Local artist conveys struggles via dance

pg08-n-mentalhealthVentilation, Chapman’s short film screened at the Mirror Mountain Film Festival, brings mental illness to the forefront for discussion and focuses on the use of art as a coping mechanism. Photo courtesy of Erin ChapmanThe studio is dark and silent. No one else is around, no distractions or responsibilities to stress about.

Erin Chapman is alone in the room for that moment. 

Letting her thoughts and emotions take over her every limb, she begins to dance and forgets about the outside world for a fraction of time. 

Dance has always been there for Chapman. Growing up under the wing of her mother, a professional dancer, Chapman has been performing ever since she could walk. 

And after suffering her first depressive episode at 17, she realized dance was also something she could turn to in the darkest moments of her life. 

Art, and all its forms, whether music, dance, drawing or writing, are sometimes used for therapeutic reasons, providing an opportunity to express emotions and experiences through creative platforms. 

But people like Chapman are now using their work to bring mental illness to the forefront of public discourse. 

As the 22-year-old communications student at the University of Ottawa nears the final months of her academic career, Chapman’s multimedia and film class final projects allowed her to transform her long-awaited ideas into existence. 

She had always wanted to enter one of her dances into a film festival, and start her own website, and recently has had the chance to do both.

On Dec. 4, Chapman’s dance film Ventilation was screened at the Mirror Mountain Film Festival in downtown Ottawa held at the Arts Court Theatre. 

The five-minute screen dance, a collaborative project between Chapman and two fellow film students, Chelsea Ellis and Gregory Chan, focused on the theme of feeling stuck and finding a way to release that feeling.

The festival strives to acknowledge and represent independent and underground artists and filmmakers. 

Chapman’s piece was entered in the “Local Heroes” category, a collection of up-and-coming work from creators in Ottawa and its surrounding regions.

“The dance starts off very trapped in a corner and then becomes more sporadic and angsty towards the end,” Chapman said. “There’s that release and cathartic moment.We wanted to make the piece a blank canvas, and let people put their own interpretation on it,” Chapman added. “For me, it is about mental health, but for my co-partners it was more about graduating and not knowing what to do next.” 

Following her screen-dance showcase, Chapman’s online initiative, The Ventilation Movement, hit the web. 

The website serves as a creative and supportive hub for artists to showcase their work while initiating discussion on mental health. 

The first collection of material published on Dec. 9 featured multiple dance pieces, music, visual art and written and spoken word.

Chapman wanted to create an outlet for artists to showcase their work, especially surrounding the hardships of living with mental illnesses. 

Each piece is unique and has its own way to try to break the stigma.

Spoken word and poetic pieces highlight the struggles of living with depression and anxiety, songs and dance allow the audience to interpret emotion and meaning on their own. 

“Art is great because you can create something with your own visions, but also allow people viewing it to put their own interpretations on it,” Chapman said. “Everyone experiences and interprets things in their own way, but it is always nice to know there is a community behind you who can help you when you need it.” 

 Bri Taylor, a violinist and life-long friend of Chapman’s, shared a solo violin piece titled “Road to Lisdoonvarna” on The Ventilation Movement. 

Taylor has lived with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder tendencies, depression and an eating disorder for most of her life. She describes music as a way to convey her feelings, frustrations and thoughts.

“Music allows me to express the pure, raw and sometimes indescribable-by-words emotions,” Taylor said. 

Her piece published on The Ventilation Movement is a simple fiddle song she learned in the early years of playing violin.

“The piece is symbolic of my journey with both music and mental health,” Taylor said. “It always brings me to the importance of communication, sharing and the significant influence community has on our ability to grow, learn and heal when dealing with mental health.”

Chapman’s goal with The Ventilation Movement is to initiate the conversation about mental health.

“I just felt there needed to be an outlet for artists to showcase their work that focuses on the issue of mental health,” Chapman said. “When you are suffering, you usually want to do it alone. You don’t want to tell anyone, and you feel like you are the only person experiencing these things.”

 “In these days of technology and the still-standing stigma surrounding mental health, I fully support a platform where your identity is your artistic creating, and a place where acceptance and validation are key,” Taylor said. 

Centre 507, a program run within Centretown United Church on Bank Street, developed a program that provides a safe and friendly space for people struggling with mental illnesses, addiction, poverty and other challenges, to come in and create artwork.

The Ottawa-based Canadian Mental Health Association uses different artistic methods to treat clients with concurrent disorders. A concurrent disorder is when someone is suffering from both addiction and mental illness. 

Through art-based treatment programs, the national association offers support systems and services to individuals with mental health issues.

Tim Simboli and his CMHA team in Ottawa tailor treatment plans towards each individual. Not every approach will work for every person, Simboli said, because it is something individuals explore and find out for themselves. 

Clients convey their emotions and feelings through poetry, photo-collages, drawing or painting. Many clients have discovered natural artistic talents through the program and go on to sell and showcase their work. 

“There are practical roadblocks. If someone is illiterate, you won’t get them to write poetry, just as much if someone doesn’t have good hand co-ordination, there’s no point in trying to get them to draw. It is just an uncomfortable experience for them,” Simboli said. 

Through different art mediums, Simboli said clients develop a sense of ownership and obligation to help people who may be experiencing the same feelings, taking glorified doodling and transforming it into a bonafide intervention and a gateway to pay it forward. 

 “Doing it if it’s the right thing to do for you, if the stars line up and you get the right person leading the experience and the right opportunity, the results can be just about anything,” Simboli said. 

Chapman’s initiative is developing new opportunities for artists to not only find solace in their works and practices, but to have a platform to showcase their talents and feelings.

“The beauty of art is that you get to start with a blank canvas and create whatever you are feeling,” Simboli said.