Sunday 22 October 2017

Smiling faces to ease the January blues

Eyes on the sky: Stuart Semple’s Happy Clouds
Eyes on the sky: Stuart Semple’s Happy Clouds

Arts Editor Sophie Gorman

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a giant happy-face cloud. Yes, expect strange sights in the Irish skies over the coming days as British artist Stuart Semple brings his Happy Clouds to Ireland for the first time. Semple will unleash these smiley-faced glycerine and helium clouds in seven locations across Dublin and Cavan -- a county particularly affected by growing suicide rates -- as part of the First Fortnight festival, the 10-day annual mental health arts festival that takes place in various venues in Dublin and selected venues nationwide.

Semple's aim with his floating smiles is simple: he wants to make a positive contribution in these desperate times and, well, to cheer people up a little bit. The Bournemouth artist is renowned for his fresh take on the pop-art style and has collaborated with artists such as Lady Gaga and The Prodigy. His clouds are part of the most diverse First Fortnight programme running until January 11 (www.firstfortnight.ie).

First Fortnight was founded in 2009 by friends and former housemates David Keegan and JP Swaine. "JP works as a psychotherapist in the homelessness sector in the HSE and he had an idea for an event to raise awareness about mental health," explains David. "He wanted it to be a gig or a show, to use the therapeutic values of creativity rather than the usual formal way of approaching mental health issues. He wanted it to be a celebration, a forum for openness.

"We were both frustrated by how many of our friends knew people who had committed suicide or had friends with mental health issues. We were of the age when many of our own friends were dealing with mental health problems and were maybe comfortable to speak to you privately about it but certainly not open enough to seek proper help. JP lost his brother David to suicide and that would have been a big inspiration for him to make something happen. The more we talked about it, the more it seemed to make sense to do something."

And they have done something. Since its inaugural outing in 2009, First Fortnight has become an established part of the Irish arts calendar, offering something new and exciting and also providing a vital service to its audience. In Ireland, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our life. This festival's ambition is to break the mental health stigma.

"With the best will in the world, an advertisement on the television or a bus shelter isn't going to cut it. Our idea is not to hit people over the head with a message or be heavy with them but rather that they can have a positive experience that might encourage them to address something before it becomes an even bigger issue. We realise this can open up things in people that they aren't necessarily equipped to deal with on their own and we don't claim to be experts; we're not there to provide care, but we can direct people to the right care."

And it is very much a conscious thought to hold this festival in the short, dark days of January, which can be a very difficult time for people.

"JP's case-load goes up hugely in the new year, people battling to get over Christmas and then the new year. It seemed like the ideal time to give people a reason to go out, to be with people."

This year's festival programme includes theatre, visual art, film, spoken word and discussion. Highlights include the slightly ironically titled Therapy Sessions, two nights of gathering for musicians, poets and writers, with performances by the likes of Birmingham poet Polarbear, musician Mark Geary and singer Laura Elizabeth Hughes. In terms of theatre, there are two very interesting shows in the festival: Dolls, a powerful punch at the objectification and diminution of women, and Confusion Boats, Gerald Kelly's exploration of why some men don't cry. No Room at the Inn sees RTé broadcaster Marian Finucane chairing a panel discussion next Thursday on mental health services; audience participation encouraged.

First Fortnight is run entirely by volunteers, it has expanded and developed every year and they now run a year-round mental health service, providing art therapy and employing two part-time art therapists to work with the homeless community.

"If we stage an event or provide a setting where someone feels comfortable enough to turn to their friend and say 'do you know what, I haven't been feeling great lately', if we can achieve that, then that's a huge thing."

Irish Independent

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