Saturday 20 January 2018

Life Lessons with Brent Pope - 'I don't want to be defined by my mental health issues but I did suffer from anxiety and panic attacks'

Brent Pope doesn't want to be defined by his mental health issues. Photo: Mark Condren
Brent Pope doesn't want to be defined by his mental health issues. Photo: Mark Condren
Brent Pope is sent off in a 1993 game

Brent Pope (54) was born outside Christchurch, New Zealand, and played rugby there before moving to Ireland 25 years ago to play with St Mary's and later work as a rugby coach with Clontarf. These days he's best known as a rugby pundit, but he has also set up a shirt business, Pope. A long-standing interest in 'outsider' art saw him running a gallery, Outside In, in Dublin's IFSC for several years. Now he is fronting a TV documentary on the subject, and has curated an exhibition that opens next week.

Outsider art is created by artists who come from outside the mainstream art world, rather than from outside the boundaries of normal life. One of the criteria is that the artists have experienced some adversity in their lives, and their art comes from a place in which they are self-taught rather than emerging from traditional channels such as art school.

My interest in outsider art started about 15 years ago. My brother is a psychotherapist in Wellington and at the time he was working with street artists, mostly graffiti artists. He got me invited to an exhibition where the work was all by homeless people and people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues. I fell in love, not only with the art but also with the artists.

I was in a gallery in Chicago that specialises in outsider art and I ran into David Bowie. And at the Outsider Art Fair in New York you'll see members of Radiohead and Talking Heads who are serious collectors. In the US now, outsider art is extremely collectable. Pieces go for up to $300,000-$400,000.

I like to say that the reason that it doesn't work is, on so many levels, the reason that it does work. It's like Picasso, the shapes may be all wrong, but it's beautiful.


The pieces are not landscapes or portraits or ducks sitting on a lake in the Wicklow mountains. It's art of the mind that's pushing the boundaries of what's accepted as art. I think the artists have a right to ask whether the term outsider art is even correct because it questions the validity of their work and puts them somewhere outside when I don't think that they are. I prefer the terms 'brute' or 'raw' art.

I was very nervous about bringing this collection together, worried that people would say: "You're a rugby pundit, what would you know about art?" I didn't want to stumble at the first hurdle and be told this it isn't a proper collection. So to have validation from art expert, Catherine Marshall, Head of Collections at IMMA, and an internationally-recognised artist such as Dorothy Cross, who is opening the exhibition, is very important.

I'm not an expert, I'm just coming at it from the point of view of somebody who's been reading about it and travelling the world looking at it. My dream is to take the best of the work to New York and show it off. I want to bring some recognition to the artists.

My mother was in the fashion business and I grew up loving clothes. I had always worn other brands on the television and thought "Why don't I design and wear my own shirts?" Pope shirts are 100pc designed in Ireland. We wade through material books picking out the materials, buttons and distinctive trendy features and how I want the end product to look.

I love the fact that I can go out at night and see somebody wearing one of my shirts. It is such a buzz for me and makes me smile. I think I have a great loyal market out there in Ireland who appreciate a well-made, tailored and stylish shirt. I have created something.

I miss working with Tom McGurk and George Hook - but please don't tell them! We were the oldest rugby boyband in town. This would have been my fourth World Cup with the lads and I'd like to think that we brought entertainment as well as rugby knowledge. Sadly, the lads have retired, but I'll be back.

I think people with mental health problems are medicated too quickly. I don't understand why funding for art and drama programmes is being cut, particularly when you see what people get out of them.

It's well documented that I've had mental health issues myself; I think that's why the art resonates with me so much. I don't want to be defined by my mental health issues - by my dirty little secret - but for many years I did suffer from anxiety issues and panic attacks. I didn't come to any understanding of it or forgiveness of myself until I was in my mid-40s.

I know it's a cliché, but it's not my weakness, it's my strength. I feel that I've been blessed with a more emotional side. I grew up in a macho society playing one of the most macho sports there is and there was no one I could go to when I was younger, no one I could say "I'm having problems in this area" to because it wasn't acceptable. It was all "be a man," "harden up," "real men don't cry" and "what's wrong with you?".

There is always give and take in any relationship, none of us are perfect. Always listen to others, respect and take on board what they say. And always be honest.

I want to think that I have made some sort of difference in other people's lives. Especially in the area of mental health and wellness. I guess to just be healthy and happy, in whatever guise that comes, isn't that the simple secret to life? Health and happiness for you and your loved ones.

'Beyond: Irish Outsider Art' is at the Copper House Gallery, St Kevin's Cottages, Dublin 8 from October 7-25, and at City Hall Cork from November 17-December 4. 'Brent Pope: Inside Out' is on RTÉ 1 at 10.15pm on October 15

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life