Stuart Semple is an incredibly talented contemporary artist. He has exhibited his work all over the world and constantly pushes the boundaries of art in the modern age. He also lives with PTSD, after a horrific life-threatening experience as a young man.
In our frankly brilliant interview, Stuart talks openly about this, his work and how his own struggles with mental illness have impacted on his life.
Hi Stuart, thanks so much for finding time to talk to us. Let’s get the most important question out of the way. For someone who lives with PTSD, anxiety and panic attacks…how are you?
Thanks, that is a really important question. The good news is I'm really well at the moment. I'm in a good place.
Glad to hear it! For those who don’t know and, providing it isn’t going to cause you any distress, could you tell us a little about what caused your PTSD and subsequent issues?
I think looking at it all now, with retrospective vision, I probably had some propensity to what happened to me, due to the way I was as a child. I spent a lot of time alone; making art and listening to music. I was very inward, very into thought, rather than being out in the world with friends. So I suppose I never really had an environment where saying how I felt could really flourish.
When I went to university as teenager I started to have what I know now as panic attacks. I remember shaking on the floor the first week I went and ending up in an ambulance. Nobody considered it was a mental health thing, whatever it was passed, so they sent me home.
The truth was moving so far from home (Bournemouth to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park) was too big a move for me. I was very homesick and lonely and felt really out of place. I didn't know myself well enough to be alone in the world.
Leaving my home was deeply traumatic. I desperately wanted to go home, but forced myself to stay because I knew, if I went too soon, I'd probably not go back to uni. I needed to break through the fear. So I stayed and the panic attacks became more frequent, I stopped being able to sleep and would spend most night alone in my dorm scared I was dying.
I went to hospital time and time again. Nobody mentioned 'mental health' so I was convinced this was all very much to do with a physical medical problem. For those that don't know the symptoms of a panic attack are very physical; your heart races, you can't swallow, breathing changes, you lose sense of where you are and what's going on. It really feels like the body is at risk and that you might die.
Then, one day, it was time to go home and visit my family. On the way home I bought a sandwich from a service station, but I was allergic to it. My throat closed up, my tongue swelled until there was barely any air coming in or going out. I somehow got to my mum's and flopped on her doorstep, basically dying. This was the catalyst for all the other mental heath problems, my mental health was weak anyway, but this was the moment where it went into freefall.
The physical symptoms of the allergy were so strong, the subtler emotional and mental ones were hidden. I got to hospital and they tried everything to bring the swelling down or find out what was wrong with me. Nothing worked. It became very clear that they didn't know what was going on or what could make me better.
I found myself in the position of saying my goodbyes to my family, a few days in and no improvement meant that I would have to face the fact that I was going to die. I lay in bed as a teenager, waiting for the end.
Then a doctor came around with a bag of plasma-type stuff that they got from another hospital and they felt this could help bring the swelling down for some reason. So, in the middle of the night, when I was all alone, they put the bag through me on a drip. I was allergic to that too.
My whole body came out in hives and I died. I flatlined for several seconds. I came round, I survived but I was left extremely terrified, particularly of food almost anything going into my mouth would trigger very painful flashbacks to that night.
For something so traumatic to happen to you at such a relatively young age, do you believe it forms an integral part of your artistic style? Do you think your work would be different had that not occurred?
I always made art. I was at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to study painting but the work before the near death experience and the work after are worlds apart. It changed every aspect of my life. I was a different person.
The big change with the art was that now I needed it. It became my crutch, my way of coping. In fact the only outlet I had to start to unravel what was going on in my mind.
What does the feeling of creativity give you that other forms of therapy may not?
For me, I've never been very good at describing thoughts or feelings in conversation. I feel shy and I struggle and I get nervous. Other forms of therapy for me are hard, because of the level of social interaction needed.
I think art taps into deeper levels of ourselves and it gives the chance to externalise something and really see it outside of us. This shift of context can be really, really enlightening.
