Cloudy with a chance of artistic smiley faces
Stuart Semple says creative therapy saved his life, and since then he has championed its cause, created a cracking body of work and taken on Charles Saatchi
Foam happy face clouds take to the sky on St Stephen’s Green for the launch of First Fortnight 2014, which runs today to January 16th. Photograph: David Sleator
Artist Stuart Semple who has brought his ‘Happy Clouds’ to Ireland for First Fortnight 2014. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
You might be familiar with the experience of seeing a face in the clouds, but artist Stuart Semple upped the ante when he set about creating clouds, thousands of them, that are actually big smiley faces.
His motivation was simple: to cheer people up. That was outside London’s Tate Modern in February 2009. It was, as he said at the time, a one-off installation, but since then the Happy Clouds have taken on a life of their own, reappearing in many locations including, now, Dublin city centre, Dún Laoghaire and Cavan town, all as part of First Fortnight Festival.
First Fortnight, founded in 2009, is a charity-based organisation that aims to challenge “mental-health prejudice through the creative arts”. Although only in his early 30s, Semple is one of the foremost English artists of the post-YBA generation. He has built an impressive international reputation over the past decade. Since 2011, he is also an ambassador for Mind, the UK’s National Association for Mental Health, a campaigning organisation.
Semple came into contact with Mind when his grandmother became ill. “She developed late-onset schizophrenia. She had this horrible narrative running in her head. We found it very difficult to get help. Eventually we got in touch with Mind, and they were incredibly supportive and knowledgeable.”
Semple auctioned a group of his works online and contributed the proceeds to the organisation, and has become closely, proactively involved with Mind. He also established a creative-therapy fund and enlisted the likes of Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Sarah Lucas for a huge fund-raising exhibition. “I think it has supported nine projects so far, including the Hackney Choir, which is amazing,” he says. “The idea is to bring creative therapy to those who need it.”
Saved by creative therapy
Semple believes passionately in creative therapy. “I know it works, I’ve seen it. I know from my own experience.”
In 2000 he came close to death when he suffered an allergic reaction. During the recovery period, “when I was at my lowest, feeling really terrible, I didn’t really have anyone to turn to. I was left to myself to deal with it, and I turned to painting. If I hadn’t had that I know I wouldn’t be here now.”
Access to that life-saving creative process can be taught, he feels.
His own crisis kick-started his artistic career, convincing him that making art was vital for him. He launched into a prolific spate of productivity, creating more than 3,000 works within a few years using an invented persona, “nancyboy”. Rather than going the conventional route and seeking out a gallery, he came up with the idea of auctioning individual pieces on eBay (conventional galleries have, in the meantime, caught up with him).