TWU art and design student cracks open Pandora’s Box on mental illness at Langley exhibit

Like a fish IN water, Jessie Van Rooyen, a fourth year student in Trinity Western University’s art and design program, is not only comfortable talking about her mental illness, but also depicting it.

Van Rooyen will be among six fourth-year TWU student artists displaying artwork in Retracing Social Practice, running March 8 to April 25, at the Langley Centennial Museum.

The exhibit, which is in keeping with the TWU School of the Arts, Media and Culture’s  (SAMC) encouragement of its students to examine world issues, will explore social practices. The participating students’ drawings and 3D art installations will depict evaluations of how social practices affect thought, practice and perceptions of reality.

Van Rooyen’s 12-piece series called Through a Glass Darkly features mixed media portraits—a combination of acrylic, graphite and photographic image transfers of herself, friends and family members—and a plaster cast.

The whole accomplishment is a poignant reflection of her series’ theme. She examines the gap between how people understand mental illness and what it feels like to people dealing with it daily. Case in point, contrary to what we might think, chronic anxiety and depression haven’t stopped Van Rooyen from baring her artistic soul publically for the first time.

“I have been dealing with depression and anxiety for almost my whole life,” reveals Van Rooyen, who isn’t surprised by the commonly cited statistic that one in five Canadians experiences mental illness. 

“When I found that members of my family were dealing with it as well, some with more difficulty than myself it prompted me to reach out to those around me, my friends and family and neighbours. By doing so I realized just how hard it was for some to understand what exactly having a mental illness means, and I thought that art was a good way to add to that conversation.

“I take photos of my subjects, which I transfer to canvas, and then use graphite and paint over top to visually describe the person's inner landscape,” explains Van Rooyen. “I use rough dry brushing so that the paint acts as an interruption or distortion. The colours I use, paynes grey, red and yellow ochre, contribute to the battle between personhood and illness, illuminating part of the figure and covering the rest.

“The gap between those with mental illness and those without is vast and murky. Because there are such varying degrees of mental illness I think it becomes hard for people to view people with the condition the same way after they know about it. People often assume that because a person deals with mental illness they are therefore crazy, or unstable, and they become less human and sicker. I am trying to bridge that gap by portraying what having mental illness actually looks like, and by offering a more humanizing view.” 

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