Dan Marie De Nardis sitting in a gallery alongside three of her sculptures

Honours student using art to confront mental health stigma

26 July 2023
Meet Sydney College of the Arts student, Dan De Nardis
How this honours student is bringing conversations about mental health out of the shadows.
Dan Marie De Nardis, holding and looking at a sculpture of a brain

Hailing from Adelaide, Dan's adventurous spirit led her to leave her hometown to pursue a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) at the University of Sydney. 

“After studying abroad in Canada in 2020, I knew I wanted to study elsewhere beyond my home in Adelaide to continue my studies after my bachelors,” she says. "I loved being in a new place with new tutors, and new students passionate about my field.”  

As an emerging artist with a focus in glass, Dan was looking for an institution that had the specialised facilities she needed. This eventually drew her towards the Sydney College of the Arts at the University of Sydney. 

Smashing stigma through art 

For her honours thesis project, Dan created a series of glass masks in a work called Monstro Ombra, which translates to ‘Shadow Monster’. 

“The intent was to expand the dialogue around mental health conditions and challenge the social stigma that surrounds them,” she explains. “The form of the mask ties the work strongly to identity and sense of self.” 

The inspiration for this work came from Dan’s own experiences supporting people with their mental health. Throughout this process, she witnessed firsthand how misunderstood and stigmatised mental health still is. 

“I wanted to create work that would spread awareness of those who are heavily impacted by this invisible adversary,” she says. "The dialogue around mental health is not yet where it needs to be, and the support systems that are currently in place are not yet providing adequate service to those who need them, nor are they always accessible." 

Dan hopes that through art, she can cast a spotlight on mental health and bring awareness to the stigma that surrounds it.  

I hope that people who have their own intimate experiences with mental illness will find a level of relatability in my work and know that they are seen.
An unfinished clay mask surrounded by pieces of colourful glass

Exploring the artistic process 

Dan’s project used an artistic method called lost wax casting. This artform involves creating a refractory mould around a sculpted wax form, which is then steamed out of the mould and ‘lost’. Glass is cast into the remaining cavity to form the final artwork. 

The process is a cycle of breakdown, reformation and transformation, which Dan sees as reflecting the healing journey around mental health. 

“The work is made and remade again from new materials, significantly changed with each reformation, yet still the same sculpture,” she explains. “We as people constantly grow and evolve, and when living with a mental health condition, you have days of improvement and days where you feel you’ve taken five steps backwards. The journey towards healing is not linear, and growth happens even during the times when you feel at your worst – you just need to keep going.” 

Studying art full-time also allowed Dan to investigate how she approaches her own process. The biggest lesson she learnt is that while it’s easy to get wrapped up in your work, sometimes stepping away is the best thing you can do for you and your art. 

“Never underestimate the power of a break,” she says. “It allows the brain to de-stress, relax, and regain inspiration. By the time you come back to your task, you’ll have a fresher mindset and often find that ideas start flowing a lot easier and the answers will come to you quicker. After all, you’re only human, and you aren’t built to work all the time.” 

Discovering the power of connection

A highlight of Dan’s time at the University of Sydney was the people she met.

“My experience with the Sydney College of the Arts and the University of Sydney has been positive and memorable,” she says. “The most outstanding part has by far been the people I have met here – students and staff alike.”

I wouldn’t be where I am now, wouldn’t have such confidence in my work without my supervisor, Oliver, and the incredible Technicians who keep SCA running. In my experience, it’s the people that make a place, and that held true here.

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