tone and short gray hair which is kept under a ball cap. They are wearing a blue shirt and against a grey background with a sad expression. The style overall is loose and made of an efficient number of brush strokes.

A small piece of paper on a brick wall that reads “_____ was a Fairview football star. Mention #44 in that small town of Westwood or Ashland and you’ll hear a crowd roar. He was Earth’s own realistic Thor. He had just gotten to become a father and get his life on track…”

A white wall displaying four artworks with a sculpture in the foreground. From left to right, there are two photos in light wood frames on the wall, followed by a photograph printed on fabric and draped on the wall, and then another framed photo. The sculpture is a plate carrier vest with patches embroidered with white text, resting on a wood stand.


The Jewel Art Gallery is located in downtown Ashland, Kentucky and houses a variety of artists  from the Ashland tri-state area that cover a variety of mediums. Artist John Paul Kesling  currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee, but continues to create works that are inspired by his  young life residing in Appalachia.


  1. Vanitas is a type of painting or sculpture that depicts life and death through symbols as straightforward as skulls representing death, to something more abstract, such as a musical instrument to represent life. The tradition began in the Medieval Ages funerary works, but continued on throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. They were to represent, as expected, the idea of death. The artworks would range in their subject matter and intensity, with some being tame still lifes of fruits and flowers to ones that would be more “obsessed” with death and decay and showcase the dead as skeletons prancing around. The Dutch are perhaps best known for their takes on vanitas paintings, but the theme of memento mori and vanitas extend to all areas of Europe at that time.



Alexandra Blair (she/her) is an art historian currently residing in Ashland, KY after receiving her master’s degree in Art History from the University of Louisville in 2021. If she isn’t exploring the Metaphysical works of Giorgio de Chirico, or delving into the more psychological aspects within art history through psychoanalysis, she’s exploring untapped realms of art within smaller communities in order to bring them to a wider audience.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY