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Stompers Project at Arts Fest Brings Mental Health Message to Wider Audience

by on July 11, 2015 8:00 AM

There's no shortage of powerful art on display this weekend in State College, but there's nothing quite like the Stompers project.

Standing in front of a towering humanesque sculpture made of a wooden skeleton and recycled sneaker skin, State College resident Al Jones was quiet and reflective.

"It's very visually striking," Jones says. "I think it's really remarkable the expression of feeling and emotions through art the kids involved with this are able to achieve."

The Stompers project is an initiative of the State College-based nonprofit Jana Marie Foundation, and will be on display from 2 to 7 p.m. on Saturday at 149 West Fairmount Avenue as part of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

Area resident Marisa Vicere founded the organization to help empower young people to make positive choices after her sister Jana Marie committed suicide at the age of 30.

Each Stomper sculpture is unique, built by children at local schools or clients of county mental health organizations with the help of local artists. In addition to building the sculpture itself, Vicere says the Stompers project also helps educate kids about healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety.

Vicere says the aim of the Stompers project is to "stomp out the stigma" surrounding mental illness, hence the visual metaphor of using recycled shoes. By creating compeling artwork, Vicere hopes to start a ongoing dialogue about the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.

"The stigma is certainly real," Jones says. "People seem to understand intellectually that something like depression is an illness, but somehow if you have it you still get treated like you're less than someone with a physical illness."

While Vicere has had some success in creating a community dialogue in State College, Friday's exhibit during Arts Fest was the first time the Stompers project had the chance to reach a wider audience.

"This has been a great experience. We've had people from place like Alabama and California in here," Vicere says. "It's amazing know that we're able to help bring this message across the country."

Chris Bittner, one of the artists with the Stompers project, says he's been incredibly impressed by how open many of the children have been about their own emotions and personal struggles when working on their sculptures.

Having dealt with depression himself, Bittner understands how difficult self-expression can sometimes be, which is one reason he decided to help local kids learn to express themselves through art.

"To be able to get this knowledge to young people and to help give them the tools to cope and grow during the difficult points of their life feels very rewarding," Bittner says.

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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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