Using artworks combined with quotes to propagate love and self-awareness, Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra started something more powerful that he imagined: The Artidote.
by Julia Migne
The Internet can be a place where people can express their hopes, fears, or deepest secrets. Putting anything personal out there easily results in harsh judgment or demotivating comments. However, if you are lucky enough, you can stumble upon little gems of empathy and understanding shaped as Facebook pages.
Defined as “a space where to story-tell, empathize, bond and heal through art,” The Artidote is one of these gems. Founded and curated by Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra, the page was made unique by its content: an artwork associated with a quote usually tackling issues around mental health and self-awareness.
“The thing that has been working on my favour is that not only did I study art in university, which made me well versed in the symbolism of art and the feel for an artwork whether it might be colours or the content, but I’m also a very empathetic person,” explains Jovanny.
“So what happens when I see an artwork is that I feel something and then when I read a text, I feel something else and I try to find a text and an artwork where those feelings match. It’s a very visceral process!”
This association of both text and art offers the opportunity to the viewer to start a conversation around the text. By attaching feelings to the artwork, it also allows that person to feel something beyond what the text would have been alone.
Born in Mexico, Jovanny’s family moved to Chicago when he was 10. Unable to speak English and struggling with the cultural difference, Jovanny had a hard time growing up in that new environment where he ended up being bullied by other kids. “I always grew up being too Mexican for the Americans and too American for the Mexicans and so what also happens was that because I wasn’t prepared for this culture and language I became extremely introverted.”
Years later, while studying art at university, he decided it was time for a change and challenged himself to do everything he was afraid of for 30 days. For an entire month, Jovanny acted on something only when he is fearful of it, so every time he would feel stressed or anxious he would take it as a cue to take action.
Once done with that month, he challenged himself to tackle his biggest fear: being in a brand new place where he didn’t know neither the language nor the culture. After considering going to China, Jovanny finally decided to head to Berlin, the European capital of art, and bought a one way ticket to the German city.
“I got the opportunity to work as a writer for an art magazine [ArtParasites] in Berlin where I was fusing all of my passions,” explains Jovanny. “It had the art, it had the writing, which I’m very passionate about as well, and it gave me the possibility to be interacting with people from the world I wanted to be a part of. ”
However, after the entire team started falling apart, Jovanny stayed behind with one task: to keep the Facebook page of the magazine alive. Given 100% creative control over the page, the Mexican artist began experimenting with the way he presented artwork online.
“I combined visual artwork with literature — artwork with quotes, ” says Jovanny. “What got me really excited was to somehow hack the newsfeed with content that would make you stop, that would make you question your sense of self, your self-awareness, who you are in the world, your place, what you are thinking right now and to just make you present for a little moment.”
With the posts going viral and the page growing from 13,000 followers to a million a year later, ArtParasites became the most unique art page on Facebook but that success created some friction with the magazine and Jovanny decided to venture on his own.
“I realised that ArtParasites was just the vessel but what I had beginning to build could be transported and built elsewhere,” adds Jovanny. “So that was the initial seed. Eventually, what was given a direction and a mission would become The Artidote.”
Initially named Artidote 360 and having a unicorn as a logo, the concept quickly grew in Jovanny’s mind and after a week of reflection, the artist settled for The Artidote. “The thing that I was trying to create about healing and mental health fused beautifully with the word artidote, an antidote with art.”
Replacing the unicorn by a bull was no random decision as well. Found in the prehistorical Lascaux caves, this giant bull came from a cave that only shamans could access. By drawing bulls on the walls, the shamans would attract more bulls in the prairie, allowing their communities to hunt them.
“To me, the shaman always represented the archetype for the artist, the person that goes between the spiritual emotional world and brings back from it these creations, these artistic representations of emotions or feelings.
We are still sharing our stories, we are still connecting with each other through our stories and our experiences. And before they were healing with the black bull on the wall, and now I still want people to heal with this black bull on this Facebook wall.”
Social media is a great tool for gathering attention around specific topics or ideas and Jovanny decided to use this tool to spread love and gave people a safe platform to share their feelings.
“I always felt naively when growing up as a teenager that I wanted to change the world with art. Later I began to fuse the art, the mental health, and the power of shared experience for reasons that I’m still trying to understand.”
Strongly believing that the past doesn’t have to shape someone’s future, the artist explains that “there is a moment when you develop a certain awareness and you can choose how you want to live your life for the better. I think that’s what I want to eventually bring forth whether it is through art, through social media, or just through a conversation with someone.”
Taking this project to a whole new level, Jovanny started the Snap Thoughts initiative last summer, inviting people to send him Snapchat messages answering the following question “what time is it there and what are you thinking?” The platform provides people from across the globe with a safe space to express their deepest fears and secrets.
“A week after the launch of the Snap Thoughts project, I got the first story that became symbolic of the project,” explains Jovanny. “That was a girl from Bolivia that sent in a SnapThought saying that she’d been saving up her medication and she wanted to overdose the next day. ”
The community responded in an incredible way sending messages of love and support to the Bolivian girl who ended up overwhelmed by the amazing response she had gotten from complete strangers.
Receiving these messages with their enormous emotional charge is no easy task and Jovanny makes sure his own mental health is in check before replying to anyone. By checking on himself daily, being mindful of his own environment, and carefully choosing the people he surrounds himself with, he can keep track of his mental health.
“Then no matter if someone approaches me with the worst thing that has ever happened to them, I am mentally stable and I can help or I can at least take that information and not internalise it,” he adds.
“There are some days where I feel I won’t be able to give the Snap Thoughts project the attention that it deserves. Maybe I don’t feel like opening up the channel because I’m feeling sensitive or nostalgic or not in the right proper mental emotional state and I just don’t open them until I’m ready.”
But why are all these people sharing their deepest secrets with The Artidote’s founder? The key element is the community he created.
“I think that the people sending Snap Thoughts are people who really feel a part of this community, they know that they’re not gonna be judged, they know that instead of dismissal they gonna find not necessarily acceptance but understanding and support.”