Portraits of Heartbreak: New Hampshire mom raising awareness of opioid deaths through art

If art imitates life, Anne Marie Zanfagna’s portraits capture the promise of youth — brush strokes of vibrant colors that make up each face, vivacious and carefree, on square canvases displayed Wednesday near the U.S. Capitol.

The young subjects — each with their own story — are dead. Collectively the 150 portraits represent a generation ravaged by the opioid epidemic.

“When you see them all together, it’s very powerful,” said Zanfagna, whose 25-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, died from an accidental overdose in 2014.

Anne Marie and Jim Zanfagna with portrait of their daughter Jacqueline

Anne Marie and Jim Zanfagna with portrait of their daughter Jacqueline (Cristina Corbin)

“The numbers and statistics don’t mean much to me — it’s a lot of people but you don’t really think that deep about it,” she said. “But when you see a picture of someone — a portrait — you see their essence and their spirit. The feeling of loss is much more profound.”

Zanfagna, an artist from Plaistow, N.H., began painting her daughter’s portrait 10 months after her death from a lethal mix of heroin and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is killing more people in New Hampshire than in any other state.

For Zanfagna, the time spent painting Jacqueline’s face using an old modeling photo, was cathartic.

“It was painful knowing she was gone but I also had joy because I was spending time with Jackie,” Zanfagna said of the experience. “It was a release of many emotions.”

After showing the portrait to members of her local support group, Zanfagna’s calling became clear — to paint the faces of opioid victims for anyone who asked for one, free of charge. The first was 20-year-old Courtney Griffin of Newton, N.H., followed by her boyfriend, 22-year-old Christopher Honor. Other portraits included 30-year-old Josh Doherty, a talented drummer, and 33-year-old Stephanie Jesi, a budding artist. Emmett Scannell, 20, was a National Honor student attending college on a full academic scholarship; Alyssa Maluski, 21, an aspiring physician; and brothers Vincent and Dominic Rosa, 20 and 23, avid kickboxers.

In July 2016, Zanfagna and her husband, Jim, founded their non-profit group, Angels of Addictions, to raise awareness about the dangers of opioid addiction. The organization has a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of art supplies for the portraits — each one requiring 12-15 hours of work from Zanfagna’s home art studio.

Courtney Griffin of Newton, N.H.

Courtney Griffin of Newton, N.H. (Cristina Corbin)

“Sometimes I’m up until two or three in the morning painting,” said Zanfagna, who prefers to use “happy colors” when recreating each face using a photo provided by the family.

“I want them to be in a good light,” she said. “That brings the families joy, which helps me and gives me a reason to go on painting.”

“You don’t get another picture of your child again,” said Zanfagna.

Zanfagna’s exhibit this week in Washington was made possible by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a leading voice in the fight against opioid addiction. Shaheen worked to secure an additional $3.3 billion to combat the opioid epidemic in a government funding bill with a set-aside sum for the hardest hit states, like New Hampshire, Ohio and West Virginia. She was also instrumental in creating a comprehensive legislative package, which passed both the House and Senate and provides tools to help states cope with the crisis.

Sen Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Zanfagna

Sen Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Zanfagna (Cristina Corbin)

After learning about Zanfagna’s story, Shaheen invited the family to display all 150 portraits for the public inside the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building.

“They are compelling and they are haunting,” Shaheen said of the paintings.

“They are a very personal reminder of what this country has lost,” she said in an interview. “It’s not just about statistics. I think this exhibit will remind people that this crisis has been about real people.”

Of the 72,306 drug overdose deaths nationally in 2017, 49,068 involved opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In New Hampshire, the state’s chief medical examiner reported that of the 488 drug-related deaths last year, 433 were caused by opioids.

“The opiate crisis is by far New Hampshire’s number one public health issue,” said Michele Merritt,  president and CEO of New Futures, a statewide health policy and advocacy organization in the Granite State.

“We saw a rapid increase in the death rate in late 2014 and 2015,” Merritt told Fox News from her office in Concord. “The age ranges that we’re seeing that are most affected are those that are between the ages of 19 and 35.”

While New Hampshire is among the hardest hit by opioid addiction, requests for Zanfagna’s portraits have come from all corners of the country.

Tommy and Freida Saiz of Albuquerque, N.M., lost their 23-year-old son, Thomas, in February 2016 from a deadly cocktail of heroin and Xanax.

“Some officers came to our door in the middle of the night and told us he was in the hospital on life support,” his father said in an interview. “It was a shock to us. He had everything going for him. He was full of ambition and life. He loved softball and basketball and fishing. He wanted to join the Marines.”

Upon receiving Zanfagna’s portrait of Thomas, the couple said their reaction was bittersweet.

“When it came in the mail, it was a strange feeling, just seeing his face,” Freida Saiz said of the portrait that now hangs over her son’s bed. “He had a beautiful smile that was captivating and that really comes out in the picture.”

“We don’t want our son’s death to be in vain,” she said. “These paintings bring awareness to a terrible disease. Even if it saves one life, it’s worth it.”

For Anne Marie and Jim Zanfagna, the portraits represent a silver lining in the loss of their youngest daughter.

“We’re hoping to remove the stigma around mental illness and drug addiction,” Jim Zanfagna said. “These are people who are loved. Their lives are worth saving.”