The Art of Recovery
Emanuel Havens was low.
It was 1990 and he was squatting in an abandoned North Philadelphia house, his body wracked by the pain of heroin withdrawal.
He needed help and he knew it. Pulling himself together as best he could, he found his way to our St. Elizabeth's Recovery Residence - which happened to be just down the street - and received just want he needed: a clean bed and a new start.
A week later, Emanuel somewhat reluctantly accepted an invitation to join one of St. Elizabeth's discussion groups.
"I grabbed a wool army blanket and I came down to one of the groups shivering - and I mean literally shivering," he remembered. "I said I would never do drugs again."
At the time, he was urged not to set the bar so high, so soon - but thirteen years later, our latest Artist of the Season can proudly claim an unbroken streak of sobriety that began on that day.
"In my life I've never been a halfway kind of guy - it was always all or nothing," he said.
Emanuel's childhood at 22nd and Susquehanna in North Philadelphia was rough and tumble, defined by gang activity and violence, creating an atmosphere that he described as “the worst place in the world to grow up.” But he also credited the neighborhood for instilling in him a durability that would serve him well throughout his life.
The environment also indirectly tapped into his artistic promise when he discovered a knack for making music, a skill he employed to entertain the neighborhood gang members who may have otherwise pressed him into criminal activity – or worse.
Meanwhile, his mother – Emanuel was one of three children – was working to get her talented, sensitive son out of the neighborhood. His first stop was Warren G. Harding Junior High, where he found himself swept up into the early 1970s drug culture and was subsequently moved to the Parkway Program High School, where the institution’s liberal arts focus ignited a love for fine art, with Salvador Dali an early and profound influence.
“I fell in love with Dali because he wasn’t afraid to do whatever he wanted with his art, even though he was out of his mind,” he said. “I know he was hyper intelligent and I studied a lot about him.”
Emanuel stood out amongst his fellow students – so much so that school officials helped him acquire a partial scholarship to attend art school, where the vibrant color schemes of Disney animation and the “alive, mobile” artwork of Peter Max became significant influences on his later work. But his music would eventually pull him away and, despite his promise, he left without a degree.
In the succeeding years – what he terms his “crazy years” where he was “homeless and didn’t know it” – Emanuel experienced the highs of opening for a musical hero, Stevie Wonder, and the lows of financial hardship, increased drug use and a stint in prison.
Casting about for stability, Emmanuel struggled to excise his demons - until that night he dragged himself into the rain and into St. Elizabeth’s, a place he would call home for three years. Now the father of two and the grandfather of seven, Emanuel is thankful for the second chance.
“I grew up [at St. Elizabeth’s], more or less, into a new life,” he said.
And in keeping with his all-or-nothing temperament, Emanuel has used his hard-earned sobriety and inherent artistic talents to engage and give back; he’s been a key part of Project HOME’s arts community for over a decade, and has become an advocate himself, working with Action AIDS and other local organizations.
But he still makes time to create art for the sake of its creation, constantly challenging himself. The self-described “eclectic” artist has no preferred medium (he’s adept at styles ranging from pen and ink to oils) or instrument (he claims proficiency in twelve).
“If I like it and I can do it, I do it,” he said.
The gregarious sort who instinctively seeks out human contact, Emanuel doesn’t hesitate when asked what, after all of these years, still keeps him connected so intimately to Project HOME: camaraderie.