Elizabeth Greenberg

To hear silence is to find stillness in the midst of the restlessness that makes creative life possible and the inescapability of death acceptable.

– Mark C. Taylor, Seeing Silence

Before the world awakes, Elizabeth Greenberg is out the door with her camera. What she captures through her lens is as unanticipated as it is beautiful.

Take for example Untitled, 2017, the photograph shown above, a work that dares to flirt with cliché (clapboard home in picturesque reflection) only to transcend trope with the unexpected. For the longer we look, the more we see: lights and darks along the top in startling geometry, the jagged black shapes like premonitions of fractured window shards; a small rogue stone alone and seemingly errant in the pebbled ground below – is it too a harbinger of shattered glass?

Danger lurks.

What at first blush appears almost quaint quickly becomes not so, for the seductively lush pre-dawn Maine image contains the ghost of something edgier. The smell of loss. The aroma of memory. A whiff of disaster.

The work carries surprise – and for Elizabeth, being a photographer is all about surprise.

“Even the most familiar places in my home and around the rural neighborhood in which I live so often reveal to me mysteries as clues, bridges between the past and the present, the ordinary and the remarkable,” she says.

And so Elizabeth is up each morning, seeking daily in light and pattern, shape and shadow, what without attentiveness we might otherwise miss: the shimmer of a tree’s reflection in water caught between frozen and liquid; the contrasting penumbra of light from a cracked door and a window’s scrim; rising specters in sun-soaked sea smoke. Nostalgia and dream, magic and fancy – otherworldly spirits right here.

Photography is a solitary practice for Elizabeth, one in which she is immersed mostly in a welcome silence.

“I love my solitude,” she says.

As Provost for the Maine Media Workshop & College in Rockport, Maine, she gets little quiet during the day (“I am always busy with people”). Before making time for her art, Elizabeth was not happy.

“I was angry all the time.”

That began to change when one morning in 2016 she was startled by the sight of rippling morning light coming through an antique glass window in her home.

“It was spectacular, and I had never seen it this way before, despite having lived in the house for 16 years,” she says. “The light I noticed that day seemed to reference something no longer there physically, yet intensely palpable in its absence. I ended up chasing light around the house all winter long. When winter was over, I went outside, and from there decided to keep doing it every day. It pretty quickly turned into a way to wake up into the world and be true to myself before the day’s demands took over.”

Though the nature of Elizabeth’s art process is relatively new, her subject matter is not.

“I was 14 years old when I knew I wanted to be a photographer. Even then, I would take my camera to quiet spaces – empty buildings, alleyways.”

Then as now, she was drawn to spots rich in haunting stillness, replete with hints of invisible history or hushed memory.

“The words I apply to my photographs are ‘melancholy,’ ‘nostalgia,’ ‘mournful,’ ‘yearning’ – I have a real desire in my work to find evidence for who or what is gone.”

Elizabeth’s ongoing search for such clues is rooted in part in her life experience.

“Losses in my family when I was young were formative events in my life,” she says.

Elizabeth is quick to note she is not specifically seeking her own loved ones in her dawn sojourns. Nonetheless, camera in hand, she is questing – hunting for glints of a world rich in possibility, steeped in greater promise than the stark reality of loved ones dying might otherwise suggest.

In her art, spirits abide – each successful image an ode to all the accident and wonder of our unrelentingly beautiful world.

Elizabeth Greenberg is an artist and educator living on the coast of Maine. Her work has been exhibited across the country and she has curated numerous exhibitions. Currently, Elizabeth is the Arnold and Augusta Newman Provost at Maine Media Workshops + College. Her three photographs above are all untitled, and were taken (left to right) in 2020, 2022, and 2022.

Pebbles in the Pond

I was recently invited to Florida to open the annual conference of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) with “my story” – aspects of which many of you are familiar with, for I often share about it publicly. My job at the conference was to complement the medical conversations with a dose of heart and humanism. I was glad for the opportunity on many levels. For one thing, I haven’t often had a chance to express my gratitude for the work of health providers in this field; additionally, this context allowed me to demonstrate how critical art is to survival, both for me and for others I’ve worked with. For this month’s Prologue, I am sharing a transcript of the speech (edited slightly for format) in the hopes that doing so offers insight on how we might look upon and treat those affected by addiction, and also a glimpse of what pushes me to make art with urgency.

– Peter

I began working on my remarks for today on February 11 of this year, the 8th anniversary of my daughter – Elisif – dying from an overdose. Thinking about her in some organized way felt the right thing to do that day. I set the mood by lighting candles in my home and playing Amy Winehouse on Spotify. And – of course – I cried.

