The Wide Justice at NI Mental Health Arts Festival
Greek myth inspires collaborative poetry and painting exhibition at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast
There is a Greek legend, which tells the tale of Orpheus and his beloved wife, Eurydice. In it, Orpheus is a renowned musician, poet and prophet – he can charm everything and everyone – but when his wife dies, he is left devastated.
According to the legend, the gods then grant Orpheus one chance to journey to the Underworld to bring Eurydice home, but he fails in his mission and Eurydice is lost to him forever.
It is a poignant tale of love and loss, and is the inspiration behind the latest artistic exhibition at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, entitled The Wide Justice.
The exhibition of paintings, sketches and poems also forms part of the second Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. The official launch took place on World Mental Health Day, October 10, and the exhibition will run until October 16.
The Wide Justice is Bangor artist, Leslie Nicholl, and Belfast-based poet, Colin Dardis’s interpretation of an age-old story, but with a modern twist. Nicholl and Dardis – who both have experience of depression – have compiled a sequence of work which explores themes of love, adoration, separation and ego.
By exhibiting as part of the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, the duo hope to shine a spotlight on mental health issues across the board, and 'show people that in the midst of a nightmare, something creative and life-affirming can come about', says Dardis.
'It’s been exciting,' adds Nicholl. 'The paintings are quite raw and some are a bit challenging, but they’re Colin’s poems in colour and in paint. Anyone can enjoy these poems.'
Having previously experienced depression after his late father was sectioned – and more recently, when his wife, Elaine, underwent treatment for cancer – Nicholl reveals that art is his solace in times of trouble.
'Elaine had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and was going through treatment, and it was just an absolute nightmare,' recalls the 59-year-old. 'I had known about this myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and I started working on the paintings because it was a release.'
Nicholl had already met Dardis through a mutual friend, so when the Greek-inspired painting project got underway, he decided it was time to get in touch.
'I thought to myself, "I want what this guy Dardis is doing", so I sent him images of the paintings. When I saw his poems, based on the imagery, I thought they were intense, really beautiful poems. The way he’s written them shows a lust for life and love and companionship.
'I went back to my paintings and started re-working areas of them. I asked Colin to send me more poems and then we met up. It really was as simple as that.'
Dardis agrees: 'We both really liked each other’s work. I knew a bit about the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and I thought it sounded interesting. Leslie emailed me a number of images and they were all absolutely fantastic. I really enjoyed the combination and the colours and the approach, but it took me quite a while to figure out my stylistic approach to writing.'
Dardis ultimately decided to adopt a poetic form he stumbled upon by chance: the ‘Russian Dolls’ technique. This involves beginning each stanza with five lines and five syllables, then following up with four of each, then three, two and finally one.
'What the paintings and poems explore is the idea that Orpheus let Eurydice down and was too self-involved,' Dardis explains. 'He betrayed the love for ego. A lot of the poems are quite condemning of him.'
With a sequence of 13 poems and paintings, the Greek myth is firmly embedded within the exhibition, but it is also very personal to the artists, according to Nicholl.
'The paintings came from a very deep place. They just show that desire to protect the person you love. Hopefully it will be an intense show, but we both agree it’s about love of life and finding someone you care for. Hopefully people will see that.'
With mental health being perhaps the last real stigmatised health condition today, the organisers of the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival are working to change perceptions. The Wide Justice is part of the festival’s drive to open up discussion about mental health.
'I’ve had depression myself for a number of years, but I’ve always taken the approach that it’s nothing to be embarrassed about,' Dardis comments. 'There shouldn’t be any social stigma. Being able to talk about it and being upfront really helps.
'I think there’s probably a lot of people out there just not able to talk. The important thing is just to encourage a dialogue to take away the shame and the feeling of weakness. It’s not a weakness – you don’t choose to have depression – it just happens.'
The Wide Justice runs at Linen Hall library, Belfast until October 16.