Sometimes I didn't understand what I've made for years later. I think the self really needs to be expressed and bottling things up is quite dangerous, so creative outlets are vital for good mental wellbeing.
For a medium that is so personal to the artist, where do you take your inspirations from? How much of your own mental illness do you put into your work?
I think in the early days the works were extremely autobiographical. They were driven by this anxiety and my day-to-day experiences. They were a lot more like a diary.
As the years have gone on, they've become much more about wider societal and cultural issues. Inspiration can come from anywhere, music, images, conversation. I read a lot. I love poetry and thinking about the impact technology has upon is as a society.
When you’re putting on your own exhibitions, which you’ve done since 2000, how do you manage to keep your anxiety and panic attacks in check. Has there been times when they’ve simply been too much to overcome and how did you handle that?
Actually I don't find the shows too worrying. Having a show to work towards is nice for me. I like having something to get my teeth in to. The first few big shows I did I got really nervous.
I remember my first gallery show, I was in a toilet in a cafe nearby with my girlfriend at the time; throwing up, nervous to go as all the people would be there but that was very normal nerves I think.
I do get nervous in the lead up to a show, but again that's normal and if I didn't, I don't think I'd care enough about them. The nerves and stress of a show isn't unhealthy. Some of them have been really hard to do, some of the more complex ones and I've put everything into them, but it's always been worth it in the end.
Do you ever get overwhelmed by people’s expectations of you, as an artist? How do you manage that, if at all?
That's never easy. I just always give my best. I'm tougher on myself than anyone else is and I push myself quite hard. I'm never 100% satisfied with what I do, but if I can finish a project knowing that I've put in everything I could, then even if it doesn't work for some reason or even if people are disappointed, I can live with it and move on, because I know in myself I didn't sell myself short.
Of all the pieces you’ve done, do you have an personal favourites or are they like your children which you have to love equally,
There's a piece I made straight after hospital, the first one. I still couldn't speak as I was so swollen up. It was called Masquerade Parade (see pic). I've not looked at it for about a decade, but that means a lot to me.
Otherwise the paintings are really a continuation, one leads to another. They are all part of a process, but none are really finished. It evolves. It's always about the one I'm going to make next with me. I'm always excited about what I'm about to do and disappointed with what I've just done. I think that's why after all these years I'm still in that studio every day doing it.
You’ve never been shy about pushing the boundaries of exploring the digital world with your art, where do you see the next paradigm taking you?
Actually I know where that's going! I'm going to be performing digital video art live. So performance is coming soon. I think through this I can fuse my love of music, visuals and technology with new audiences. Very exciting.
Your recent ‘My Sonic Youth’ exhibition touched on many aspects of modern life. In the increasingly digital, connected world we live in, do artists like you have to explore new avenues like this? Is it the nature of the modern world that there should be a more interactive element to your work.
Actually, I think my work is quite traditional. The backbone of it is still paint on a surface in a gallery, but that work discusses what it means to be in a digitally connected world. I just describe what's in my reality.
I think artists will always make things from what's around them, so it's perfectly natural for them to make digital art now. You can make things on a laptop that don't need physical spaces to show them and studios.
I love that non-fixed accessible space that's opening up. Ideas can build so quick in a digital world that it's thrilling to watch it evolve.
Do you feel the digital world, i.e. social media and our obsession with being constantly connected, impacts our mental health. Is it a blessing or curse when you’re feeling unwell?
It's a double edged sword. On one hand you are never alone, there's the promise of a gazillion people out there, ready to help, or comment, or 'Like' your status. So you can share your emotions with the whole planet.
However, when we are constantly connected in this way, when we don't have our phones or our connection, we develop a different kind of anxiety and a lack of understanding of what it feels like to trust and be safe with ourselves. They did a study and when people are separated from their phones and hear them vibrate, but aren't allowed to touch them, they start to panic.
