Dara Brennan is an artist from Ireland, she studied English at Brighton University for two years and is now back in her hometown, Roscommon. In May, she created a pink character aptly named “Squiggly Man”. Her art is playful, happy and mellow yet was created as a result of mental health struggles and a global pandemic. Here is the talk I had with Dara about her path as an artist.
When did you start making art?
“I’ve always done drawing in school and a little bit of stuff at home, but nothing that was interesting or good. I stopped when I finished school, but in March I started painting again. When I was in school, I was never skilled enough to paint pretty things, or I felt like I never had anything to say. Then I found how to say it. When I started Squiggly, it was really nice, because it was my thing.”
How did you create Squiggly?
“I was painting with some friends’, one of them said something really funny about squiggling up and down stairs or something, and I drew the staircase – it had no background, it wasn’t anywhere. There was just this little character going down like ‘woooo’. All the stick figures were black. Then I did a cereal box. It was cool, I really liked it, it was the first time Squiggly Man was pink and had a face. I decided I didn’t really care about the dark stick figures, I really liked when he was pink and happy!”
What do you do with the paintings?
“I tried to sell them for a while. I got prints made and I sold some online. I sold a few and it was fine but I had to refund everyone because the prints came out terrible and it was quite stressful, ordering the prints, getting them ready, scanning all the paintings in, editing them so they were good to print, it was really difficult and I didn’t enjoy it at all. The point of Squiggly Man is that he is something I enjoy and that I want to spend my free time doing, so then I stopped doing that because I didn’t want to do it!”
What does Squiggly Man mean to you?
“I struggle a lot with my mental health, Squiggly was just a way for me to express that, but because he is so pastel and pink and palatable really, nobody could be upset by looking at Squiggly Man. I can still share how I feel but without people worrying about me or thinking it’s too scary. I don’t feel like I’m hiding anything. It just means that I can share that part but without giving too much away. I can lie in bed for three weeks and I don’t do anything but sometimes I pick up a paintbrush and it kind of helps. It’s not a cure but anything is better than nothing.”
What kind of mental issues do you struggle with?
“I have had a really hard time getting help for it. I have been misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression. I have to go to Hove sometimes for appointments, and I had to take tons of different medications, but nothing ever helped or made sense to anyone. It was pointless. I thought: “I’m going to try to paint”. It’s so easy just lying in bed for three weeks and not moving or doing anything; but sometimes I would pick up a paintbrush and it kind of helped. It’s not a cure but anything is better than nothing. I know people asked me what a particular painting specifically is about; it means something to me, but someone else can look at it and think of what it means to them. Some people who know me really well know, but I never confirm it. They can have their own thoughts and feelings about it, and maybe they will get something from it. That’s the other nice part about art.”
Do you have any artists that inspire you in your work?
“I don’t really know any artist that has that same ‘cartoon ridiculous style’, but I love Cézanne and I love Matisse, they are my two favourites. And also my friends! When I moved to Brighton, my housemates were all artists. Just being around them all the time, I was getting itchy to make something. I had no paints or pencils or anything, and they let me borrow all their stuff and get started, then I got my own stuff when I got back into it, and it was great. They were amazing. They inspire me more than Cézanne and Matisse! (laughs)”
Have you found that living and studying in Brighton has impacted your work?
“Yeah it definitely had a positive impact on my work. Brighton is a pretty exciting place to move to if you come from a very rural area. There’s art on the streets, live music, Brighton is full of crazy people doing their own thing and I love that. I feel like anything goes, and that’s a great environment to be creative in. It’s close to the sea and the South Downs, so you can take inspiration from nature and it’s so easy to get to London to visit galleries and stuff there.”
How does the art world in Brighton compare to that in Ireland?
“The country I grew up in doesn’t seem to really have an art world. There are artists but it doesn’t seem so important to people. I haven’t really had any experience of the art scene in other places over here like Dublin so I can’t comment on that. It’s strange here sometimes. I’m teaching myself to mix paint, do portraits and still life drawings and stuff like that which people here appreciate, but if I show them Squiggly Man they tend to tell me it’s nice, and do that little smile that they do when children show them a scribble. It’s embarrassing. I believe in what I do. because it means a lot to me and it’s my way of expressing difficult emotions that I can’t find the words for but it’s weird when people don’t understand.”
What would you like to do next with Squiggly Man?
“I just started getting into sculpture, so I’d like to do more of that. I use Femo. The colours are great and you can get it so smooth, which is what I love about Squiggly: really smooth, really flat. I enjoy that. I had a bit of a break from painting, because all of my painting stuff was in Brighton for ages. I want to go back to painting all the time and do more sculpture and keep enjoying it!”
Do you have any advice to anyone who would like to be creative?
“Just f*cking do it! I know everyone says that, just do it. You have to start somewhere. When I started back, I was worried – it’s not going to be good, everyone is going to think it’s ridiculous and bad. But it’s such a good feeling to get it out on paper and see it happen. You don’t have to be Rambrandt to enjoy art! To do it feels good. And if it feels good to you and if you have something to say, other people pick up on that, no matter what the skill level is. That’s the first thing I found: it takes almost no skill to make Squiggly Man, he’s just flat, basic pastel colours. But people really liked it, they knew he had something to say for me and for them. How cool is that!”
I don’t know about you, but I am very excited to see more of Squiggly Man and what Dara will create next; as she has many things to say and found such a delightful creative way to share them. Be plenty to follow her Instagram @squiggly.man and who knows, maybe one day she will make prints again!
Where to see Dara’s character Squiggly Man:
Words by Éloïse Armary