The Connor Brothers: Making art improved our mental health
The Connor Brothers is the pseudonym for British artists James Golding and Mike Snelle. Having exhibited their work everywhere from The V&A to Banksy’s Dismaland, they're about to open their largest UK exhibition. The Book of Man sat down with Mike to talk art, addiction, mental health issues and why they're auctioning a painting in aid of CALM, the male suicide prevention charity...
Tell us about how The Connor Brothers came to exist…
The truth is that I was in the depths of a dark depression that ended up with me feeling suicidal. By chance one very long and difficult night James phoned and I confessed how I was feeling. He persuaded me to seek help, and the intervention might just have saved my life. I was diagnosed as bipolar and given medication. I ended up living with James, who’d been a heroin addict in the past, and we had these long intense conversations about mental health and addiction. To distract ourselves we made each other laugh by creating collages using cut out text from 60’s counter- cultural 60’s comics and old Mills & Boon paperbacks. James wanted to show them, and I was dead against it. We ended up comprising by creating some fictional characters and back stories and showing the works under a pseudonym – The Connor Brothers.
How does the collaboration work?
We’re both fairly obsessive people, and always into something or other, be it cults, prison reform, addiction, The Unibomber Manifesto, the fiction of George Saunders, writing short stories or the dangers of social media. The text we use reflects whatever our current conversation is. It’s an effort to try and refine and condense that conversation into a single sentence. The imagery is secondary to the idea.
What’s the story behind the oil painting (pictured below) that you’re auctioning in aid of CALM?
It’s an Oscar Wilde quote. He’s an interesting and contradictory character. I suppose it’s a quote about idealism and about hope. Life can be a real fucker but if you can still see the wonder of the world beyond the everyday turmoil you stand a chance of a rich and fulfilling existence no matter what shit is thrown at you.
Why have you chosen to highlight male mental health and suicide prevention with this art?
Because we’ve both suffered mental health issues and also had family members who’ve struggled. I sectioned a family member last year and am acutely aware of the devastation and distress mental health problems can cause. The statistics of male suicide in this country are horrifying and we are grateful charities like CALM exist.
Does art have a role to play in representing or exploring difficult mental states/mental health issues?
One of the privileged things about being an artist is being given a voice and an audience and a platform. It feels important to use that platform to speak up on things that we think are meaningful rather than wang on about ourselves endlessly. For us mental health is one of those things.
What kind of response are you looking for from people who see your art?
Fuck. This is one of those tricky ones. I like the idea that the purpose of art is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. It would be really great if people (even one person…) felt connected with and understood by something we’d made. I guess that’s the thing we’re trying to generate. That and making people question their beliefs and presumptions and be more openminded to others.
Does art/creativity help you manage your own wellbeing? If so, how?
It’s been an incredible and transformative experience to create things on so many levels. For our friendship, in understanding ourselves and other people, in being heard and understood and expressing ourselves. It feels like it gives us a solid foundation to make things. And if it doesn’t sound too wanky, there is a weird and reliable relationship between the person making a thing and the thing being made. It feels that process is really grounding in some slightly mystical way. Everyone should make stuff.
Do you think the romanticised idea of a troubled artist still exists and is it damaging?
This is such a complicated question. I’m loathed to perpetuate the idea of the tortured genius. I think it’s really unhealthy. What’s really important is not to see being troubled as a necessary pre-condition of creativity. Whilst its true that many creative people do suffer mental health issues, mental health issues are not necessary for being talented. Maybe it’s better to think of it in terms of sensitivity, or having a unique way of viewing the world, and these things being closely connected with creating meaningful artworks that convey interesting messages. For a long time I sort of comforted myself over my mental health issues with the idea they made me special, and many of the people I admired had similar issues, from Philip Seymour Hoffman to the writer David Foster Wallace. I romanticised my own struggles and it almost killed me. My two favourite writers are Foster Wallace and George Saunders. They are both undoubtably geniuses. However one killed themselves and the other is a joyful stable human being. I try to remind myself of Saunders when I start to dwell on the fact most of my other creative heroes having mental health struggles.
Not minted? Go see the Connor Brothers’ new exhibition, Call Me Anything But Ordinary. It’s open to the public from 17 May to 6 June 2018 at London’s Maddox Gallery.
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