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Shanahan Studio Session with Artist Edward Quigley

Welcome to my first Shanahan studio session interview, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guest than Edward Quigley or Ed. Who is Ed? He is a visual artist and photographer, and works from his studio at Blue House yard in Wood Green, North London. In this interview we discuss topics such as art, the impact of covid-19 on retail, mental health, overcoming corporate burnout and finding your life's passion and purpose.

H: Hello, Ed, welcome to Shanahan Studio Session. Tell me about your background, how did you get into art? What age did you find that you were artistically gifted?

E: There might be some people who have questioned whether I’m artistically gifted, at 43 years of age, but I had an aptitude in school, for drawing and all the rest of it, and I was naturally drawn to creative stuff, music and all the rest of it. And, and that was all good and well. What I didn’t know when I was a child, is that I’ve got ADHD, and that was only diagnosed last year. So the reason why I’m telling you that is because what would happen quite a lot when I was young, so I would try my hand, the guitar or drawing, show some aptitude but then lose interest really quickly. And I kind of gained a reputation as someone who was flaky and what we didn’t know, my family and myself, we didn’t know that I had ADHD. And that was why I wasn’t able to carry on focusing. So the short answer, I suppose to your question is, it was always there. But I never, I never kind of expanded on it. When I left school at 16, I went straight into work. And I grew up in a family where paying the rent and getting food was important. And so there wasn’t much appetite for looking at lines of work that were very reliable, do you know what I mean?

H: Yes, I definitely can relate to that.

E: At 16, you’ve got to go out and get a job. And you know, sitting there and painting or drawing was not part of that. So I went off, and did you know, whatever, I did have started work at 16. And none of it was in the creative sector. And occasionally, I would dabble. But that was it. I think in 2012, I did an evening class in charcoal sketching. That was great fun. And then fast forward to recently, I did a charity auction in May 2019. And I did a few ink and graphite sketches of former Arsenal footballers. And because of friends of friends, I managed to get those footballers to sign the works.

And they sold it was really successful. And that in May 2019, that was the moment when that voice inside me said hold on a moment, you really like doing this, it appears that you’ve got a little bit of aptitude, maybe follow up. And so I didn’t really it wasn’t so much that I made an active decision. It was just, I really enjoyed it. And so I kept at it. And I kept sketching, I made a few gifts for friends. And then I became really ill with my day job. So I’m the chief executive of a social enterprise in Hackney, the stress and anxiety from the job made me very ill, I had to take some time out.

And that was the moment in 2020, early 2020, when I kind of had a really serious chat with myself. And as if there wasn’t enough going on in 2020, anyway, you know what I mean? But I kind of had a chat with myself and realized that I wasn’t happy. Yeah. Really, really, really unhappy, deeply unhappy. And it was making me ill. Yeah. So I finally, I kind of almost said the words to myself, you know, I kind of came to the decision. I don’t want to and I can’t do this job. It affects me too much. And I think because I left school at 16 and didn’t get any grades didn’t do well at school. We know now that it was because of ADHD. When I became a chief executive, the first time around, which was back in 2013. I was really proud of it, obviously.

And then and that that first round caused me stress and then the second CEO role. Again, very proud, but it caused me a lot of stress. And I kind of thought to myself, well, why? Who’s telling you have to be a CEO? Why’d you have to do that? And so it was a real seismic year last year. And the end result is that I was made redundant, but I kind of spoke to my boss and it was a kind of voluntary redundancy. I’ve got my studio here and Blue House yard in August 2019. And in 2020, I made a decision that artwork and creativity, that’s going to be my full time pursuit. And then I’m going to fill around that with little part time bits of work. And I don’t have the same disposable income. I’m completely uncertain about where the money is going to come from. But I’ll find a way.

H: I have so many questions to ask you from that period in your life. How old were you when you pinpointed the root of, your restlessness in school?

