Student Spotlight: UI graduate student creates meditation spaces through reclaimed objects

Julie Fiscella salvages abandoned objects and assembles them into meditation spaces while exploring ideas of mental health and empathy.


Megan Conroy

Julie Fiscella poses for a portrait with her piece entitled “Breathe” on Tuesday, October 8 in the Installation Lab of the Visual Arts Building. (Megan Conroy/The Daily Iowan)

Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Reporter

Large hunks of decaying tree bark lay across a table while watercolor paintings hung on Julie Fiscella’s corner of the graduate student sculpture commons in the Visual Arts Building. Fiscella, a first-year M.F.A student, is in the midst of creating a meditation space from the bark of a dead tree. 

Fiscella brought the bark back to her studio, shredded some old fabrics, and set to work on molding them into paper pulp, a material that is often used to construct paper. 

“I am going to create an installation with it, with light played in a rhythm shining through it,” Fiscella said. “My goal is to create something which facilitates breath meditation.” 


Fiscella’s meditation spaces are all sculpted through the use of reused objects. 

“A value that I find in reclaimed objects is that they have been discarded or forgotten,” she said. “And I think that is a description a lot of people feel, including many who are struggling with their mental health.”

As a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign undergraduate, Fiscella learned how to use the concept of empathy in research. Staking her interest in the idea, Fiscella now uses empathy as a platform for her work at the UI.

“One of the central goals in my work is to encourage people to empathize with other people, with the environment, and even with themselves, too,” Fiscella said. 

While constructing meditation spaces, Fiscella explores ideas of mental health or more specifically anxiety. Three years ago, Fiscella began meditating to help cope with her own anxieties. When she decided to apply to graduate school, Fiscella thought long and hard on what piece could represent herself as an artist. 

“I made my first meditation space, and I felt like it was a really successful piece,” she said. “So I continued to work from that.”

Her first meditation space piece is called “Cathedral Lantern,” a 30-foot tall structure that Fiscella conjured through old, abandoned windows that are stained with colors of the sunset. When Fiscella started working on “Cathedral Lantern,” winter came and forced her indoors. However, this didn’t stop Fiscella from creating a similar indoor meditation space, called “Sun Cloud.”

“I created ‘Sun Cloud’ with Seasonal Affective Disorder in mind,” Fiscella said. “We create buildings to shelter ourselves from the harsh elements of winter, but in the process, we often find ourselves separated from the sunlight and sensory experiences needed to regulate healthy minds.” 

Along with her sculpture work, Fiscella dabbles in watercolor painting and teaches Elements of Sculpture, a basic sculpture course for nonart majors. 

“That’s one of the biggest reasons why I chose to come to Iowa,” she said. “This is the one [school] that offered me a teaching contract for my first semester, and that was extremely exciting to me because that is what I want to do. I want to become a professor to teach and work with a lot of people who are excited about art, and excited about learning.”