In the United States, approximately half of adults will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. These can include but are not limited to depressive episodes, bipolar and anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress. Only half of that group will seek professional care or other services.
Christina Fontenelle ’14 is no stranger to such events.
Creative, empathetic, and driven, Fontenelle, a proud Afro-Latina, has managed to reach new heights in her personal and professional life by guiding and helping others using expressive art, dance and movement therapy. When she graduated from Illinois State with a degree in studio arts, she had no idea that she would later become a one-woman business owner, author, and advocate for mental health dedicated to the betterment of people’s lives and their healing.
Fontenelle was originally a biochemistry major at the University of Illinois-Springfield but realized she had an itch to do something else.
“I did a life evaluation one day in class, and I didn’t know I was an artist yet, but I had the quirkiness,” she said. “I made a deal with God that if I took an art class and got an A, I would pursue art.”
Although she knew close to nothing about art at the beginning of her class, she came out strong with an A and was encouraged by a friend to apply to Illinois State because of the exceptional art department. Upon being accepted, Fontenelle knew she wanted to be an art major, but was told it would take one or two semesters to get admitted because of the competitiveness of the program.
“In my mind, I found another solution,” Fontenelle said. “I scheduled an appointment with the School of Art and walked in with my artwork in a garbage bag. A woman in the office told me how to turn my artwork into a portfolio and walked me through how to apply.”
After being accepted into the program, Fontenelle later found out that woman was Nancy Fewkes, assistant to the director and academic advisor. She sat on the board that oversaw applications for that semester. Her signature was at the bottom of Fontenelle’s acceptance letter.
Fontenelle’s acceptance into the art program brought her joy and inspiration that left her in the classroom, painting while listening to music until 5 or 6 a.m. She went from being lost on her first day to feeling like she belonged somewhere. She hoped other students in her program felt the way she did, but soon realized that was not the case.
“I found that a lot of my peers were dealing with depression and anxiety,” Fontenelle said. “They weren’t using good coping mechanisms and that really opened my eyes. That’s when I realized that being able to express emotions anytime and anywhere in a safe way is what people need.”
“I realized that everyone is an artist,” she added. “We are all artists in creative ways in our minds.”
Fontenelle found her path in the art department and set new career goals focused on helping people express and relieve their pain in forms of art and other means of creativity. Just as things started going her way, she faced a life-altering experience.
“I was hit by a car in March 2010 after transferring,” Fontenelle said. “I was riding my bike to the Visor Center for tutoring when I was hit by an individual who was texting and driving.”
Fontenelle woke up in the hospital with a tube in her mouth and was told she died twice in the ambulance.
“I’ve never been the same since,” Fontenelle said. “The level of gratitude that I have is immense. When I got hit, the doctors told me I didn’t break a single bone. I didn’t have a helmet or anything on, and I flew through the windshield. That’s when I knew my purpose here was greater than I thought it was.”
After her accident, Fontenelle went to TRIO, a student-oriented program that provides services to individuals, like first-generation students, who need additional support on campus. Between financial issues, mental and physical recovery from the accident, and confusion about the future, Fontenelle was where she needed to be.
“I went to Angell Howard, an incredible TRIO advisor,” she said. “I told her I like art, psychology, and helping people, and with that, she found the School of Art Institute in Chicago.”
The School of Art Institute in Chicago is one of the most influential programs in North America and internationally. Fontenelle needed an undergraduate degree in art therapy to be accepted, but Illinois State did not offer it. Desperate and determined to get accepted, she created her own curriculum out of preexisting classes offered to graduate from ISU. The year she applied, the Art Institute had over 500 applicants and 23 were accepted.
“I took all the classes and received all the requirements through Angell’s help and guidance,” she said. “In my interview for the art institute, I told them I knew I didn’t meet the requirements, but if they gave me the chance, I would be one of the best art therapists to birth out of this program.”
With academic and emotional grit, Fontenelle was accepted. Afterward, she realized her life could have been very different without her experiences in Normal.
“It literally saved me,” she said. “The school gave me the foundation, and it was an experience that changed my life. I wouldn’t have a story without Illinois State.”
Not only did she graduate with a Master of Arts in art therapy, but shortly after, she also graduated from the 92Y Harkness Dance Center’s alternate route dance/movement therapy program in New York.
Craving new places and people, Fontenelle took her dreams to Miami, only to realize that it was not where she was meant to be.
“I experienced homelessness,” she shared. “I met a girl at church, and she told me to move in with her for about two months. I was falling into a deep depression and felt like I was failing.”
With the need to pour her heart and attention into something bigger, Fontenelle looked to God and was inspired to write a book from first-hand experiences about practicing gratitude, self-love, and compassion— a way for people to rewire their minds to check-in and self-reflect to see the impact that is had on themselves and society. Looking back on a difficult and trying time, Fontenelle said, “I’m grateful I was able to go through that experience and be able to capture that picture. It’s greater than I thought it would be. As a person of color with limited resources, I am proud to have that work self-published.”
Fontenelle said her identities are a way to help bring people together.
“I’m very proud to be Afro-Latina,” she said. “But sometimes people are surprised, and it has always left me in a place with no home. I know that although my roots are different, I want to be the person that ties us together. It doesn’t matter what background we’re from and we should acknowledge struggles as a community.”
Writing and publishing her book, Aligning Your Inner Self Meditation Journal, was Fontenelle’s first step to raise awareness of mental health and take care of her own. After noticing the demand for mental health was increasing and seeing there were not many jobs available that catered to art and movement therapy, she decided it was time to start her own company. November 29, 2019, marked the start of Fontenelle Art LLC, a Chicago-based company that aims to serve communities by providing art and movement-based approaches to professional development, mental health awareness, and community cohesion to help align the inner self.
“Through art, movement, and writing, my company is truly a reflection of what I do to heal,” she said. “This is why I’m so passionate about what I do. I need art and I need movement.”
“I am a walking example that art therapy works which is why I want to share it with the world,” she added. “I want people to love themselves the way they were created to be.”
With a goal to break the stigma on how people do therapy, Fontenelle Art LLC’s art therapy uses 2D and 3D art materials as a tool to bring awareness to oneself. The dance movement therapy utilizes the body to bring awareness to one’s emotional and mental trauma. In addition, Fontenelle does solo art performances to demonstrate mental health and healing.
“My favorite part of my job is when people who don’t like therapy or art come to my workshop and thank me by the end for the life-changing experience,” she said.
Knowing that anyone can benefit from her workshops makes Fontenelle proud. She wants the world to think of her art and think of advocacy and know that it is okay to struggle and cope. “If you’re struggling, the first thing you should do is find a support system because humans are meant to be surrounded by loved ones,” Fontenelle said.
As an Afro-Latina who has had to overcome adversity in more ways than one, Fontenelle is the first to admit that life is always going to be a scene of trials and tribulations. Through academic confusion, a near-death accident, homelessness, and depression, she has remained resilient and has persevered. Even in the midst of her new business, finding new obstacles to push through and overcome every day, she has faith in herself and her process and looks to Psalm 37:4:
“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”