BURRILLVILLE – Julie DeRosa’s aptly-named website – sacredrelic.com – displays many pieces that look as if they could have been unearthed from an ancient archeological dig.
The artist incorporates found objects and other mixed media in her sculptures, assembling them with a sense of ritual and purpose.
For DeRosa, creating art is not simply about the visual impression; it is also about the transcendent healing power that these works can have.
“I believe creating art is a divine and hopeful act. I believe art heals and transforms,” DeRosa said. “I believe the expression of ideas and of our shared humanity helps us to better navigate the race from birth to death. I believe creation is an act of defiance in the face of the oppression of our suffering. I believe we are all artists, in whatever medium we find to work in.”
DeRosa’s pieces have become a source of inspiration for a community of followers who find personal meaning in the messages contained there.
DeRosa notes she arrived at her creative purpose through a journey that traversed a myriad of places and people. She has always been, in her words, a “Jill of All Trades,” and over the years, she has worked at quite a few. A variety of initially administrative jobs led to an opportunity to become more involved with the mental health field – DeRosa trained and was certified as a peer specialist in 2012 and began working full time with various community mental health providers. It was in the midst of this flurry that DeRosa says she found her way back to art.
“I hadn’t created in what seemed like a million years, then my husband bought me a journal,” DeRosa said. “I filled it with so many images and ideas that it got to be too bulky to manage. I began wanting to build three dimensionally off the pages.”
At the time, DeRosa was a part-time student at the Community College of Rhode Island taking computer courses for an associate degree program.
“The thought came to me: I want to make boxes with birds,” she said. “Then I began adding found objects and other things to them…the Survivors Shrines grew from that.”
The Shrines were to become the foundation for all of the work that followed.
It was in 2016 that DeRosa decided it was time to focus more on her own art. She says that at the time, she had been dealing with her own mental health challenges for some time.
“By the time I left peer work, I had significant chronic illness issues brought on by long term use of psychiatric medications,” she told NRI NOW.
Her hiatus from the medical community would continue until 2019. During that time, DeRosa says she supplemented her income by working as an artist assistant, with clientele that included painter Karen Rand Anderson, and visual storytelling specialist Amy Walsh. DeRosa provided photography and website construction, along with delivering artwork, and managing inventory and orders.
But she says she had some important ideas of her own to pursue: her Survivor Shrines. These, she notes, were means of balancing the conflicts she faced on a daily basis.
“This work is my expression of the beautiful and wretched places in the landscape of living with myself; it is my vision of the importance of developing the ability to transcend and co-create my experience by making different choices,” DeRosa said.
This vision was something that DeRosa felt it was important to share with others.
“My work is an invitation to the viewer to allow my story and my resilience to resonate with the viewers own experiences, and perhaps inspire them to participate in the defiant and hopeful act of creation themselves,” she said.
In 2017, DeRosa began holding workshops to teach people how to make their own Survivor Shrines, and she was hired to run her program at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Over the course of her career, the people who have been drawn to DeRosa’s art have become an important part of her process.
“My buyers are people that I do know,” DeRosa told NRI NOW. “I have relationships with the people that I sell to.”
The found objects that she uses in building her sculptures often come from friends who have sent her their own finds.
“If I need something, I know who to ask. We all help promote each other.” she said.
DeRosa recently moved to Burrillville; she and her husband closed on their property on New Year’s Eve of this year. The wooded land surrounding the house feels like home to the artist, who spent her childhood in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
DeRosa says it was her mother who first made her aware of nature, and this influence is evident throughout her work. The cast elements came later – DeRosa learned how to work in resin in order to be able to fabricate some of the repeating icons and images in her art, both to keep the weight down, and to be able to replicate when needed.
DeRosa has recently returned to her work as a peer at the Worcester Recovery Center in Massachusetts. During the COVID-19 lock down, she has been one of the essential workers who puts her own health at risk daily on the front lines. The safety protocols she faces are extreme because there are active COVID cases in the hospital. Throughout the crisis, art has been a stabilizing force in her life.
“The work I create is sacred to me because it enables me to articulate ideas and emotions I have about my own experiences,” she said. “My work reflects my aspiration that we can all make something beautiful out of our experiences, and that by doing so grants us access to a new way of seeing.”
“Being a person who has experienced mental health challenges does not make me unique,” DeRosa said. “While my story is my own, my art is an exploration of the possibilities of communicating about my experiences in a deeply relational way. Because I believe that we all struggle with the confounding, impossible complexities of being human, despite what any of our particular challenges may be called.”