E: That’s a good question. I mean, look, it’s hard because what are we like when we’re kids, we’re hyper and we’re, you know, we’re not listening. And we struggle to focus, because doing maths is not as interesting as talking to mate Matty about the football last night. So I can understand why it was difficult for teachers or my family to spot it. But, but that said, I distinctly remember at about nine or 10 years of age, and for those listening, you know, I’m born in 1977 so we’re talking about the late 80s. And my parents spoke to our, our family GP about my hyperactivity. And, I mean, I was 10, less than 10. So I wasn’t privy to the conversations, but basically, somehow, between them, they thought, I’ll tell you what it is, is that cut is the orange coloring that is in smarties in Smarties and orange squash, which was in the news, big time is called tartrazine, eat one or two.

And they said, we’ll cut that out of his diet and that should sort it out which was nonsense. You know, they cut out my diet, but it didn’t address anything. And then, you know, secondary school was a nightmare. And then when I went into the world of work, well, that was a rude awakening. But I actually fared better in the work environment than I did in school, because I don’t learn by you standing at the front of the class telling me that two plus two is four or I need to get four blocks. I think I’m doing myself right. So it’s hard for you. I’m giving you long answers here. But the short answer to your question is there actually it didn’t, it didn’t dawn on me that I had ADHD until I was diagnosed in May last year, when I was diagnosed, and you hear people saying, you know, the kind of chorus of angels It was, like a massive light was shone on the entirety of my life.

H: You explained a lot of things that are really insightful and interesting, because mental health issues are completely thrown under the rug in Ireland and I think here in the UK it is similar. Only in the last few years, the light has shone on these issues and things are getting better.

E: Well, that’s no surprise. But yeah, what I think you know, and what your readers don’t know. But yeah, I’m, I’m not Irish. I’m not born in Ireland, but my family is Irish. And my culture is Irish. And, you know, mental health was never, no one talked about. And, you know, you probably know yourself, it was, you know, when times are tough, you get on with it. And it was, there was an assumption, wrongly, that that the recent trend in embracing mental health and trying to remove the stigma and labeling. You know, I think there’s some people with an old school mentality you think that that’s the wrong thing to do. Because once you give it a once you give it a label, then it’s a thing and you’re not getting on with life. But that’s, that’s all shit. We know from Ireland and, and cultures and generations gone by that an awful lot of people live very unhappy, abusive lives. Because you get on with it.

H: Back home, there is this mentality of what will the neighbour say if they heard you speak about your mental health issues? In primary school, we’re taught about first aid kits, how to physically fix us. They teach us everything with the physical aspect and how to swim etc. Basically physically how to survive, but mentally, they don’t teach us how to mend our mind or how to take care of it.

E: Or to recognise.

H: It’s amazing to see things are changing with the younger generation. But I think there’s still a lot more work to be done. Taraji P. Henson is one my favorite actresses, and she talks about mental health in the black community that there’s a huge stigma with mental health in it. I always listen to her speaking about mental health issues she has dealt with, and it is refreshing to hear her be so open and honest. And it’s not just the black , Asian or white community that have a negative stigma with speaking about mental health. I think it’s a general human thing.

E: Yeah, I think there is a global ignorance with cultural specifics. Yeah, almost absolutely, you know, and we know in Ireland, the church was the big, big thing. If you were in with the priest, you’re the talk of the town, all this nonsense and overcoming those cultural barriers. The weakness that is associated with admitting to struggling and it is, you know, it’s horseshit because mental health issues are clinical. They’re not wooly fabrication. ADHD is a learning disability where there is a, you know, the neuro processing is different. And, and also, and it’s worth saying, it’s not, it’s not all bad, you know, with ADHD.

The negatives, you know, you could list not being able to focus your mind going 100 miles a minute. But then the flip side of the positives, there’s something called hyper focus, and what people will add a lot of people with ADHD, when they are adequately stimulated by a task. They’re like a Tasmanian devil, they’ll smash into it. And I’m really like that myself. So when it comes to, I’m sure, we might talk about it a bit, you know, the art markets that I’ve organized here, because I was so into it stimulated and engaged, I smashed through it and, and they went really well. And a lot of that is down to fortune and other people, but a chunk of it is down to the energy I had to go into it, which is definitely part of that ADHD.

