Sensory healing

Can art boost mental health? Lauren Murphy speaks to artists taking part in January’s First Fortnight Festival to find out whether creating a song, a play – or a smiley-face cloud – is cathartic

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 00:00

If the thought of seeing large clouds in the form of smiley faces floating over the city spires appeals to your inner child – or your outer adult, for that matter – then keep an eye on the skies early next month. Happy Clouds, an art installation of sorts devised by British artist Stuart Semple, will take place at various locations around Dublin from January 2nd to 11th and in Cavan on January 7th as part of the annual First Fortnight festival.

It’s a fortuitous partnership for First Fortnight, the two-week-long mental health arts festival, since the idea for Semple’s Happy Clouds first arose when the artist had a near-death experience during an illness in his teens. The incident led to him suffering from anxiety and an eating disorder, but as cliched as it may sound, creating art was as healing for him as it was for those who consumed it.

“It was a lifeline for me,” he says, nodding. “I didn’t really have a therapist or medication or anything, so [art] was just somewhere I could express my feelings. Then I started to realise through talking about what I’d been through within my work, other people could then connect with that.

“ It has a healing effect both ways: for the people who see it, and also for the people who make it. It’s really powerful stuff. I think that’s something we all need to do, even if we don’t have a mental health concern. It just promotes positive mental health.”

It is difficult to explain how the process of creating art can be so therapeutic, he says.

“I think there are a lot of things that almost go on at the same time. I think it focuses the mind on something. For example, I’m terrified of flying – so if I’m on a plane and I’ve got my sketchbook and I try to draw something complicated, I forget I’m on a plane because I’m absorbed in the act of making the thing. I think there’s also this fact that I find it hard to explain how I feel in words, or to a group, or a therapist, or whatever, but I can do it visually. Art, whether it’s drama or dance or painting, gives you a bit of distance from those feelings. You make this thing, and you can take a step back and then understand it from a different perspective.”

There’s no doubt that anyone who witnesses Happy Clouds – made of a composite of glycerine and helium, funnelled through a stencil on a modified snow machine – will smile at the sheer absurdity of seeing a smiley-faced cloud floating into the ether. Semple has been creating art prolifically since his teen experience, and the idea for this project came to him several years ago as the word “recession” began to creep into everyday life.

“It hit really badly, and a lot of people I knew in the arts were having a really bad time,” he explains. “I just thought that there’s two ways to deal with these things: you can dwell on the negative side of something, or you can do something else. So I came up with the idea of Happy Clouds, and we did it at the Tate Modern in London; I wanted to send the clouds from there towards the financial district. It just seemed to make a lot of sense.”

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