I want to talk about damage.

Not so much the damage you in your practices see every day – the lying, stealing, cheating, evading and denying that comes with substance use disorder – the damage SUD wreaks upon families and loved ones, our children’s hearts and minds co-opted by addiction’s drive to thrive with use and use and use.

Not that damage. That’s a damage everyone in this room is familiar with. No – you see, from my perspective, that damage is prelude.

I’m about to play something for you, but before I do, let me say at this point that I am an artist.

I mention that now in part to contextualize this bit of audio I’m about to share. But also I want to make clear up front that my survival – my recovery back to life in the wake of my daughter’s death– I fully credit to being an artist. Art has allowed me to go into the abyss of losing my daughter to addiction – as an artist, I’ve tried to leave no pain unexamined – for I believe love and pain go hand-in-hand through the same door, so for me, retaining the love means walking the pain… nurturing my grief through art… bearing witness and testifying to addiction’s consequences – it’s impact on me, it’s affect on others – all its damage… for without having excavated it, I do not believe I could have come out the other side as I have.

For that, I count myself lucky.

So right away after Elisif died, I began processing my grief by working on an art project about her. Part of making it meant recording interviews with those who had known her – I cut and pasted their voices together to create the arc of a story – Elisif’s Story. What I have for you today is a smattering of that audio – I’ve put it in video form.

[click here for video segment]

The damage from Elisif’s passing ripples far out beyond just her, or just me – her dad.

There is wide breadth to the damage.

And there is depth.

These three drawings are from a series of dozens I made two or three years ago that I think of as memoir drawings. The left drawing represents the line between before and after. On it, I’ve written the words that changed my life:

“Hello, is this Peter?”

That phone call. Your first born is dead. What comes next is falling.

The drawing on the right:

“You hugging me, neither of us knowing for the last time. I still smell your hair in my dreams. Your hair in my dreams.”

The middle drawing:

“Headlights that don’t show.
What I don’t know.
The 1AM tick and no one on the road.
Dawn gravel crunch, the bump barely audible.
Panes smattered in a thousand gnats.
Loneliness settles in, snuggling where you are not.
Like an undressing, and I don’t know what to put on next.
I am the limits of my skin.
To be still and quiet, and I am so much noise.
I imagine it’s you but most likely it’s not.
(I’m really trying, but it’s hard not to crack up.)”

These are three from another series I call Big Crying, for in these years since my daughter died I have cried so much.

I have cried from the hard dreams I still have at night. From the recurring anxiety and depression that comes with each anniversary of her death, each birthday she’s not here. From her absence at her sister’s wedding this past summer – her absence at every family occasion.

I have also cried tears of gratitude – for I have come to know and understand love as I never had before; love, the one thing that does not die. The love of Elisif’s story: so full of tears.

Here’s the rub: there is nothing – nothing – special about my daughter.

560,098 children of parents have died in the U.S. of overdose since Elisif died.

Each is an Elisif, and the damage is immense.

Most if not all of you in this room work as healers for those with addiction. I know you care, I know you know and feel the harm and pain that attends SUD. You know damage too.

I also know – because I have lived it – the behaviors that come with addiction are confounding. It is exhausting and wearing and at worst it can cultivate diminished empathy between you and your patient – that too can be part of the damage, as it was with Elisif and me and her family while she was still alive. That did not help.

Which is in part why I am here today: to remind you – to bring home anew – the truth of the humanity of those you work with as healers.

These photographs are from a project I did several years ago in partnership with Johns Hopkins Medical Center called The Road to Recovery Is Paved with Love – for me part of a larger project called Beyond Beautiful: 1,000 Love Letters. For the Hopkins project, we held a series of love letter writing workshops at treatment and recovery programs. I then made drawings inspired by those love letters, the point being to uncover the emotional life of those living with SUD even as in their affect it seemed entirely absent.

Heather writes in her letter, to mom and dad:

“Each day that passes I miss you all so.”

Veda’s letter: “I neglected my children I do apologize.”

Charles, in a letter to himself:

“It’s really good to finally meet you. I’ve been in love with you a long time, but never said anything, because I saw you were in love with someone else. I hated to see you so used and abused by a love that could never be true.”


It is as pernicious and perilous in divorcing those who suffer from it from their humanity as it is on us. We too can be numbed from its assault on our hearts.

The point of The Road to Recovery is Paved with Love and the point of my sharing with you today is to remind you how much what you do and how you do it matters.

