Virginia Beach students use art to battle the stigma of mental illness

April 13, 2017 | By Lee Belotte

Fabric sculptures decorated the foyer at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Students crafted and dressed cloaks, while simultaneously hoping to undress the societal stigmas of mental illness in their exhibit, “Mindfully Cloaked.”

Green Run students participated with MOCA in response to the museum’s exhibition, “MIND-FUL, Exploring Mental Health through Art.” They produced pieces with titles such as “Forgetting,” that illustrated dementia, and “Fading in and Out,” which explored anxiety disorder.

The students started research in mid-January, when the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI) gave a presentation about societal issues surrounding treatment, services and stigmas. A few weeks later, the students visited MOCA’s “MIND-FUL” exhibition to begin the brainstorming process.

The young artists completed the eclectic group of 25 fabric sculptures last month. They are visual arts students in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at Green Run Collegiate, which is a public high school.

The students’ fabric art will travel to the national NAMI convention in Washington, D.C, in June, and then go to the Chrysler Museum this fall.

When creating the cloaks, the students chose from several patterns, used mixed media and then sewed each piece while considering the use of the exterior and interior space.

Elizabeth Langford, 17, said she learned about the abundance and struggles of mental illness through the lectures and research involved in her art project. She chose the theme “social anxiety” for her cloak and used chains, keys, painted bars and a lock to symbolize the closed and quiet nature of the disorder.

She adorned her piece with colorful flowers to illustrate the friendliness of the individual that’s restrained by social anxiety.

“The meaning of the exhibition is to rid the stigmas attached to mental illness and reveal there is more to the individual,” said Langford. “The exhibition’s aim is to reveal the positive side of individuals while showing their struggle and having a conversation about mental illness.”

Kiara Ramos, 17, said her cloak was meant to embody bipolar disorder. She conveyed her idea through the use of color and duality. The warm colors on the left side of the cloak represent the manic episodes, and the right side shows cool colors to symbolize depressive episodes.

She further emphasized the two sides of bipolar disorder by sewing two hoods and intermingling the warm and cool colors to represent how the emotions are intertwined as one entity.

“Despite knowing multiple people, including myself, who suffer from mental illness, I never realized how far spread its influence was,” said Ramos. “Going through this collaborative process has made me more passionate about creating awareness for this important topic that has been portrayed as fairly taboo in community discussions.”

According to Erika Hitchcock, Green Run Collegiate art teacher, the best part was watching students approach a difficult topic with a sense of comfort. She was impressed with the students’ connections to the assignment and their desire to communicate personal experiences that they wouldn’t have been comfortable talking about in a regular classroom setting.

“They found a voice to express their experiences through visual imagery. It was inspiring to see them take such ownership, care and creativity in something so important,” Hitchcock said. “ Many used this project as an outlet to express their own struggles.”

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