Art helped me, it can help others too says Freudian Sheep contemporary art gallery co-founder Eleanor
We all struggle to find our place in the world sometimes. Eleanor May and Ian Moss’ journey hasn’t been easy. The contemporary art gallery owners tell entertainment writer Wayne Savage how they want to help those still battling the trials - and stigma - of mental illness.
Life is a funny thing, says Eleanor. On the outside she doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. Inside, she confesses sometimes she’s crying, because she’s never felt part of it.
The artist, who founded The Freudian Sheep gallery in Ipswich with partner Ian Moss in 2013, talks of feeling more of an onlooker at times; trapped inside her body and brainwashed by others on how to be.
An artist ever since she can remember, words have never come easy, so she choose to express herself through the power of art instead. Not talking until she was five and diagnosed with dyslexia aged 11, she began self-harming in secondary school, slipping into depression. Fitting in, trying to understand why everything came harder for her than other people was a constant struggle and blow to her confidence.
“I do landscapes because I want to escape the real world. They represent my ideals of the world. They’re heavily nature-based as the natural world makes me smile and I think every person should have a smile in their lives; on their walls,” she says.
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“I put little mindfulness messages (in too) because I want people to appreciate the real world. If you have beautiful pictures you’ll remember the world is important.”
Eleanor doesn’t know if she was born feeling this way or if it’s circumstance. What she does know is she’s always tried to hide what’s going on inside.
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“Everyone has always seen me as lively, fun - ‘look, Eleanor’s smiling’. I struggle in the mornings with my self-worth, I think I’m a s*** person,” she laughs. “I can get through that but I’ve still got a voice inside going constantly... You see me and there’s an expectation I try so hard to fulfil.
“Every day I live with an overwhelming fear of everything going wrong, a dark cloud of despair, trapped in my own prison. I want to scream and run and because I don’t I scream and run in my sleep and no-one can hear me. I’m exhausted,” says Eleanor, who suffers from issues including anxiety and depression. “Life doesn’t have to be like this. I’ve learnt how to cope. I can manage it as I have been blessed with a beautiful son and a forever understanding partner.”
Ian spent a couple of spells teaching art to people with learning disabilities at Acorn Village, at Mistley Hall, before going to work at the now closed Severalls psychiatric hospital in Colchester.
He met her a few years later after the death of his father, who had inspired him to move on from the NHS to work in a creative group-worker role at The Haven Project in Colchester, helping those with personality disorders. Eleanor provided a reflexology service there, for which Ian booked clients.
She says she’s spent years fighting life, fighting what she is or what she perceives herself to be; ending up in hospital too many times. Some weeks after Ian began working there, she took an overdose due to issues in her own life at that time - issues he knew nothing about until it was almost too late.
United by creativity and desperation, Ian vowed to help her find a better life; at first becoming her carer for some years while she found a way to manage her anxieties. As a result of changes in service provision and financial support, she was encouraged to “find a way back into work”.
He went back to university to study for an art degree and The Freudian Sheep was born during his last year out of a shared desire to help unique, professional artists succeed in the Anglia region – irrespective of their qualifications.
Brought together by what he calls “a serendipitous group of events and their love for art”, their desire to constructively rebuild their lives has led to them wanting to help many others on the same journey – but in an inclusive way that looks past the illness to the person.
Their artists are all professionals, some with mental health problems, most with none. The Freudian Sheep supports them all equally, as a place where creative people can work together to engage the general public in art. The St Helen’s Street gallery stages a new exhibition on a different theme every month. A steady stream of people passed through the four exhibition spaces as we chat, taking in Mad? - the first in a series of occupation-based showcases called Who’s Coming For Tea? It’s a mesmerising collection of heartfelt pieces in various media, from photographs and acrylics to charcoal and installations. It questions exactly who is mentally ill, why, how and where? What is mental illness? What it’s like to feel that way?
Running until March 4, 23 artists have taken part, including Ian and Eleanor. Some have direct experience of mental illness and others empathy for those with one.
“It’s a bit controversial being called MAD?,” smiles Eleanor, breaking into infectious laughter. “I always think we’ve had to say we are (made up of) loads of issues; we kind of laugh at ourselves a bit don’t we? We always say ‘are we the mad ones or is everybody else’, hence the question mark.”
Ian adds some of the artists have been very brave.
“They’ve put little write-ups about themselves with personal insights into their own mental health or their views of it if they’re not directly suffering.”
Part of the idea behind MAD? is to get more people interested in art, including those scared of galleries. The couple wanted to give them a reason to go “oh, I might be interested in that” rather than thinking “it’s just art”. The other part?
“The world out there,” Eleanor nods towards the window, “I find can be really difficult to fit into. This is where this (the gallery and exhibition) comes in. We want to help people to cope with this world, but not change; it’s learning how to be among the world, but to be okay with being you.
“I’ve learnt this through mindfulness cognitive based therapy (and) the confidence I’ve got through The Freudian Sheep is amazing. Three years ago... I couldn’t even walk into town without having panic attacks; I used to faint all the time because of my anxiety. I couldn’t go out in the end because I didn’t know if I was going to collapse. You’re unable to hold down a normal job because sometimes you just can’t get up; basically it’s just like a black hole.
“It’s really helped; my mum’s noticed a massive difference in me... The things that I would never have dreamed of being able to do...”
One in four people in the UK suffer mental health problems, with suicide rates and self-harming reportedly on the rise. A report from an independent task force chaired by Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said too many people have had no help at all for too long. He called for the NHS to treat mental health services the same way it does physical health with the money to match. The government has responded, pledging an extra £1billion to be invested by 2020/21 to plug “critical gaps in care”.
Eleanor and Ian think the gallery, and art in general, has a part to play. They are looking to transform The Freudian Sheep into a charity or a community interest company (CIC), a new type of company designed for social enterprises that want to use their profits and assets for the public good.
It would take a holistic approach to art, focusing on what it means to be a human being in the modern world. There will be exhibitions by professional artists on themes relating to the “human condition” with money raised from the sale of work going directly to the artists, some of whom - those with mental health issues - would otherwise be partly or entirely reliant on benefits. Many of the gallery’s artists are experienced professionals who add a robust support to proceedings. Ian says: “It’s well known a lot of creative people don’t function well in a society; in many cases that makes them more creative. We don’t see it as they’re hiding away because (they feel) society won’t accept them. Maybe we’re stifling their creativity by going ‘that’s a bit too much for your everyday gallery’. We want to say here’s a platform; and the therapy of doing art, to paint yourself out of the world that you’re in... We’d love to hear from anybody who can help us make that transition to a charity a reality.”
You don’t have to look very far to see the potential benefits.
“I used to struggle a lot more than I do now,” says Eleanor. “I know how important it is that people know with the right support and understanding those who struggle with life can lead fulfilling lives.
“I’ve learnt to do this. That’s a really important message; that it’s okay being oneself - we can all somehow manage to live life.”