After being caught in the crossfire of a shooting, Dublin-based fashion designer-turned-artist Emma Sheridan used her love of drawing as a form of therapy. Here, she opens up to Culture Trip about finding her voice again, how she’s helping to promote mental health awareness in Ireland, and why there’s no place like home.
Has art always been your first passion, and did you think it would end up being your career?
I have been making and drawing for as long as I can remember – this was my Mum’s influence; she always encouraged our creative sides growing up. It was more fun to make something than to buy it. I was never very good at academics in school, so art class was my definite favourite. I decided quite early on that I wanted to keep doing it when I was older, but it wasn’t until I went to NCAD (the National College of Art and Design) that I realised you could actually make a career from it.
Where do you draw inspiration for your work? Do you have any particularly strong influences?
My work is usually autobiographical; I like to draw from personal feelings and experiences and use the art to communicate them. I give my inner thoughts a voice through the work – my last exhibition showed the story of my alter ego ‘the jelly shooter’. But I have been influenced by the work of Julie Verhoeven, Quentin Blake and I love the artist Dan Perfect. They all have a naive aesthetic that I find really appealing. I like work that has a spontaneous and playful feel. I also bounce ideas off friends from college and my sister Lucy, who is also an artist – we all influence each other.
You’ve spoken about how drawing helped you to deal with the trauma of having been shot in London ten years ago. Were you surprised by how therapeutic creating art has been for you?
I was surprised, which in retrospect seems strange that I didn’t think of it earlier! Before the shooting, I was painting and drawing all the time, but the shock of it set off a creative block. I was finding it hard to express the feelings I had because I couldn’t really look at them. So, as someone who draws inspiration from my own mind, I was ‘stuck’. It took ten years to begin to come to terms with those feelings. I got a lot of help from a woman called Deirdre Madden from Holles Street Maternity Hospital when my daughter was born, as that experience brought it all to the fore. She encouraged me to start sketching my thoughts as I was struggling to articulate them vocally. It was like taking down a dam; as soon as I got on a roll with it, the art started spilling out!
Your Friendly Giants exhibition at the Kemp Gallery this summer explored your experience with mental health issues in a public forum. Did you feel it was important to show those pieces as part of a larger conversation about mental illness?
For me, it was massively important. I feel like nobody speaks about mental illness, so when you are suffering with it, you feel alone and actually quite ashamed. The biggest part of healing is learning to accept what is happening, and I guess that is difficult to do, both for yourself and for those around you. I had a couple of very important moments in my recovery which were all based on finding art that was about mental illness. It made me feel like I wasn’t the only one out there! The artwork in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book and also the work of Shaun Tan, who deals a lot with feelings of depression, used such powerful imagery. I wanted to use my art to help others in the same way. My hope was that someone might see the pieces and really relate to them. Showing others that you can have hard times but recover from them is very important in my work.
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Your designs have featured in magazines like Vogue Italia, and you have worked with major fashion brands internationally. What moment of your career have you been most proud of so far?
I would definitely say the exhibition in The Kemp Gallery was my proudest moment. It was the first time I have really put myself out there, and I got such a buzz hearing people’s reactions to it. All of my professional work for companies is partly mine, but it is also hugely geared towards a certain customer and what they want. You have to research them and focus all of your attention on certain trends, colours or styles. It’s more about looking at other people’s work and less about looking inside yourself. I learned through this exhibition that I much prefer the latter.
What is the number one piece of advice you would give to all the aspiring artists and illustrators out there?
I would say it’s important to realise that a creative career is a life-long journey. I worked as a fashion designer for ten years before I realised that it was actually creating art that gave me the most satisfaction. I feel like I am at the beginning of another part of the journey now. I have a new lease of life, but I have all that experience behind me to tap into. What I mean is there is no deadline; if you keep following your heart, it will lead you in the right direction, even if you only start at 35!
Can you tell us a little bit about any upcoming projects you’re currently working on?
I am really excited about the work I am currently doing for First Fortnight, Ireland’s Mental Health Festival. They are using three of my paintings in their country-wide advertising campaign, and I am involved in designing their programme. So look out for my art on billboards from next month!
You live and work in Dublin. What is your favourite thing about the city, and what are your favourite places to visit?
My favourite thing about Dublin is something I realised while I was living away, which is that there is no city like it for the friendliness. I spent my 20s working in London, which is a completely different city. Dublin is so warm – you can bump into someone you know walking down the street and decide to go for a pint. My favourite places in Dublin have a lot of nostalgia attached to them for me. I love George’s Street Arcade, especially the tuna sandwiches in Simon’s Place. The Kemp Gallery has become one of my favourite spots, as are the other art galleries in the city – The Douglas Hyde and Kerlin Gallery, and Kevin Kavanagh is my favourite. My studio is in Dublin 8, and I love The Green Door Market nearby. I have just moved close to Tallaght, and Rua Red Arts Centre is a great spot to pop into with my daughter – they have lovely classes for kids – as is the Tallaght Library.
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