Written by Juliana Mims
May is Mental Health Awareness month. Blaque Canvas Magazine is contributing by featuring artist and activist Danni Blackman. Ms. Blackman is a creative whose artistic process incorporates the mind, body, and soul. Her portfolio of work is a collection of beautiful and healing imagery. Beyond her work as a professional artist, she intends to become an Art Therapist. She is on a mission to expand mental health treatment options to include art therapy.
In our brief conversation, Blackman gives a glimpse of a colorful purposeful life. Her journey could inspire an independent artsy film. Hers is an origin story rooted in a long line of artists. She got her start in a creative family filled with musicians and artists. It was a childhood with surround sound encouragement to pursue creativity. In high school, she felt, what she calls, ‘a weird urge to paint.” She answered that calling by digging up remnant art supplies from her childhood. Her early days of artistic experimentation was a discovery phase. She attempted landscapes but found those to be rather boring. She didn’t think she did them very well. She preferred the images that emerged on her palettes instead. “I started using the canvas as palettes simultaneously.” There she learned to blend and is in part how she "randomly" arrived at her style.
Art masters are often praised for breaking all ‘the rules.' First, they learned the rules. Well, Blackman is a self-taught artist and says she can’t speak of any techniques learned in any school. While she may have no formal training her innate artistic talent is evident in each piece. She creates beautiful complex abstract paintings. Her spirituality, music and a God-given ability drive her process. One year into her artistic journey, she got a record player. She found herself inspired in particular by the music of Radiohead. She says, “I just saw a lot of colors and [Radiohead] evoked a lot of emotion for me.” She found her creations guided by the music. ‘Painting to sound’ became her tagline as she branched into live painting. "I really like the environment of being around other people." She enjoys dancing at live events, even if she’s dancing alone. “Usually, I’m the only one dancing around like I’m in a rainforest or something.” She laughs at herself with the ease of someone comfortable owning the space she’s in. She values her process and asserts, “I dance because it helps me get out of my everyday train of thought.” The dancing isn’t limited to impromptu solo performances at live events. When away from crowds and alone in her art studio, she has a unique dance partner - her hula hoop.
Blackman talks about incorporating hula hooping into her creative practice as if it is the natural thing to do. Hearing the backstory is when I began to imagine her story playing out on film. She confidently admits, "I don’t hula hoop well but I form circles and let the creativity flow." If you wonder how or why a person who doesn't hula well would continue it past childhood - don't worry, we did too. "Funny enough," she laughs as if setting up a joke, "I actually wanted to be in the circus. I discovered hula through that and started to learn hula hoop tricks." It's worth noting here that Blackman has an electric personality. Her extroversion sparkles through the phone. She is the sort of person who would consider pursuing an adventurous lifestyle. Her circus dreams didn't stick but not because she's a quitter. She attributes that time in her life to a lack of ambition mixed with a desire to travel. The abandoned path to performing under the big top was not a waste. She found that she likes the feeling of moving with the hula hoop. It was natural to bring that movement and feeling to her art world. She's in school now, has a hyper-focus on art, and when she graduates she says, "I want to help heal people."
Independent films that don’t follow the standard Hollywood formula can be refreshing. Still, any great story does well to include a villain for its protagonist to challenge. Blackman is preparing herself to face off with a rather daunting foe. “One in four people have mental health problems,” she says. Her concern is that many of these people lack access to treatment. She is particularly disheartened by the limited options available for lower income folks. “It’s in my blood to be creative but the other part of me is activism.” She plans to use her creative gift, education, and training to establish a nonprofit. She once volunteered for A Window Between Worlds (AWBW). AWBW is a nonprofit that addresses domestic abuse, homelessness, and substance abuse. They introduced Blackman to the concept of art as a healer. She's currently part of an activist group. They investigate how privilege in Orange County, CA. impacts the community. She is learning how to organize and build. Those lessons will shape the work she plans for her own nonprofit/grass-roots efforts.
The concept of Blackman's nonprofit is inspiring. She plans to provide people with access to art therapy to heal whatever trauma they may have. “Art therapy could change lives…The English language alone is very limiting to the way we express what we feel. I’ve heard from trauma survivors that art therapy helped them identify things that they didn’t really know were issues. The subconscious is really powerful.” The goal of expanding treatment options and access is what brings focus and purpose to her story. As an Art Therapist, she will join a powerful community. People who have mental illness are often stigmatized. Fortunately, there is a growing movement toward offering compassion and awareness.
Blackman’s body of work is evidence that art can serve as an outlet for locked away feelings and emotions. Her creative process begins from a personal inner space. Her paint sessions start with a song from a diverse playlist (more on that later). With her eyes closed, she dances until colors appear in her mind. Next, she stares at a blank canvas to connect with a sense of freedom. On one of many relevant asides, she mentions a book, Doodling on the Titanic. It teaches that a blank canvas is freedom. Once the inspiration hits her, she continues on, “Moving with the feeling of the song... I take the (paint) bottle and shake colors onto the canvas and just have color everywhere and use that as the marker for where everything else is going to go. I squirt paint all over and finger paint...I don’t use paint brushes until the end (for detail work). Then I usually wait a couple days or weeks depending on the painting to make sure it's done before signing.” For Blackman, the sign of a completed painting is, “Always a feel thing. It has to be intuitive to know when it's done."
Some of her paintings never arrive at 'complete.' Rather than toss them she passes those works on to other artists for a collaborative finish. Setting aside and salvaging work for her symbolizes what it means to not throw oneself away. That's a lesson she wants to teach with her art therapy work. She says she collects a lot of junk and trash to use in her art and collages. This act of repurposing old things might seem eclectic or artsy. It also could be an effective method to help her future clients envision a new purpose for their feelings.
The soundtrack for Art Therapy, The Danni Blackman Story (a working title for the film playing in my mind) would mirror the Artist’s Spotify playlist. Given the range of her art, I'm not surprised by the diversity of her music. Radiohead's classic album The Bends is a favorite 'go-to' because, she says, “it has a lot of hits but it also has a lot of smooth waves." Currently, her muse is a track by Bane's World, You Bet I Stare (I had to look it up. It has a soothing 80s feel). On the flip side of those calming vibes are the hard-hitting bangers of Princess Nokia. She relies on Melody’s Echo Chamber to tap into her spirituality and intuition. Also, in her studio, you'll find her rocking out to The Strokes. She has an affinity for alternative music but is open to random genres. When creating commissioned pieces she likes to listen to the music of the collector. It deepens the connection for a personalized touch.
Blackman seems to be enjoying a wanderlust life. Its the way so many Instagram/twitter feel-good quotes encourage everyone to live. It’s an interesting thing to declare, “I’m living my best life!” in part because it’s a ‘trendy expression’ and so it makes sense to say it. Blackman doesn't want to make sense. We always ask our artists about legacy. Blackman is building hers to be, “The bridge toward accepting a nonsensical way of living. I embrace no rules with art. I want people to remember my art by saying she really didn’t care if she’s wrong." She's spent time in deep thought about the lasting impact of her work. Her statement and observations about the world she hopes to change flows.
"In western culture, we don’t live in a community-based society. Everybody has to impress, follow the rules of etiquette, and people are judging each other. We all have no idea what we’re doing. Why pretend? What are you getting out of it? Why pretend to be successful in a system that doesn’t care about you? If people valued connection the way we valued material things there would be indescribable amounts of growth for anybody. My art is an attempt to symbolize and reflect this notion of being whatever you want to be without any real reason to be."
I can't guarantee that the film I'm envisioning will make it to your screens. For now, you can definitely get some art therapy for your walls. Connect with Danni Blackman on Instagram @danniwhitewoman
She is currently developing a website to strictly sell original pieces. In the meantime, you can follow and buy prints of her works on Fine Art America https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/danni-blackman.html
Juliana Mims is a sometimes writer, abstract artist, and all around creative. You can connect with her on Instagram @kjmadrina and buy her work at julianamimsabstractart.com