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Community Art Project Recycles Old Shoes to 'Stomp Out' Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

by on January 14, 2015 6:00 AM

When Marisa Vicere Brown’s sister committed suicide at the age of 30 after a lifelong battle with depression, she refused to let despair consume her.

Instead, she focused on the positive aspect of Jana Marie’s life: her creativity, her compassion, her desire to better the world around her.

Vicere Brown knew that many caring, hardworking people like her sister deal with depression and other mental illnesses, but oftentimes lack the resources and support they need.

That was the beginning of the Jana Marie Foundation – a nonprofit organization dedicated to battling the social stigma that surrounds mental illness. In her role as the foundation's president Vicere Brown works with parents, schools, mental health professionals and other nonprofits to build a network of support – but her latest project has a little bit more sole.

“Mental and emotional health can be a hard topic to talk about, and it often gets swept under the rug. We wanted to find a unique way to make people stop and think about how we can each help others in this community,” Vicere Brown says. “We came up with the idea to create life-sized sculptures made of sneakers to symbolize the stigma around mental health issues.”

She calls it the Stompers Project, and when she says “sculptures made of sneakers,” she means that literally. Assembled with the help of several prominent local artists, Stompers are slender human figures made out of a wooden skeleton and hundreds of recycled shoes. She says the use of old shoes may be an unexpected choice, but one with a very specific purpose: Vicere Brown chose the sneaker theme because she hopes to "stomp out" the stigma surrounding mental and emotional health.

One of these Stompers has already been created, thanks to local artists Annalisa Barron, Mel Forkner-Lesher, Mark Pilato and Chris Bittner. The Jana Marie Foundation will hold a grand unveiling of the first sculpture at 7:00 p.m. on Jan. 17 at the State College Municipal Building, and Vicere Brown hopes that it will spark a new conversation in State College about the importance of mental health.

“Our first Stomper is named Sole, and it’s named for the power of one,” Vicere Brown says. “One step can start a journey, one smile can start a friendship, one life can make a difference.”

And this first Stomper is merely the first step of a journey that the Jana Marie Foundation will take with the State College community.

Annalisa Barron says she and the other artists involved with the project will be working with various groups around the community to help them assemble their own Stompers in the coming months. She and Mel Forkner-Lesher will visit Park Forest Middle School in March, where they will help students work through their own struggles through this new creative outlet.

“Creative expression is so important because I think a lot of the things we experience on a personal and emotional level are not expressed,” Barron says. “If someone has a mental illness, those symptoms are going to be held in as much as they can … but art gives people a time where they can reflect and express themselves in way they might not to be able to in another situation.”

Vicere Brown hopes to make five Stompers with different community groups in the coming year. She plans to display those Stompers and the story behind the project throughout Centre County -- hopefully calling attention to the resources available to those struggling with mental illness in the Centre region. 

“We need to know what challenges exist out there so we can begin to understand them, and we’ll never know unless we’re conscious,” Pilato says. “In a way, these Stompers are going to bring some of those challenges out … I think these sculptures can help us understand what other people are facing, bring down the fear of being stigmatized, and hopefully make people feel better about themselves.”

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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