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
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.”
Is it difficult for an artist to put their personal feelings on display in such a public manner? Semple admits that it can be, but it is part of being an artist.
“It’s all I know how to do,” he says, shrugging. “It is difficult, but if you look at the history of art, the good stuff is the stuff where people are nervous about going too far with their emotions. Look at someone like Francis Bacon; he was a great painter who took it right to the edge, and that’s what made his work so good.”
LOUISE AND ELLIE MACNAMARA, aka Heathers (above), agree that the creation of art – whether it’s a song, a play, a painting or an unusually shaped blob of foamy stuff – is therapeutic. Ellie has been open about suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, and much of the duo’s second album, Kingdom, was about the difficult times they went through after losing a friend through suicide.
“I think that it was so therapeutic to be able to write those things down,” says Louise. “Using art and music is definitely a really good way to share experiences, and it’s really therapeutic for us – so hopefully other people can relate to what we’re talking about, too. Personally, anytime I’m feeling shitty or am having a bad day, I love to go to the piano or the guitar and just play, play, play; it releases so much frustration and anxiety. Whether you’re into art or music or film, or whatever, it’s very beneficial for your state of mind to have a creative outlet to let all that built-up frustration out.”
Like Semple, they agree that it can be difficult to put yourself out there so publicly.
“This album’s a lot more open for us, so when we were coming to release it, we were thinking ‘Oh my god, people are really gonna know what we’re talking about! . . . and that was really terrifying at first,” says Ellie, laughing. “But at the same time, it’s such a relief to put it out there, and when you get those messages and emails from people saying ‘I’ve felt this way, too,’ it makes it all worth it. I personally think that after playing the album for a year, I feel so much more comfortable with us being completely honest and speaking our minds through our music.”
Their song Forget Me Knots, with its refrain of “It’s alright not to feel OK”, has become an anthem of sorts in relation to speaking out about depression and mental health issues.
“We’ve had numerous emails from people who’ve said that it’s helped them get through really difficult times, which is amazing for us to hear – because when we were writing that song, we were writing it for ourselves, really,” says Ellie. “I remember coming up with that phrase, ‘It’s alright not to feel OK.’ We were both just having a really tough time after our friend had passed away, and I was playing the guitar and ‘It’s alright not to feel OK’ just came into my head, and that was the start of that song. At the time, I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh, people might be able to relate to this’; I was thinking ‘This is exactly what we need to let everything out’.”
GERARD KELLY doesn’t have any first-hand experience of mental health issues, but his one-man play, Confusion Boats, cleverly examines the “myth of manhood’ in society.
“I wasn’t too interested in the scientific bit between men and women – I was more interested in the social aspect,” he explains. “Why are boys told ‘Big boys don’t cry’ when they hit seven or eight? Why do they have to supress these emotions that are essential for human growth and human nature? I hadn’t seen too much autobiographical theatre on the topic, but I knew if I was going to talk about it then I had to talk about myself. Then I got interested in the myths of masculinity – certain icons that you put on a pedestal, from your dad to Bruce Lee to Arnold Schwarzenegger. ”
The play is told in the first person, with Kelly alluding to both personal and fictional experiences, sometimes combining the two to alter the audience’s perception. The theme has obvious links to the suicide rate amongst young men, but Kelly’s primary aim was to challenge the “myth of masculinity” in a lighthearted manner, rather than tackle a heavy subject in a heavy way.
“Even so, when I was in the rehearsal room and talking about these things with the director and producer, I realised there are parallels between the stigma of mental health and the stigma of something like seeing a man crying,” he says. “It’s almost like there’s a sense of weakness attached to both, but hopefully the show highlights how ridiculous that is.”
STUART SEMPLE, like Gerard Kelly, is an advocate of anything that creates conversation around the topics that some people may find awkward or difficult to deal with.
“I think anything that starts a conversation is good,” he says. “I hope Happy Clouds will make people feel happy, and that they’ll see them and they’ll discuss something.”
“I think there are a lot of things going on at the moment where people are bringing up mental health, and that’s a really, really cool thing,” adds Ellie Macnamara. “But it’s definitely something that needs to be continued, because these issues are always going to be there for some people. If, as artists, we can get through to people who really feel they can’t talk about it, it can make a big difference.”