The other danger is the unrealistic images we are being fed about what life could, or should, be. People tend to censor their own lives for the internet; choosing the best selfie, sharing the nicest view of their holiday, their home, their partner, their meal. It's of course a fiction, but it's a believable one.
When you see your friends with these 'perfect' lives, it can really make you feel inadequate. Before, when these images were made by mass media, we knew it was constructed and it was above us. Beautiful models were airbrushed on luxury beaches. Obviously an aspirational fiction. Now fantasy and reality are so close, they are virtually indistinguishable.
The tools that kids now have to adjust their appearance in apps, to make their bums bigger, eyes brighter and tummy's thinner is dangerous. The disparity between the self-projected online and the true self is a time-bomb waiting to happen for a whole generation. I think they are going to struggle to relate in real physical spaces.
We have already had tragic stories of people taking their lives because they couldn't make the perfect selfie or people who have committed suicide leaving behind Instagram profiles that make it look like they were living the dream life. I don't think we really know the impact of the social internet. I think emotionally and psychologically we are playing catch up with the technology.
The ‘HappyCloud’ project that you did in 2009, was a brilliant way to spread smiles across London. Where did the idea for that come from?
The recession hit hard. Almost everyone I knew was really low. The newspapers were spitting out phrases like 'doom and gloom' and 'credit crunch'. Even some best friends of mine were losing their homes. It was horrendous. I just wanted to do something direct and the most positive uplifting symbol I could think of was the smiley.
I'd seen someone had invented the cloud machine in America from a modified movie snow-maker. I managed to get the first of those machines in the UK and in a moment of bravery (or stupidity) took it down to the Tate and used it.
I didn't really think about it the whole thing came about really quickly. I think if I had of thought about what I was doing, I'd have talked myself out of it. I never for a minute expected the reaction it got. It just blew up after that. People really got it and I think it quite honestly did do something to lift the spirit.
I guess what I was trying to get at was that at times like this art might be able to contribute something to the situation. I wasn't seeing any of the other artists making a point or contributing so I sort of felt I had better do something myself.
You opened the North Light Centre for Art and Design at your old college in Poole. Who should we be looking out for in the next wave of young, annoyingly-talented artists?
That's a difficult question, there are so many amazingly talented artists about. There's always someone new doing something. I actually think the biggest surprise we are about to have is all the older artists that have been overlooked who have been making really strong consistent works for decades getting their moment. We had a big moment there where super young artists were being hurled up the art market with massive prices after one or two shows. I think the shift is going to be away from the novel and new to something more solid. However there are always amazing new artists coming to light. I still think one of the best hotbeds for that talent is the Royal Academy Interim Show. That place is magic, it's just an incubator for incredible artists.
When you’re feeling low (for any reason), which of these would you always turn to make you feel better…
Fake Plastic Trees - Radiohead
REM - UP
Howl - Ginsberg
As part of our ‘chain reaction’ feature, one guests asks a question of the next, our last guest, actor Dyfan Rees, wanted to know….....What do you enjoy most about your profession? By using the gift you have to share with the world?
I'm unsure I have any special gift. For some reason, I've been allowed to participate and I've been welcomed. So I feel so unbelievably thankful every single day that I get to do this.
There's not one aspect I love more than any other, really the whole thing is a total dream. I think if I was forced to pick one part of my profession, it would be the people I get to interact with.
The art world has the some of the most open-minded, loving, genuine and inspiring people you could ever hope to have in your life. From the people who connect with the work, to those that show it, write about it or collect it. To get the chance to play and share with them is worth everything to me. My friends!
Your taking part in next month’s Scratch the Surface Mental Health Arts Festival in Coventry. Can you tell us a little bit more about your involvement in that and how people can get involved?
The best way to get involved is to get on the Pod Coventry Facebook page. There's so much happening across the city and all art forms.
