Chanika Svetvilas

What I have learned (Psychiatric Nursing)

2020, charcoal, pastel and collage on lined paper used for practicing penmanship, 36” x 24”

Smeared charcoal text from Psychiatric Nursing textbook in the background listing the impact of bipolar disorder on individual lives such as job loss and relationships. In heavier enlarged letters at an oblique angle to the background text are the words, “when this happens” and “bipolar disord” cut off. The background text of the lower third of the page is fractured and disjointed. Superimposed is a a pastel orange bipolar neuron that sprawls the length of the page. Dendrites reach out like branches from larger axons that merge into a cell body composed of a collage of colors and shapes including eyeballs, dinosaur jaws, rib cage, octopus suctions, and hands.
Smeared charcoal text from Psychiatric Nursing textbook in the background listing the impact of bipolar disorder on individual lives such as job loss and relationships. In heavier enlarged letters at an oblique angle to the background text are the words, “when this happens” and “bipolar disord” cut off. The background text of the lower third of the page is fractured and disjointed. Superimposed is a a pastel orange bipolar neuron that sprawls the length of the page. Dendrites reach out like branches from larger axons that merge into a cell body composed of a collage of colors and shapes including eyeballs, dinosaur jaws, rib cage, octopus suctions, and hands.

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What I have learned (Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity)

2020, charcoal, pastel, and collage on lined paper used for practicing penmanship, 36” x 24”

Smeared charcoal text from “Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” A supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. The text lists the historical legacies that have impacted mental health of People of Color. A Fraction of the bold heading can be seen - Racism, Discrimination, Mental Health. Superimposed on top of the text is a pastel orange multipolar neuron that sprawls the length of the page. Dendrites reach out like branches. The trunk-like axons lead to a cell body made up of a collage of a wooden mask and an Asian girl’s arms reach out holding a white doll by the neck. Further down is a crowd of young people with their mouths agape yelling in protest. The bottom dendrites turn into collages hands.
Smeared charcoal text from “Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” A supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. The text lists the historical legacies that have impacted mental health of People of Color. A Fraction of the bold heading can be seen – Racism, Discrimination, Mental Health. Superimposed on top of the text is a pastel orange multipolar neuron that sprawls the length of the page. Dendrites reach out like branches. The trunk-like axons lead to a cell body made up of a collage of a wooden mask and an Asian girl’s arms reach out holding a white doll by the neck. Further down is a crowd of young people with their mouths agape yelling in protest. The bottom dendrites turn into collages hands.

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What I have learned (Cognitive Neuroscience)

2020, charcoal, pastel and collage on lined paper used for practicing penmanship, 36” x 24” 

Smeared charcoal text from the Cognitive Neuroscience -the Biology of the Mind text book, overlaid by my mom’s handwriting about her experience seeing me hospitalized. When I read this passage after her passing, I realized that many of her feelings were also my own- asking why I was there, being afraid and frightened and confused by all the hospital rules. The large figure superimposed on top is a multipolar neuron in orange pastel and black charcoal. The cell body gapes open like a mouth in place of a nucleus. Drawn charcoal lines are drawn from the neuron to cutout black and white portraits as if being held down by their weight. The portraits from the textbook at the bottom are the many white men who were “discoverers” of the brain who studied and dissected it.
Smeared charcoal text from the Cognitive Neuroscience -the Biology of the Mind text book, overlaid by my mom’s handwriting about her experience seeing me hospitalized. When I read this passage after her passing, I realized that many of her feelings were also my own – asking why I was there, being afraid and frightened and confused by all the hospital rules. The large figure superimposed on top is a multipolar neuron in orange pastel and black charcoal. The cell body gapes open like a mouth in place of a nucleus. Drawn charcoal lines are drawn from the neuron to cutout black and white portraits as if being held down by their weight. The portraits from the textbook at the bottom are the many white men who were “discoverers” of the brain who studied and dissected it.

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What I have learned (Asian American Mental Health)

2021, charcoal, pastel and collage on lined paper used for practicing penmanship, 36” x 24” 

Smeared charcoal text in the background in enlarged type from “Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” A supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. This page from the study focuses on the generalization of Asian Americans being reticent, but it also mentions the relational context of culture and addressing community needs. Pastel orange dendrites reach out like tree limbs for most of the length of the paper and connect to the bottom where the cell body is composed of a collage of colorful cutouts that include eyeballs, parts of an octopus, sea life, and the excavated remains of the NY World Trade Center after 9/11.
Smeared charcoal text in the background in enlarged type from “Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” A supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. This page from the study focuses on the generalization of Asian Americans being reticent, but it also mentions the relational context of culture and addressing community needs. Pastel orange dendrites reach out like tree limbs for most of the length of the paper and connect to the bottom where the cell body is composed of a collage of colorful cutouts that include eyeballs, parts of an octopus, sea life, and the excavated remains of the NY World Trade Center after 9/11.

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Artist Statement

My interdisciplinary practice focuses on the diversity of the lived experience of mental health difference, and the impact of the stigma, inequity of care access and discrimination. This body of work developed based on my personal experiences as someone who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a way to grasp and translate their meaning through the lens of disability justice and mad pride I utilize an archive of medication guides, prescription bottles, historical and psychiatric resource materials, and medical texts that reflect mental health conditions and systemic and historical legacies to find strength in vulnerability.

I use charcoal in my drawings as a transformative material that when in activated form is also used to absorb chemical substances such as when a stomach is pumped. I play with scale to magnify and make visible the content of the work and reveal the messiness of process and imperfections as I resist to be contained by the text.

“What I have learned” — is a series of over 50 drawings made on 36” x 24” lined elementary school paper. I wanted to emphasize that sometimes you have to unlearn, critique the source of information and reconcile what is taught with one’s lived experience. The large figures that show up in some of these drawings are neurons -bipolar and multipolar that are anthropomorphized as a reflection of my own condition and challenges. Collage is used to create contrast to dislocate the space and scale. Multiple texts are used to disrupt the information and layer personal experience and contradictions of information; for example, medical textbooks, research studies, and handwritten passages that my mom wrote before her passing.

This is an extension of my continued interest to apply personal narrative as a way to share experiences to disrupt stereotypes and to reflect on neurodiversity, contemporary issues and an intersectional identity through installation, multimedia, video and performative actions and ultimately to make the invisible visible and animate the inanimate.

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About the Artist

Chanika Svetvilas has presented her interdisciplinary work at the College Art Association Conference, Stony Brook University, Denver International Airport, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, ABCNoRio, Brooklyn Public Library, Westbeth Gallery, Asian Arts Initiative, and the Wexner Center for the Arts, among other contexts and spaces. Her work is also included in Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction by Petra Kuppers. In 2020, Chanika curated Unique Minds: Creative Voices, an exhibition of art and creative writing for Princeton University’s Mental Health Awareness Month. She is the co-founder of Thai Takes, a biennial Thai film festival presented in New York City (2003-2007). Chanika has a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art from Skidmore College and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College. She is currently based in Princeton, NJ. Visit Chanika online at: ChanikaSvetvilas.com