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Work / Opinion

Being creative and looking at art: what can it do for mental health?

Artist Stuart Semple is vocal about championing the benefits of making and appreciating art to people’s mental heath. As an ambassador for the charity Mind, Stuart initiated the organisation’s creative therapies fund, working throughout England and Wales to support arts therapy initiatives. His works include the glorious public artwork HappyCloud, for which he filled the London skyline with thousands of pink happy-faced clouds made from helium soap and vegetable dye. We spoke to him about how making art and looking at art can be instrumental in benefiting mental health.

On the benefits of looking at art…

Looking at art is incredibly good for you. The really great artists go to the full extremes of emotion and show you what its like to be there. It’s a bit of a cliché but they say that people who are really depressed listen to things like Radiohead, and they say it makes them feel less depressed. When you look at the work of, say Van Gogh, those colours make you feel extremely joyful; but they came from such dark places. The work of Francis Bacon, too, really takes you to those extremes. When you’re looking at those sort of works, it’s a different type of experience. I’ll be honest, it did make me feel weird standing in the Rothko room [at Tate Modern]. Art at its best gives you those sort of transcendental, almost spiritual moments.

On the benefits of making art…

There are so many points to be made about why making art helps mental health. We need to express ourselves somehow – it’s a really basic human thing to do – but people get put off art and told they’re not very good at it. That doesn’t matter. It’s just about doing. What’s been found with group art therapy is it that once people touch art, they’ve found it forever and always go back to it. It’s not about being the next Picasso, it’s about being able to express yourself. I’ve always found it hard to talk about things with words but its easier to express myself with pictures.

We’re all so different, and it’s about finding the right vocabulary for the right person to express how they feel. Some people make paintings, others might make sculptures – it’s different things for different people, and different media have been shown to be particularly beneficial for different needs. People making paintings or using other forms of visual expression have proved to be really helpful for psychosis or post-traumatic stress then they’re discussed with therapists afterwards.

On expressing mental health in his work…

Everything I’ve made touches on it! My Happy Place [Stuart’s recent exhibition in Coventry] was organised for World Mental Health Day, and for the LA show [My Sonic Youth] there’s a little room with slashed up posters and little weird reflective mirrors that really deal with the dark side of things when you’re alone in your room…that’s in a lot of my paintings. Records were like my little life rafts when I was going through tough times growing up. Smells like Teen Spirit saved my life in a way: you can’t be who you are [in Bournemouth, where Stuart grew up] without coming out unscathed. Music was the thing that made me realise that I wasn’t alone.

On working with mental health charities…

I’m an ambassador for Mind, and that started because my grandmother developed late onset schizophrenia in the 80s. She had terrifying things going on in her head, and we didn’t know what to do. We phoned up Mind and they were great. They asked me to be an ambassador for them, and I wanted to do something art related within that. Mind didn’t have the budget, so I decided to raise the funds myself, and sold some of my artwork on eBay, which raised quite a lot of money for them. In 2011 I curated an exhibition called Mindful at the Old Vic tunnels [featuring artists including Sarah Lucas, Kate Moross and Mat Collishaw], and last year made a colouring flip-book and all copies sold raised funds for Mind.

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Stuart Semple: Happy Cloud – South Bank London
2009

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Stuart Semple: Remix print (drawing on bands album art) as part of Placebo’s 20th anniversary.
Created with the bad to co-incide with their Uk tour and to raise funds for CALM – campaign against living miserably.

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Stuart Semple: My Sonic Youth, installation view
Fabien Castanier Gallery, Los Angeles (until 10 Jan 2016)