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For Michael Breen, creating art is part therapy, part escape, and a way to reconnect with his heritage. It also takes his mind off a time in his life when he almost lost everything due to alcohol.

Mick was born and spent most of his life in Junee, a small country town in NSW. After school, Mick worked for the rail authority for a decade on the platforms and as a guard, and later at the Junee Correctional Centre for the next 20 years as a prison officer and drug dog handler.

Mick started drinking in his late teens and by his early 20s was drinking heavily. As he says, “it was just the culture at the time in a small town with limited opportunities … I had to drink to function”.

As a result of his addiction, Mick lost his job, his money, his marriage, suffered severe depression and almost drank himself to death. Eventually he was hospitalised after suffering from severe dehydration.

A counsellor arranged for Mick to enter an alcohol and drug recovery centre in Melbourne called Galiamble. On his third or fourth day there, Mick reluctantly boarded a bus with other residents to participate in the centre’s regular art therapy class, after being told he couldn’t stay back.

Fortuitously for Mick, the art therapist he met that day was the very thoughtful, generous, caring (and in our view at Open Canvas, legendary) Viv Parry, an inspirational community worker. Mick recounts that Viv was very patient and instructive, despite his initial blasé attitude towards her and the class. Mick painted the canvas he was given completely black, but Viv encouraged him to fill in the black with his hand print and some dots. Mick was surprised that he actually liked what he had created.

This was the dawn of a new passion for Mick, who would stay up until 2am every morning to paint.

As Mick says, “it just took my mind off problems; problems that weren’t problems. It  gave me something else to think about, it was really therapeutic and became a passion. I put three paintings in an exhibition and they all sold. I rang my sister and told her and she couldn’t comprehend it. I walked out of the exhibition and started crying. When I was back in Junee, I was living in a rest house … I was in a bad way and they took me to hospital. Just to come from that, where I thought my life was over, to going through rehab and not wanting to paint because I knew nothing about it, to having a piece of work in the exhibition and realising that someone paid money for it and it’s going to be hanging in someone’s house and I created that and it was my idea … it was just overwhelming. Art played a significant role in my recovery. It’s been an escape. I recently had my first sober Christmas in 20 years, and I attribute a lot of it to art. When you’ve been drinking for so long, that’s your identity, and to give that away and change is a whole personality and culture change which is hard to adapt to. Painting gave me a different train of thought, an avenue, something to strive for”.

For Open Canvas, this perfectly sums up how art can empower someone who has experienced adversity.

After the exhibition and his rehabilitation at Galiamble, Viv was instrumental in getting Mick into a TAFE course studying Aboriginal arts and culture.

Mick likes painting animals and is still experimenting. Being Aboriginal in heritage, from the Wiradjuri people, Mick says “I have something to paint about, which makes it more available, and that’s what I’m into, the Aboriginal side of art”.

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