I'm hosting an audience with Bryan Charnley's brother, James, about his work which will be on show at The Pod and a wonderful film provided by the Bryan Charley Trust. Jo Bannister is showing at CCCA. Title Ruse are doing an afternoon of short films. There's an activism symposium at Warwick University. A Zine festival. Honestly there's so much, this is tip of the iceberg!
I'm showing some work as part of a group show in Coventry too. It's going to be amazing. Everyone should come. I can't think of another city-wide mental health arts festival in the UK quite like this. My friends do one in Dublin of the first fortnight of every year, it's just wonderful for everyone to come together. We are all so excited for the first Scratch the Surface.
You are also an Ambassador for Mind. What kind of projects do you get involved with them and why is it important to you?
With Mind I helped found the Creative Therapies Fund. The fund provides grants to local Mind's around England and Wales to fund arts-based therapies that might be needed in their area. Everything from buying a piano and sheet music to funding creative writing groups, animation production or choirs.
I also speak about mental health and my experiences for Mind at events and things. I just try and do what I can and, if possible, raise some funds sometimes at my shows and things. I made 'My Happy Colouring Flip Book' last year and a pound from each copy goes to the creative therapies fund.
It's important to me to support Mind because for me they are at the forefront in pushing for better mental health in this country. Mental health in the UK is a mess, but Mind are making serious headway. Through groups like Mind I can honestly see a better future for everyone. I believe in what they are doing and I've seen the lives they've touched be changed.
Do you still have your Blue Peter badge from your appearance in 2009? Have you used it to get into any Shire Horse Centres for free?
Yes I do have it. But do you know what? You can't use it to get in free if you're an adult, I tried!! No go! It's cool to have it, but believe me it doesn't open any doors. I have tried!
With the rise of artists like Banksy and the ‘street artist’ movement in recent years, where do you stand on his work and that of his contemporaries? Is it vandalism? graffiti? or legitimate art?
It's art, no doubt about it. I'm not against it, I'm not against any genuine expression. I like the accessibility of it. I like the way the public can come across it. I'm not sure it's got the depth that I personally enjoy in my favourite artists and artworks.
I guess Banksy is what Britney Spears is to Scott Walker. It's very lightweight. It's art, it's valid, it's just not my cup of tea. Give me a Sigmar Polke, Bacon or Caravaggio.
Psst. Can you tell us Banksy’s real name? Aww go on. No-one’s reading this. We won’t tell anyone.
There's reason why nobody has revealed his name. I like my toes too much!
For someone who may be looking to embrace their creative side to help their own mental health, but perhaps struggling to take that first step, what advice would you give to them?
See what's available locally and you might find a group, I think that's the best way to go about things. Otherwise (this is probably a shameless plug it's not meant to be) I've started a free art school on YouTube.
I post up how to draw type lessons. That might give you a starting point.
Also, remember it doesn't have to be drawing, it could be photography, dance, poetry. Maybe there was something you used to really enjoy doing that you haven't done for a while. Pick that back up. You'll be surprised how many musicians put down their instruments and how liberating it can be to pick them back up again.
Most important, don't beat yourself up about being good at it. You really don't have to be! For it to be therapeutic, it's the 'doing' of it that counts, not the finished result!
Finally, complete this sentence. It’s important to talk about male mental health because...
Men deserve to be understood as full human beings. We need to shift the stereotypical images, language and false expectations that have weighed down the concept of masculinity for way too long.
We need to create an environment where our children feel that there is the societal space and understanding for them to express who they really are. Men get mental health problems too, and we're not ashamed of that. Those problems don't make us any less of a man, they actually for the most part, make us more compassionate and loving.
A massive, Men Tell-sized 'thank you' to Stuart for his honesty, openness and crucial insight on the limitations of the Blue Peter badge in adulthood. I think you'll agree it's an amazing read. Thanks also to Emily for helping to arrange the interview and credit to Nadia Amura for the portrait image of Stuart.