Artistic Rebuttal: Artists talk a lot about self-care in terms of balancing time, clients, work vs. life, how to stay organized yet stay inspired and avoid burnout. For you, it seems as if making art IS your self care. Can you talk about how art has/continues to allow you to be the best version of yourself?
Shanina Dionna: I've discovered an opportunity to exert any kind of energy into the work. For years, I'd self-inflict a great deal of mental & physical pain and discord. Now, it seems I've a healthier alternative. Abuse the canvas instead. Love the canvas instead. Radical torment, or even genuine intimacy; it can all happen right there on the canvas. No harm done to my physical self. Just leave it all there. Just as one would their burdens at an altar. The result? Exploring what more I'm made of and am capable of doing/being in this lifetime. The works have helped me give my own life a fighting chance. If we're going to talk about the "best version of myself" -- Patience. Effective communication. Child-like curiosity. Wonder. Commitment. Courage. Loyalty. A sense of purity. Bravery. True love. Self love. I possess these things now. Me. For too long I'd no idea. The gift of artistry has done that for me. I thank God for that. And now my students - our generations emerging hereafter - I can pay it forward what's helped me in hopes to cultivate positive change in their communities. Legacy building. The pursuit alone has been the most rewarding experience of my life.
AR: How did you come to start making art - I'm guessing you discovered your talent later in life, or at least started using your art as therapy later in life?
SD: I've always been attracted to the Visual & Performing arts. It was always my strongest sense of self expression. I wrote and illustrated my first short story when I was 9yrs old. It was received so well that it became an example for the 3rd grade classrooms nearby. I remember 5th grade teaching me more solid creative techniques. I learned what "blind contour" was. It changed my life. Art was so much more than what met my adolescent eye. And I wanted it. Dance and Drill (or Step Team) became a strong suit of mine at about 11yrs old. Throughout my grade school and high school career, I always excelled and in the written, visual and performing arts. Those were the classes that helped make my report card worth looking at. Over the years, art became a need. It gave me something to be proud of when I was young. So naturally, yearning for a sense of purpose, I took what I know and used it.
AR: How do you define art therapy?
SD: Freedom. No fluff. The root's truth. A healthy escape. Safe haven. Absence of judgement. Mental, physical, spiritual healing. Confrontation begets an underlying intellect and a true sense of self. -- These are just some of the things that come to mind when I think of art therapy.
AR: Can you talk about your experiences in the hospital in terms of mental illness on paper vs. in real life? Were there other artists in the hospital with you?
SD: No one knew I was an Artist until nearing my last day there. A couple of the workers who chaperoned us would express that they didn't think I belonged there. I was 302'd due to no more beds available in 201. The psych ward department terrified me. I didn't believe I belonged there...but I needed to be there. It helped me humanize what it truly meant to have a "mental illness." On paper, we all look flat out crazy. Some of us may've even looked the part.
Being at the Belmont Behavioral Hospital helped me see past any pre-judgment I may've walked in with. I interacted and even connected with individuals I would not have otherwise typically engaged with out in the real world. The kind of people I'd generally steer clear of were now my peers, my friends, kindred spirits. Old, young, black, white, hispanic - we were all in there together. With something to prove and even more to gain & give back to this world.
It's interesting now, you know? How looking at someone, you just never know who they really are. From a homeless man on the street to a blue collar brotha making it big in Center City. It trips me out. Upon my release from Belmont, I got on the bus and commuted to my next destination like it was just another normal day. Looking at me, no one knew what I'd just been through. They didn't see me. And that's ok, because I saw them. With new eyes, I saw these people. And I prayed more and I paid attention more and I respected them just a little bit more in secret. Because truly, you just never know. There was a poster at the hospital that read something along the lines of "Which one suffers from Major Depression?" Everyone smiling, there was an athlete. Old, white people. Young people. Black, hispanic. A construction worker...the answer was, "All of them."
Blew me away. I'll never forget it.
AR: Does your art making make you feel unburdened or do you continually make art to continually combat negativity?
SD: Art is my beautiful struggle. It's a loaded responsibility I've put on myself to use art the way I do. To effectively communicate the importance of Mental Health Awareness and encouraging folks to expose their innermost truths in hopes of experiencing a sense of freedom - a more transcendent resolve concerning ourselves - is incredibly overwhelming. It's been a step by step, day by day challenge to maintain a sharp focus on this work.
Do I feel unburdened? Not necessarily. I almost embrace the burdens that come because then there'd be more work to be done. And I'm ok with that. Purpose, remember? I've found it now. I make art to continually prove that I am [we are] more than our insecurities, our faults, our flaws, our mistakes and mishaps. I don't have to play victim with my art. I can be the victor. Do you know how empowering that feels? Through these works I can prevail over suicidal fantasies, borderline personality disorder and major depression.
The purpose of my works will always be to help inform, inspire and encourage. Not only myself, but our communities at large.
AR: Describe Embryo and why you founded it.
SD: "My baby," is what I call it. Initially, Embryo was just a taste-and-see experiment. Attending the Illinois Institute of Art - Chicago, I knew that I wanted to move back to Pennsylvania to present the first birthing in Philadelphia. Chicago gave me my first opportunity to reveal my flaws and be flat-footed about it. "Flaws & All" was a black & white photography series that exhibited my deepest, physical insecurities. My hanging breasts, my feet, the thick hair under my arms. My feet. -- I made those features mean something different when I made them art. The project was received so well that it landed my first big commission. SOMEONE WANTED MY FLAWS! Someone was inspired by flaws. My flaws mattered and they were common among the crowd and they were real and loved and......brought to tears with immense joy and gratitude and a sense of pride, I had to explore this further. Hence, "Embryo - birthing that which forms in my creative womb."
March 2016 marked it's fifth consecutive annual birthing. Over the years, Embryo has helped to expose so many layers of the world around me and the people in it. It's encouraged a full-figured woman confront her insecurities. A stubborn, paraplegic man pursue to become a better person. An upcoming indie rap artist to grab his craft by the horns and give his gift everything he's got.
It's been about so much more than "woe, it's me." Woe, it's all of us! But i thank God for hope. I am so thankful for what Embryo has contributed to my life.
AR: In what ways does Embryo reach out to other people that are feeling the way you felt before finding your artistic outlet?
SD: I'm always in awe of who Embryo touches. I've received emails and social media messages from people all over sharing their gratitude for my stepping up and speaking out.
They are the reason I know I'm brave. They are the reason I know I'm courageous. They are the reason I know there's value in vulnerability. They are the reason I know I possess a certain degree of strength because that's what they see through these exhibitions. Which have in turn, helped them tap into what human super power (if you will) they didn't already know they had.
Embryo became a great deal more than I could have ever expected it to be for both myself and the world around me. This is my positive contribution to life as we know it. We're getting somewhere, right? Right. Let's keep going.