In ‘Warpaint’, Emma Sheridan powerfully conveys mental health struggles through polychromatic brushstrokes.
“Honesty is very contagious.. once you start to open up to people, it can make it easier for true dialogue to develop that way”
The first time I encountered Emma Sheridan’s work was at her debut solo show, Friendly Giants, in South Frederick Street’s KEMP Gallery. With its colour palette resembling an exploding paintbox (one of the highest compliments I could personally bestow) and an ebullient title to boot, her illustrations of fluid figures seemed, initially, to be imbued with nothing but positive connotations. Yet beneath their water-coloured surface lay a traumatic inspiration source: Sheridan was caught up in a London shooting several years prior, resulting in a bullet to the shoulder and suppressed PTSD that only came to the fore upon the birth of her first daughter. Combatting these larger issues with an abundance of colour and humour, she conceived an alter ego, The Jelly Shooter, to navigate her personal narratives in a free-spirited manner; letting loose on the gallery walls with all variety of painting material and “almost purposeful mistakes added to the pieces”.
Since then, Sheridan’s creative trajectory has crossed the worlds of fashion and art as liberally as her colour choices. An inaugural capsule collection saw her playful approach to painting manifest in 100% silk pieces; a marriage of contrasts that breathed fresh air into Irish luxury fashion. Two successful stints with Brown Thomas followed, first showcasing “I Am A Garden” at their Art & Style initiative this year, and then captivating her audience at the latest CREATE with “The Art of Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond”, a deeply-personal delve into perinatal mental health. No spectator could miss the strong autobiographical elements of Sheridan’s art, serving as a form of creative catharsis for the difficulties she faces on a daily basis: “There is something about sketching your feelings down.. something very scary in your head doesn’t look that big on a piece of paper”. But while she had become well-familiarised with communicating her mind’s inner workings, she was ultimately compelled to “open up the conversation [and creative process] to others” for the first time.
The fruits of Sheridan’s labour can be fully experienced in Warpaint, a large-scale exhibition in collaboration with the Science Gallery (a recurrent champion of Sheridan’s work) and First Fortnight (a celebrated mental-health festival based in Dublin). 2019 will see First Fortnight take their itinerary up a few extra notches, as they’ve secured the right to host the European Mental Health Arts & Culture Festival – its inceptive appearance on Irish shores. What better occasion to “showcase the vibrancy and diversity of modern Ireland with an emphasis on the European community”? This broadening of First Fortnight’s typical attendees makes Sheridan’s artistic widening for Warpaint all the more fitting. Pushing through some initial reticence – “I tip-toed around for a while before I finally asked on social media for sitters. I wasn’t sure how open people would be willing to be” – Sheridan was met with an overwhelming response. This receptiveness became a continual presence in the conception of each work, sparking a thirst within the artist to explore well beyond her personal parameters. “Honesty is very contagious.. once you start to open up to people, it can make it easier for true dialogue to develop that way. I have had some of the best conversations with people over the past few months about our very real struggles, and I’ve learned so much from everybody – about our souls, about human suffering and our ability to heal from adversity.”
Seven large canvas paintings – one for each sitter – form the exhibition, each piece accompanied by a panel description of the subject’s experiences. Sheridan’s adamance that “those suffering with their mental health are not a statistic, nor to be stigmatised” is shown through her eclectic treatment of each portrait – some abstract, some descriptive, all uniquely customised to the sitter’s nuances. “Art is a very non-intimidating way to get a story across … As [the subjects and I] talked I sketched down ideas, some paintings were hugely influenced by a sense of colour from the sitter, while others were more focused on symbols of their coping armour or recovery journey. I then took all the information and, in the studio, let it sink in to try and create a feeling of their experiences. I have learned so much from everyone and am so grateful to have been let into their worlds…We have become a bit of a community and we are joined by our stories.”
Just as Sheridan’s creative journey has grown from small sketch-book doodles to paintings of a considerable scale, so too has her confidence been bolstered with each new project. She is brimming with praise for First Fortnight’s bravery, in tandem with the Science Gallery’s forward-thinking ethos, to “turn ripples into waves” as regards mental-health discourse, and while she acknowledges the need for “funding, understanding and proper professional input” in Ireland’s mental-health hospital sector, she sees, first-hand, how our schooling systems are freeing these topics from stigma: “My daughter is in Junior Infants in an Educate Together school and they learn all about emotional intelligence. I almost wish I could start class again and learn alongside her!”. Whether you’ve been enamoured of Sheridan and her visual kaleidoscopes for some time, or are stumbling upon her work now, the framework through which she exhibits her craft is accessible from first glance. Thankfully for us all, she has many stories left to tell.
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady