Art manager

Art helps keep the recovery manager grounded

Apr.25 – As a child, Dave Hsiao knew he had a talent for art – and all that means, he said, is that he doesn’t give up easily. A less than optimal drawing is just a chance to erase and draw another one.

Perseverance, redesigns and failures on the way to success are an integral part of Hsiao’s craft. He is Program Manager for Recovery Services at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, Clatsop County’s addiction and mental health treatment contractor.

Hsiao manages the agency’s team of counselors and peer recovery allies. They advise people seeking help to quit alcohol and drugs, quit gambling, and overcome the worst emotions a human being can experience.

The road to recovery is often marked by false starts and rebounds, and the whole enterprise is based on the belief that a promising future can emerge from an unpromising past.

A former counselor himself, Hsiao knows what it means to feel responsible for someone else’s pain. On the North Coast, where drug addiction is rampant and overdoses are not uncommon, it’s a lot to own.

“There are a lot of counselors who blame themselves for someone else’s suffering,” he said.

Advisors often wonder if a bad result could have been avoided if only they had been more careful, if only they had shown up for work on a certain day, if only they had used the right training techniques.

Hsiao watches his crew for signs of burnout and encourages self-care, an often overlooked priority in their jobs. “I think we all do this work because we view it as service work,” he said.

Originally from Taiwan, Hsiao came to the field through his own experience with drug addiction.

In the 1990s, Hsiao studied art at Portland State University. Like many art students, he said, “I was really looking for the extremes in life.

He apprenticed with a tattoo artist — a biker with his own tattoo shop — mostly mixing ink and designing skin art. Hsiao was following in his master’s footsteps, and that included following him into heroin. “His business kind of went downhill, and my training kind of went downhill,” he said.

For Hsiao, Portland’s drug scene defined the second half of the ’90s, from the suicide of Nirvana star Kurt Cobain until the turn of the millennium. He remembers going to get equipment for the tattoo business and stopping at drug dealers instead. Sometimes he traded tattoos for dope. He spent time in prison and attended drug and treatment programs. “Everything is a blur right now,” he said.

Hsiao went clean in 2000, completed his bachelor’s degree in printmaking and oil painting, earned a certificate in substance abuse counseling from Portland Community College, and earned a master’s degree in community counseling from Lewis & Clark College. He moved to the Oregon Coast with his wife, Shawna Neumeister, a case manager at Clatsop Community Action, about 15 years ago.

Neumeister is his muse and a frequent subject in his works. Portland’s comic book subculture shaped Hsiao’s style, as did the Superflat movement that grew out of Japanese anime and manga.

Hsiao is more sensitive to images than narrative, he said. Drawing is how he learned to stand out, make friends, share his story, communicate his wreckage, find extremes, “see how far I can go, see how far he can do black”.

Painting, whether on a large canvas or on a small toy soldier, is one of Hsiao’s methods of self-care. Volkswagens are another.

A longtime lover of “The Love Bug,” the 1968 Disney movie about a Beetle, Hsiao estimates he’s owned and worked on about 20 Volkswagens since high school.