This Philly Artist Is Creating a Positive Space for Mental Health Conversations

Shanina Dionna, a painter and teacher in West Philly, uses her work to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Shanina Dionna, a PA-based painter and youth arts teacher in West Philly, uses her exhibit, Embryo, to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. / Photograph by AGP Collective.

Since 2011, local artist and West Philly youth arts teacher Shanina Dionna has been an advocate for mental health, especially through her visual art. With a goal to humanize and empower, her Embryo exhibition series visually represents what it’s like to live with a range of mental health issues, as Dionna herself has lived with depression, borderline personality disorder, and general anxiety. Now in its ninth year, Embryo continues its mission in sparking honest dialogue about mental health, reducing the stigma that surrounds it, and encouraging individuals to bravely speak their truths.

In preparation for Embryo IX happening on Saturday, March 7, we chatted with Dionna about this year’s exhibition, the ways in which she and her work have evolved since the first installment, and how art can provide a positive space for mental health conversations.

Philadelphia magazine: What was Embryo’s initial creation process? How did you think it up?
Dionna: I started preparing for Embryo in 2011 while studying art at the Illinois Art Institute in Chicago. At the time, I never intended to see past the first installment, let alone have an entire exhibition series. It was simply my first opportunity to publicly share my work, which consists of visual representations of both my chronic insecurities and my journey toward radical self-acceptance. I’ve lived with mental health issues (depression, suicidal thoughts, trichotillomania) since I was nine, and art has been my way to confront those feelings and thinking patterns in a vulnerable, transparent way.

I received a lot of positive feedback on the Chicago exhibit. When I came back home to finish my studies at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2012, I decided I wanted to present my work to the local public again, not to make a name for myself or “get famous,” but to get my insecurities out of my body and into the world. That exhibition, which took place at Space 2033 in Fishtown, was the first Embryo expo.

After, a lot of attendees and even people who heard about the event started sharing their stories and struggles with me, which solidified [for me] that art can create a support system and help people speak their most vulnerable truths. It was and still is the motivating factor for Embryo’s existence year after year.

Why the name ‘embryo’?
When I decided to make my work public in Philly, I thought a lot about what to call the exhibit. I knew I wanted to brand my art and represent myself through that art in an accurate, palatable way. As I mentioned before, I’ve used art to approach the negative feelings and thought patterns I’ve lived with nearly my whole life. Basically, my creative womb was full of things that just needed to be birthed, and ‘embryo’ was entirely fitting.

Dionna with her work. / Photograph by AGP Collective.

Embryo is in its ninth year, which is amazing! How has your art evolved from the first expo to now?
Embryo is an extension of me and my growth, so naturally the art changes every year because I’m growing and changing every year. For a long time, I was operating from a place of pain, but have realized [over time] that pain can inform my art, but it doesn’t have to dictate it. Now, I’m creating from a place of abundance, which also needs to be illuminated, especially for mental health purposes. For example, the early stages of Embryo featured a lot of nude paintings of myself, as a way to turn what I disliked about my body into something beautiful. Those nudes helped me move toward self-love. Now, I’m painting myself clothed in my own personal spaces, like my bedroom. This transition is part of my healing process, reminding myself that I’m not only still here, but continually progressing.

Why do you think Philly in particular needs an event like this?
As a millennial of color finding her way through her mental health journey, I’m constantly navigating how to make mental health palatable for myself and my audience. I know that mental health is still a conversation not being had in certain communities, as there’s still a stigma regarding behavioral health and emotional wellness in circles. People are still suffering, often in silence. I see it first-hand as a youth arts teacher in West Philly. I’m constantly reminding my students that our space is safe, their voices are heard, and their struggles are real and recognized. Embryo is needful because these spaces and conversations [about mental health] still need to be had and sustained. The event is an opportunity for people to show up and be brave for themselves or for someone in their neighborhood.

Other than your art, what else can people look forward to at this year’s exhibit?
Thanks to support from the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, Embryo is a free event, making art more accessible for more people. There will be free mental health screenings, so attendees can receive recommendations for further help/resources if they choose to pursue them [outside the event]. Embryo also reps advocacy through visual and performing arts, so there’ll be dancing, as well as an acoustic set by Philly-based singer Alexandra Kay March. Plus, guests can enjoy vegan bites and light refreshments.

Part one of Embryo IX will take place at Vox Populi (319 North 11th Street) on Saturday, March 7, with part two forthcoming. You can register for free here.

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