Each encounter with a patient. Each moment of listening carefully. Each kind word. Each prescribed course of action. Each gesture of love toward your patient – each is like a pebble tossed in a pond, sending out ripples of perhaps immense consequence.

Your work is the difference.

Your caring is the difference.

You are immense.

I close by asking you to remember the only thing between another 560,098 dads in happy joy with their families and the same number of dads alone and in grief might very well be your pebbles in the pond.

Photos of artwork by Dan Meyers; photos of Heather, Veda, and Charles by Ken Royster

Soul Selling

I didn’t want to sell it, but I ended up doing so.

As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, earlier this month I spoke at a conference in Florida where I shared my story to illustrate the impact of addiction, reminding the hundreds of medical practitioners assembled of the importance of their work, my grieving over my daughter’s death from an overdose in 2014 a case study in consequences.

I spoke of her, I spoke of my art, and I spoke of love.

After I concluded my remarks, it was announced I would be available in the lobby with a selection of my art on display – and for sale.

That was an error: I had neither the intention nor wish to sell my work.

Nonetheless, I took up position by a dozen drawings from Beyond Beautiful: One Thousand Love Letters – 10 drawings inspired by condolence letters following Elisif’s death, and two based on words from me for Elisif.

At best, I have always felt ambivalent about selling my art. On the one hand, art’s meaning and resonance can be augmented when placed in someone’s home, and if a person likes my work, it’s wonderful if they can have it. On the other hand, I am attached to my art, and philosophically resistant to breaking up the body of works I make, individual pieces becoming like so many leaves scattered in the world.

Selling art comes with being an artist, yet I resist it, especially with works as excruciatingly personal as these particular love letter drawings I elected to share at the conference – most especially the one illustrating the top of this article.

So there I was, by my display, feeling flustered and vulnerable, fending off several inquiries about buys with equivocations about visiting my website’s sales gallery. Everyone was understanding, and I got away unscathed, happily not having sold a thing.

I then checked my email:

“I’d like to purchase the framed letter with the poem that states ‘love me…, deny me…’”

My immediate impulse was to reply with a polite decline. But first, I Googled the prospective buyer and discovered the principle of love is central to her addiction medicine practice.

Maybe I would sell this drawing to this person – maybe she was exactly who should have it.

So I did.

We then had a correspondence, me writing her first:

“A note about the image. I was thinking about a body (her body) as a kind of standing column, struts holding it together, it falling (weakening) on a side (the side with yellow), me (my love) like a band, trying to suspend it all together – keep it from collapse. I also was thinking about Michelangelo’s final Pietà (in Milan), where from one angle (head on) Mary and Jesus appear to be melting in collapse, and from the side view, Mary’s back is taut as a bow, holding, holding, holding. That’s me: the bent yellow.”

She answered:

“Thank you so much for sharing – I am haunted by the faces of my patients that have died.”

I replied:

“You and I share burdens, which we could not bear (I am sure) were it not for the love we carry too. I am honored (so honored) to have this connection, and in part through the drawing you now own. It could not be in more fitting hands.”

She agreed she would send me a photo of the drawing once she’d had it framed and hung in her office, and that was that.

Though not really, for some aura lingers in the wake of this exchange… a sense of bond in survivorship. Of fellowship in pain and grit. Of love.

All because I sold a drawing.

April 2022

Becoming Final Event April 13

On Wednesday, April 13, 7:00 p.m. ET, Peter sits down with artists Vagner Mendonça-Whitehead and Colette Veasey-Cullors for the third and final event in the online Becoming conversation series. Join us as we explore the evolution of two artists over time and how life’s exigencies shape their art. Learn more and register here.

Maine Arts Commission Grant

A relatively new resident of Maine, Peter last year applied for and received a Springboard Artist Grant from the Maine Arts Commission. This award was not only a financial boost, but also an affirmation of the merit of what Peter is working on. It is with gratitude we thank the Maine Arts Commission.

Becoming II Online

On Wednesday, March 16, Peter spoke with artists Ken Royster and Connie Imboden about their work, exploring how choices that seemed incidental at the time they made them had lasting impact on their art. The conversation is now online and available to be watched. Go here for a link to the recording.

Ken Royster Addendum

During the Becoming: Ken Royster & Connie Imboden event, we neglected to note Ken’s inclusion in Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulsea major traveling exhibition called one of the best of the year by the Los Angeles Times. We apologize for the oversight, and are happy to share of the ongoing success of the artists taking part in our programming.