H: How did you seek help for ADHD?

E: For the last two years, I have been working with a therapist, who has been amazing. My own personal development from seeing a therapist for the past two years has been huge. And it’s been brilliant and even the ADHD aside, my own kind of personal development as a result of seeing my therapist the last two years has been huge, but it was you know, working with her name’s Dee working with her has helped immensely. I learned more on my behaviors and, and what has quickly become clear that I’m detached from a lot of negative feelings, I’ve kind of put them away somewhere and I never, I don’t sit with them. I can’t be with my loneliness, I can’t be with my sadness, it gets in the way, which is not healthy. So I am working with her and, and, and it wasn’t it didn’t come from her, but I just, you know, I was unhappy, really unhappy. And I thought something else here and I started looking into ADHD, bipolar disorder, borderline personality, you know, looked at those quickly ruled out the BPD, and more severe kind of learning difficulties or mental health things, and ADHD, the symptoms really, really shouted out to me the the inability to focus the difficulty, you know, interrupting people, because I feel I have to get out what I’m thinking of wise, it will disappear, because that’s how my brain works.

I went to the NHS, and it’s an 18 month Wait, right? So I have some savings. And I thought, I don’t want to wait 18 months, so I went private, was diagnosed, took my private diagnosis to the NHS to then try and get some treatment. And they went, yeah, you still need to get our assessment. So I had a bit of a back and forth with the NHS, but thankfully, I’ve got a session with them in December, which was a brief assessment, they confirmed the diagnosis. And now I’m talking to the GP about starting treatment. And, you know, for readers treatment is, is basically Ritalin, yes, it is, you know, it’s it’s a, it’s a form of medicated, amphetamine that helps you to focus almost blinkers you so that the task at hand that’s in front of you, that occupies your mind and not the phone, out of the peripheral of your vision, shouting, look at Twitter, look at Instagram, you know, that gets, that gets blanked out. And I’m really lucky that I had a friend, I have a friend who as an adult, although younger than me, as an adult, was diagnosed with ADHD.

So I’ve, I’ve picked her brains a lot, which has been really useful. But what I would say to readers is, if you have a concern, you have read up on it, go to the NHS website, go to the British association of counselors and psychologists, you know, accredited websites, read a little bit of the symptoms resonate, speak to your GP, because whilst a full assessment can take 12 to 18 months on the NHS, you can get a brief assessment very quickly, it doesn’t tell you that you’ve definitely got it, but it rules you out if you haven’t. And it’s really useful, you know, and, and when I had my assessment, what the physiatrist said to me at the end was, you know, I’ve, because I’ve had to develop my workarounds for some of the negative symptoms of ADHD.

And that, you know, such as writing lists, because my brain and my memory I’ve got, honestly, if any of my ex girlfriends read this, there’ll be like that, that explains it, because he doesn’t remember anything. I can’t remember anything about my life. But I’ve got a weird memory when it comes to numbers and certain details I can read off to you my first phone number when I was seven years of age. Yeah. So, you know, you, I guess the body, the mind builds its own work arounds where it can and then where it can’t? Well, you know, that’s where you have issues and all the rest of it.

But it was Yeah, you know, it’s, it’s hard to, you can’t I can’t give advice to anyone that says if you’re feeling this or experiencing that, then you’ve got ADHD because all of the things that people with ADHD have, people without ADHD also have that you will, you know, you’ll come in to your studio, tomorrow morning, you’ll be faced with a task that you don’t fancy doing, you’ll put it on the long finger and then when you need to do it, you’ll do it. The difference with ADHD sufferers, is even sometimes when you have to do it, there can be a mental block and it doesn’t get done. So when I spoke to the psychiatrist, he asked me Have you ever been fired from any jobs? And I said no. He said that’s really unusual because the later you are in life, the your diagnosis of ADHD, the greater the chance that at some point, you’ve lost the job because your symptoms have meant the and done something you forgot to do something and you know, you face the consequences.

