Opening Speech – The disembodied adventures of Clea

My name is Keith Gaynor. I work as a clinical psychologist and I’m honoured to speak at Cléa’s exhibition “The Disembodied adventures of Cléa”. I am shocked, surprised and deeply touched to be asked to say a few words. Occasions like these are joyous opportunities to celebrate one person’s artistic talent and to come together as a community to reflect on the meaning of their work. I hope to do both: to celebrate Cléa’s extraordinary work and to experience the shared coming together as a community.

Alice + the Dodo 108 cm x 108 cm
Alice + the Dodo, mixed media on linen. 108 cm x 108 cm

We live in a world which revers the intellect. To be thought of as “the smartest” is a great compliment. We give CAO points, large salaries, or great kudos to those with the greatest brains.  In parallel, as a society we neglect emotion. While we might be pleased if a teacher told us our child was very clever. If we are they tell us our child has the most emotions in the class, it is not really meant as a compliment. If a friend suggests that we should go on a blind date with someone, they tend not to say: “he has the biggest feelings” as a way of encouraging us.

Yet, to feel is a universal human experience. No ever born was born without emotion. Yet, they are taught from very early on, how they feel emotion, express emotion, tolerate emotion is problematic and if they could just package their feelings to be neater, that would be helpful, maybe for them, definitely for us. This subtle message often boils down to a simplistic philosophy of stoicism good, emotionality bad. We often internalise this message, resulting in complex relationship with our own emotions. The part of us that feels, the heart, is cut-off or suppressed. The head is feted

Emotion is left to the realm of the artist. They are the diviners who channel the deep well of feelings and reflect back to us our own experiences. We go to concerts, plays, and galleries to feel. As we stand here, we can only be struck by the emotion of Cléa’s work. In observing her work, it will touch us with the emotion that she has poured into the canvas, and that emotion will resonate in the crevices of our own experience. She is the conduit from our heads back to our hearts.

Mental health has been an explicit theme of Cléa’s work in recent years. There’s nothing unusual about the artist experiencing mental health difficulties. However, the explicitness of mental health in Cléa’s work is important. It strikes out at the stigma, silence and shame in which the history of mental health is shrouded. In the same way, we are not meant to feel too much, we are not meant to have difficulties with our feelings. It is ok to break our leg, just not to feel too upset about it.

Yet, no art is created in a flattened state. The gift of the artist is to use their profound skill to distil that dysregulated tumble of emotion that bubbles inside into the confines of a page, a melody or a frame. Until, like a bottle of the purest póitín, we all can taste a drop.

We often hold the perspective that our emotions are our own experiences, and our own responsibility. But there are very strong reasons to think otherwise. That we feel in relationship to other people. If one person laughs, we often laugh and smile with them. If another cries, we often  feel upset or harden to protect ourselves. Part of the reason for society’s alienation of emotion, is how powerful other people’s emotion is on us.

The philosopher Martin Buber described it as “I am intrinsically youward”. In the same way, a compass is oriented to the north, human beings are oriented to each other. For better or worse, the happiest we’ll feel and saddest we’ll feel is because of other people. When we think of the tiniest baby, their first act is to try to connect to the person nearest them. They reach, touch, suckle and make eye-contact, and connect before they walk, talk, or any other basic function. And if that connection is severed, they are devastated. They experience grief beyond grief. A grief that can last a life-time.

Our emotional lives which seem so secret and deep inside of us are a web of living energy, a profound connection to every person that we meet. In the words of Dachar Keltner “a collective effervescence”.

In the most wonderful way, that is what was Cléa has created here, a collective effervescence. Work that is deeply personal, drawing from the spectacular breadth of her own imagination, and imbued with her own deepest emotion. In that, in that act of communicating her most internal self, she creates a collective tingle, a silver thread running through each person in this room. Her emotional expression become our emotional experience

I’ll end now on two emotions. One which we all feel and one an emotion that many don’t know. I am deeply grateful to Cléa for her work. It’s beauty. It’s power. It’s humour and it’s deep emotion. Secondly, the feeling of “Firgun”. This is the Hebrew word which means “Genuine delight or pride in another person’s achievement, the simple joy that something good has happened to someone else”. I am so pleased that Cléa is in the world, creating art as extraordinary as this. I feel great pride, and joy, and pleasure in experiencing this work.  And so, as a representative of this small group here, and all the people who will see you work through the decades, thank you.