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Students Celebrate their Struggles at Emotional Art Show

by on April 30, 2015 10:08 AM

State College has taken one more step forward on its journey to stomp out the stigma that often prevents honest conversation about mental illness.

For the last several weeks, students in the State College Area School District's Delta program worked to build their ideal selves through art, slowly transforming a collection of old shoes into a sculpture raising his hand in a triumphant gesture of peace. 

“It was an amazing experience,” says 11th grader Grace Friesen, who struggles with anxiety. “I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

Marisa Vicere Brown, executive director of the Jana Marie Foundation, helped the over 130 students who were involved build the sculpture (aptly named Peace) as part of the ongoing Stompers project – a community undertaking where students recycle old shoes into stunning sculptures in the hopes of promoting open dialogue about mental illness.

As part of the Stompers project, Delta students worked with local artists to learn new artistic techniques, new ways of self-expression, and were given a nonjudgmental space to freely talk about their emotions and personal struggles.

For students like State High senior Willy Zayas, the experience was invaluable. Zayas is constantly working through his bipolar depression and his anxiety, which he says can make it difficult to engage with his classmates. 

“This was a really open space where we could share ourselves honestly. It was relaxing in a way,” Zayas says. “I feel like it’s hard for people to understand how hard it is to go through everyday behind a mask, just to be able to get through the day.”

But in the Delta building auditorium on Wednesday evening, it seemed that all masks were left at home. The room was filled with deeply personal artwork ranging from paintings to photographs – some were joyful, some unsettling, but all were honest.

Leading up to the grand unveiling of the newest Stomper, students performed original music, read poems they had written and performed graceful dance routines in celebration of mental health. Many of the performances were imperfect – a cracked voice here, a fumbled step there – but those imperfections only made the performances feel more urgent and raw.

“Art is like life; there is no perfect way,” says Angela Taylor, a Delta parent and audience member. “Just like mental health, there is no one perfect way to be. There’s beauty in all kinds of art and all kinds of people.”

Zayas says that message is one of the reasons the Stompers project is so important. If everyone can see the beauty of all people – including those with mental illnesses – then the world will become a kinder, more loving, more accepting place.

Zayas got a taste of that dream on Wednesday. Just before the Stomper was unveiled, he had an unveiling of his own: a deeply personal mural depicting his struggles with mental illness, showing himself in a rainbow mask caught between two sugar skulls.

The audience roared with applause when the mural was brought on stage, and Zayas radiated pure joy as he listened.

For Brown’s father Al Vicere, it’s little moments like this that make it all worth it.

His daughter Marisa formed the Jana Marie Foundation after his other daughter Jana Marie committed suicide years ago. Vicere knows how much the passionate and creative Jana Marie would’ve loved the work that Marisa is doing in her honor, and he knows she’ll never get to see the art she inspired.

“But as a result of her inspiration, we’re helping lots of kids express themselves and be more comfortable with who they are,” Vicere says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Photo Gallery - Stomper Unveiling at the Delta Building

Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for 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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