How being shot in the back inspired an Irish artist’s painting
'I thought I was dying.' When Emma Sheridan was the victim of a random shooting in London, she used painting to help her heal
Emma Sheridan’s paintings grew from a panoply of anxieties after she was the victim of a random shooting in a London tube station. “As soon as I knew I’d been shot, my imagination kicked off. My mind spiralled, and the world suddenly became a really scary place.”
Coincidences have to happen to someone. That one-in-a-million event will chance upon one in a million: good news if it’s you and a lottery win; not so good if it’s a stray bullet in a crowd. Ten years ago, Emma Sheridan was at Finsbury Park tube station, on her way home from work. “I felt the bullet,” she says. “I felt something in my back, and I knew I’d been shot.”
We’re standing in the foyer of the Kemp Gallery in Dublin, looking at a large mural of a face, sketched out with huge, lopsided eyes, and brightly coloured paint dripping down.
“I wanted it to be really fun, and really happy,” Sheridan says, although the face is staring back in a way that’s as much challenging as it is joyful. “I sort of attacked the wall,” she adds. She’s implying the idea of an emotional energy, and an immediacy that reaches across the faces and figures populating Friendly Giants, her exhibition at Dublin’s Kemp Gallery. It’s an exhibition which, while being engaging and fun for the viewer, has been cathartic for the artist, who had only been in London for a short while when the shooting took place.
Trained as a fashion designer, Sheridan had been working for the retail chain Warehouse, and had just set up home with her then-boyfriend, now husband.
“I was walking into the tube station,” she says. “And I just happened to be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place. It was totally bizarre. It was rush hour, people going home from work, families, but I was the only one at that particular place at that particular time.”
A man was running with a gun, through one of the long Finsbury Park station walkways, shooting at another man chasing him.
Oval faceSheridan is tall, with dark hair, cut edgily short, and large, expressive grey-green eyes in a sweet oval face. It’s a face that is reflected in various guises in the works around the walls. These shimmer with an energy at odds with the measured calm with which she tells her story.
It’s a calm that has been hard-won, as Sheridan had more or less buried the trauma, until three years ago when her daughter Robin was born. “I figured there might be a little bit of post-traumatic stress going on,” she says with that typically Irish understatement. “But I kept imagining all the horrible things that could happen to her, all the while thinking I’m supposed to be having this beautiful, amazing time.
Sheridan had always drawn, though with a level of perfectionism that made her a talented designer but had held her back as an artist. When Deirdre Madden, a mental health nurse at Holles Street hospital, recognised her symptoms of anxiety, and encouraged her to draw, everything began to change. Together the pair invented the idea of an alter-ego for Sheridan: The Jelly Shooter, her own personal superhero who could not only allow her to re-form herself into a mould of her choosing (“Maybe I didn’t fit anyone else’s mould. Maybe mine isn’t round, maybe I have a more cubist mould.”) but also shoots bullets of imaginary jelly at anyone trying to put her down or hold her back.
“As soon as I knew I’d been shot, my imagination kicked off. I thought I was dying. Everyone was running, and within minutes all the shutters were down, and there were dogs and policemen everywhere. My mind spiralled, and the world suddenly became a really scary place.”
Back to ‘normal’Sheridan became a witness at the gunman’s trial, and he eventually received five life sentences; his motivation was racial. And then life got back to “normal”. Except it didn’t.
Walking around her 12 paintings, Sheridan describes a panoply of anxieties, which, while amplified in her case by trauma, probably afflict more than half of us, at least sometimes. Not All Together Right is a multi-coloured figure that could be a child’s drawing, in which the arms and legs join up without a body between them. Knot I sees the figure in a stripy jumpsuit, literally tied up in knots. “When you’re not feeling well in yourself, you feel like you’ve got all these arms and legs, and you’re pretending you’re grand, but you’re feeling really strange, and like everyone’s watching you,” she says.
This is an idea Olivia Laing has described in her book The Lonely City as the hyper-vigilance that comes with the sense of being ultra-visible when you feel all alone. It’s the feeling of wishing you could be tougher, while instead being so sensitive you imagine the whole world zeroing in on you. In Sheridan’s case, the loneliness came from feeling “other” than the rest of the world. We pause beside one painting, Blue Measles, in which the face is blotched bright blue. “If you woke up one morning and anxiety gave you blue spots, you’d go to the doctor,” Sheridan explains.
Soldier onInstead, most of us soldier on through patches of anxiety, or more extreme attacks. But, as Sheridan discovered, there are alternatives. Through her drawing project, and its culmination in this exhibition, she found a way of being herself: sometimes tied up in knots, sometimes cubist, sometimes still stuck in jelly, but now with the Jelly Shooter to help her out. And for those who haven’t yet found and made friends with their own Jelly Shooter? This exhibition may provide a start.
“I was trying to be this really good person that didn’t upset anybody,” Sheridan says. “This process helped me accept myself. That’s part of the point of the show, trying to take these things out of my head and see what they might look like. We have all this stuff, things happen, but you have to be able to see yourself.”
The Kemp Gallery shows mainly street art (yes, street art now also lives in galleries), though Sheridan’s work clearly has a debt to her fashion-sketching background. “I feel like I’ve been in a fog for 10 years,” she says. “My Mum and my husband say they’ve got me back at last, but at the time I hadn’t even realised it was going on.”
For her next project, she says she has “gone back to her roots”, as she’s designing a protective coat with Garvin de Bruir. “It’s like a big bulletproof jacket,” she says. “I’m loving it.” And then she smiles, completely getting the connection.
Friendly Giants is at the Kemp Gallery, Dublin until October 1st thekempgallery.com emmasheridan.com