Foreword to SHIFT

I was truly honoured to be asked to contribute to Cléa Van der Grijn’s exhibition of SHIFT. I see this as an important role for me and indeed all who work in mental health; that role of advocacy and helping to reduce stigma. As some may be aware, I have come to know Cléa in a different context and in more difficult times. Now to be a part of this celebration of her work and her talent is allowing access to a different dimension to this wonderful person. It is a clear demonstration that illness is a part of life but not the only part. People do get well, people do recover.

Depression, anxiety, grief and trauma are a feature of many peoples lives. Sadly, despite its frequent occurrence, attempts to destigmatise mental illness has been slow and many still find it difficult to discuss psychological distress and suffering.  But mental illnesses are treatable and involve recovery through guiding that person towards wellbeing and resilience. Despite the difficulty for many to develop a language of understanding around mental illness, we know that for centuries, the darker and more complex parts of our psyches – from generalised low spirits to more pervasive and impairing diagnosable mental illness – have served as an inspiration to artists who have depicted human emotion and experiences with sensitivity, nuance and empathy. Art, the creative expression of the mind, provides a window into the human condition, into mental illness and recovery.

In my view the only thing that measures success is the way we live our lives. Spending time looking at Clea’s works affirms that it is her talent that marks her out.    For Cléa, living this life with all its dimensions; art, suffering, caring, and the unique way she has of expressing and making visual difficult emotions, is Clea’s way of living a good and successful life.   It is clear that her illness does not define her; it is the way she lives her life that does. With suffering comes recovery; the body and the mind always moves towards healing. In this healing she makes her mark and makes manifest in art the emotions of that experience.

I have the privilege of working in Psychiatry in St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin. The foundation of St Patrick’s Hospital was brought about by the will of Jonathan Swift, satirist, patriot, and artist. Swift was a pioneer in recognising that people suffering from mental health conditions required a specialist service to provide care, treatment and, most importantly, a voice.  One year after his death in 1746, St Patrick’s Hospital was founded, not only the first psychiatric hospital to be built in Ireland but one of the very first in the world. Indeed, in his day they said he was unwell with mental illness but just look at his legacy.   Over the centuries, St Patrick’s University Hospital has helped countless people recover from mental illness. It has provided a safe sanctuary for the distressed, where overwhelming emotions, negative thoughts and, at times, destructive behaviours are contained, eased and brought towards healing. This safe space gradually enables the person to make sense of their suffering for themselves.

Art has always been considered an important part of the hospital’s ethos and we place a lot of value on it role in recovery. For or those who have walked around St Patrick’s will appreciate the fine collection of paintings and art works that surround the walls. They really came to be through the vision of Dr John Cooney, a consultant psychiatrist and a predecessor of mine, who developed one of the first alcohol recovery services in the country at St Patrick’s Hospital. Not many people know this, but a good deal of those painting on display at St Patrick’s Hospital were done by artists with difficult and traumatic pasts who were in recovery from ravaging addictions.

The acknowledgment by Cléa that some of the works in this exhibition were done when she was suffering is a testament to her determination but also makes one wonder if aspects of mental illness and suffering are necessary to be able to produce such great work? A contentious concept, I know, but looking towards great writers such as Hemmingway or musicians such as Amy Winehouse, one does have to wonder.  But does it have to be that way or are we just living in a world where creativity is defined by how much pain you go through and is that a misinterpretation of artistry? I don’t have the answer for this; I think we need to look towards the art for the answer to this…

To conclude, I was truly humbled to be asked to be involved to Cléa Van der Grijn’s exhibition and to acknowledge publicly in words what a doctor sometimes has to quietly acknowledge to themselves; that they are overwhelmingly proud. Maternalistic as it may sound, I am so proud to see someone, who, for a while in their life, was down, despondent, suffering, but has now risen above it all, is now soaring high, beaming wide and truly being their authentic self. In that true way of being, there is clear connection to others, a presence, and most importantly, a connection to themselves. It is in this space that art can flourish as an expression of that truth. This is what I can see happening for Cléa – with the profound pieces in this exhibition.

One of Jonathan Swift’s quotes was “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others”. Artists see things that we cannot see. Artists visualise recovery and help us all see recovery.  Cléa embodies recovery in how she lives her life and in her works of art. She shows us that suffering can pass and that passion and talent can shine on. I am deeply relieved that some of the suffering has passed but more than anything, I am happy and joyful to see recovery represented so visually here in SHIFT.