Exploring recovery through art

For days and even weeks at a time during her childhood, Sandra Storey was cut off from the outside world, isolated inside an oxygen tent meant to alleviate her severe asthma symptoms.

For days and even weeks at a time during her childhood, Sandra Storey was cut off from the outside world, isolated inside an oxygen tent meant to alleviate her severe asthma symptoms.

Cold steam would pump into her plastic dome, which covered her from head to waist, preventing her from seeing or hearing anything.

“It made for a very rich internal life and a lot of clever, inventive ways to disassociate, to not be there,” she said.

But as the Whitehorse resident began growing out of her asthma in her early teens, she realized she remained disconnected from her physical body.

Depression and anxiety set in, but the people around her labelled it as wanting attention, she said.

“If you suffered from severe depression and fear of dying as a child, as I did, there was a whole lot of fear that wasn’t recognized,” she said.

After living in New Zealand for 12 years and suffering through some of the most severe asthma attacks she’s ever had, she returned to the Yukon in 2006.

Storey is in a much better place today. For the past nine years, she’s been a client of Mental Health Services.

This week, she’s putting the finishing touches on a dozen clay sculptures she’s worked on for an exhibit called Just Breathe.

The show, which opens next Tuesday, coincides with Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Five local artists, all of whom have experienced mental health issues at one point in their lives, will display some of their art at the North End Gallery.

“We just wanted to create an exhibition featuring a number of accomplished artists who identify with mental health issues and whose artwork or creative process is part of their healing journey,” she said.

Storey, who is curating the show, said her artwork and connection with material clay is what connects her to health and wellness.

One of her sculptures is of a black, dancing bear wearing a colourful red cloak which she’s named “Dancing in the Dark.”

She wanted to capture the raw power that comes with being “in full creative mode and nothing can stop you.”

“And what I also wanted to do with these pieces is express the celebratory aspect of creativity and just how beautiful something can become, even if it starts out of grief or sadness,” she said.

“My process in creating these pieces has been a real confidence builder for me.”

Brianne Bremner is another artist whose art will be featured in the show.

The local photographer has a series that focuses on long distance running.

Called Relentless Forward Motion, it highlights the therapeutic effects of running and how it’s allowed Bremner to gain control over her mind.

“I found a new appreciation for my body and what it can do, and how far I can push it,” she said.

Bremner began long distance running a few years ago, at a time when she felt she “had a good handle” on her mental health issues. She noticed a lot of similarities between mental and physical challenges.

“You get out there feeling alone, beaten down and it comes with a lot of thoughts like ‘What am I doing, I’m not strong enough,’” she said.

“When you let yourself break down and cry, which I’ve literally done on many trails, you have to pick yourself up again. When you push yourself through that, you find out how to control your mind a bit more and you can get to the other side and end up feeling really strong.

“I think that’s the exact same thing mental health issues do to you, they break you down.”

This past summer, Bremner began training for her first 50-kilometre race, the Squamish 50.

The demanding course, which has an 11-hour cutoff time, features an ascent of 8,500 feet and descent of 9,000 feet.

Bremner completed the race in about eight and a half hours.

“It was insane.”

But it was also one of the most powerful, positive experiences of her life.

“I saw a bunch of ages and different body types, I realized I’d found a community that was super accepting, and very much focused on respecting your body and what it can do,” said Bremner, who has battled body issues and an eating disorder in the past.

At the end of the race her husband Gary was there to greet her, as well as the director, who hugs every participant.

Bremner was badly dehydrated but cried anyway, she said.

“It was my favourite moment yet.”

Cheri Van Delst is a mental health clinician team leader with the Yukon government. She originally came up with the idea of organizing an art exhibit during Mental Illness Awareness Week, and thought Storey would be the perfect person to curate it.

Van Delst said the event is about reducing stigma around mental health issues, considering so many people battle with them at least once in their lives.

“About 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives, and that’s a lot,” she said.

“This is also about making mental illness less taboo, and something we can all talk about.”

Storey said she wants people attending the show to come away with a sense of compassion, tolerance and openness.

The stigma around mental illness continues to linger in our society, she said.

“They (the artists) wouldn’t feel nervous about displaying their work if there wasn’t a stigma,” she added.

“I’d like to see people celebrate the creative spirit and be grateful that we’re in a world right now where we can talk about these things.”

Josee Carbonneau, Neil Graham and Emma Barr are the other artists whose work will be displayed at the show, which opens on Oct. 6 and runs until the end of the month.

Contact Myles Dolphin at