H: Yeah, absolutely. And so you were in school in a period of the early 80’s. In Ireland during these times the church was still a big part of the society. Condoms were illegal in Ireland until 1985. Were things similar growing up in London in the 80’s or did you have a more liberal society? Were there available classes for art in your school? Did you realise that you had a gift at that age?

E: No. Well, it’s interesting. That’s really interesting. We say that because I do you agree to a certain extent, I think I disagree slightly, I’ll tell you what, I think because I think that there’s no anyone that has any understanding of the Irish cannot talk about the Irish culture, and not include the creative culture that exists within the Irish singing, dancing, writing, you know, for such a small island population, we’ve produced some global names in terms of writing music, but it it’s kind of it’s how it’s how that creativity is recognised by society. And it’s kind of like how I remember getting wheeled out to sing back in Spancil Hill when I was young, you know, most of our family dues, and that’s all going well, but then if you turn around and say, Well, I’d like to sing for me money, and or paint or draw, then no, no, no, no, hold on. That’s all fine in the family and in social work, but now you need to go work and have a proper job, you know, in quote, marks.

And I, you know, my family were nurturing my creative skills, but they always in a capacity that I think they saw it as a hobby. In the same way as I get a football, I get a bite, yeah, he wants a keyboard to play music on he wants to draw, let him do that. It’s a good use of his time, but it was never, it was never seen as something that could develop beyond being a hobby for a child. And, you know, I’m not too down on my parents because they were part of that generation, and the mindset that existed, but but now with hindsight, and you and you look at some of the measures that are taken today to try and introduce to young people, opportunities for creativity, it’s a shame it is a shame that it wasn’t recognised, perhaps recognised or or given a bit more credence and a bit more value you know, in this this this might not be something he does for half an hour of an evening to distract himself. It might be that this is something far bigger than that. That was never looked at.

H: Did you have any creative people in your family?

E: My dad was in a brass band in school. My mum was quite a good drawer herself but again she you know, it’s cyclical she went through what I went through, you know, that’s all good and well, but you need to go to work and work. You know, there are many accessible jobs for people without grades that require you to sit at home and draw all day and get the money that you need to put rent in, you know, put food on the table and pay rent. So they went through the same thing. And I think that, that’s why I think that’s what families are, isn’t it? Yeah, you kind of repeat what’s gone on before?

H: Exactly.

E: Yeah, for better or worse.

H: I have a similar background to you, with my family, there’s not one creative, my dad’s a farmer, my mom’s a healthcare worker. I grew up with no creative person around me. I used to always love fashion magazines from a young age, like ten years old. My whole room was like a canvas of a magazine. I didn’t know that this is something I could do full time as a job and make a living from, until I left school, went to college and was on my own. I started reading books about finding your purpose and finding your life’s passion. And I came across this book called Ikigai, it means “a reason for being” and there are four components: passion, vocation, profession and mission. This concept came from the Japanese, they are the healthiest human beings in the world, and they live up to 120 years old. Their mantra in life, their main purpose, once they are born, is to find their passion. And they live simply, like, you know, they don’t have much access to electricity, they grow all their own crops. They’re so happy.

And you know, especially when I was in school, we were not talking about passion or purpose. When we are born, we are not given instructions, or a manual, telling you, this is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. You have to find out yourself, find your way, find your passion, like no one’s going to tell you what it is, you have to find it yourself. And I feel like some people are scared to search for it, like, you know, if they find it, they think to themselves this is too good to be true. Because they feel like life needs to be complicated or needs to be hard or work needs to be blood, sweat and tears and have a mental heaviness to it.

And once you find your passion you kind of get scared because I was the same as you, I was in corporate. My director was like my men