Success after stroke: Art therapy for stroke victims
PUBLISHED: 09:00 10 February 2016
A stroke needn’t mean the end of an active life. For a group in Sudbury, it marked the beginning of a new career as artists. Lucy Etherington meets the SAS members as they prepare for their third biannual BrushStroke exhibition
A relatively small art festival in Sudbury caught the national media’s attention in 2014 when Andrew Marr donated his painting. Marr said that art helped his recovery from a stroke, which is exactly what the Brush Stroke Festival of Art is all about.
Marr will be exhibiting work again at this year’s show, alongside painter Francis Bowyer and 70 other local artists. But at the show’s heart are 60 paintings by members of SAS - Success After Stroke - all of whom, like Marr, have suffered one or many strokes, and many of whom have learned to paint for the first time in years as part of their recovery programme.
On a Wednesday morning in December, I head down to the SAS headquarters in Great Cornard to visit the art class that inspired all this excitement.
“I come away from these classes with a big grin on my face,” says art teacher Marnie Bragg as she welcomes me to the large, bright hall of The Stevenson Centre, where around a dozen or so people are busy painting at tables. “This group are so inspiring.”
Although SAS offer lots of traditional therapy as well, the art class clearly has a highly beneficial effect on the recovery of stroke sufferers. As one of the members tells me, if it wasn’t for SAS he’d be sitting alone indoors watching TV.
Strokes can affect speech, movement, and cause depression as well as lack of confidence. All the SAS members tell me that getting out and meeting each other, as well as learning new skills has done wonders for their self-esteem, wellbeing and happiness. To top it all, they are creating work that is so good, it sells, and generates money for their charity.
“What I love is that while I teach them the basics, they have each developed their own individual styles,” says Marnie. “They’ve come along in leaps and bounds, it’s quite astonishing. And of course, that gives me a huge buzz as a teacher!”
This particular Wednesday, the group are finishing preparations for the exhibition which previews at the end of February. There’s a lot of brilliant vivid colours and attractive landscapes. I can see why they would sell well – they’re aesthetically uplifting.
Two of the most talented members had to relearn how to paint with the left hand when they lost the use of their right after their strokes. Not only is their work extremely good, they have inspired other members by overcoming what could be seen as an insurmountable difficulty.
I also notice a lot of bonhomie and laughter around the tables as everyone paints away - not what you’d expect from a group of people who have experienced a serious, life-threatening condition.
“I love listening to the banter – it’s hilarious,” grins Marnie. “You wouldn’t believe how much they rib each other.”
One of the most cheerful and popular members is Andy Eïlbeck, who has an extraordinary life story that gives testimony to his strength of character.
Another member of the group, Des Rodziewicz, who is rarely pleased with his work whether painting or sculpture, produces impressive work despite only being able to use one hand.
“Des has been with us since we were at The Bridge Project,” says Viv Bourne, a long standing SAS volunteer. “His face when we had the first exhibition and his work was sold out was wonderful.”
Viv and her husband Geoffrey are also on hand, joking with the group members. Viv joined as a volunteer 15 years ago, and although she plays down her involvement, won the British Volunteer Award run by The Daily Telegraph and Waitrose in 2012, landing £500 for the group.
She launched Brush Stroke when she realised the charity needed more funding than their biannual carol service at Long Melford could provide, and called in her friends from the art world to help. The rest, as they say, is history.
There’s so much more to SAS than the Wednesday art class. On Mondays they have sailing classes and sometimes horse riding. Tuesdays and Fridays are speech and physio therapies, counselling and exercise, and Thursday it’s swimming and pottery. There are various inspirational trips and activities and lots of fundraising events.
“Obviously I wish I’d never had a stroke,” says another Viv, one of the art club members. “But I’ve done things I never would have done, amazing things. I’ve surprised myself!”
BrushStroke Festival of Art, St Peters Church, Sudbury – March 1-11 with a private view Feb 28/29 www.successafterstroke.org.uk
New members are always welcome and should get in touch with Sara Jane on 07434 931 962.
The art of war
Artist Francis Bowyer is perhaps best known for his paintings of children of the beach at Walberswick, but more recently for his work as a war artist in Afghanistan for which he won a Turner Award.
He and his brother Jason, also an artist, were flown out to Camp Bastion in 2013 to record the final days of the military airbase courtesy of the Royal Engineers (REME). This, he tells me, will be the main topic of his talk at this year’s Brush Stroke exhibition, an art show in Sudbury for the stroke charity SAS.
“When I was asked to go to Afghanistan I immediately said yes,” he says. “I wasn’t worried at all - it was too good an experience, too important. I talked about it with my wife and we discussed what would happen if I died, because it was a genuine possibility. The former war artist they’d had out there had been shot, and he was a marine!”
Indeed, Graham Lothian was shot by a Taliban sniper in June 2013, months before Frances and Jason arrived. He survived, but tragically lost the use of the hand he painted with.
“As a result our hosts were very protective. We weren’t allowed in certain areas and frankly I didn’t want to go. When you’re in a war zone, you’re there to be shot at. It’s not like the Taliban are going to think: “He’s a war artist so we can’t shoot him.”
He laughs deeply, as he often does during our conversation. Even though we’re on the phone, I get the impression of a large character, full of life and humour, but also not afraid at all of tackling dark subjects. His paintings are often brimming with light and shadow, and the changing light and intense heat were things he was most aware of when in Afghanistan, as well as the danger of the situation.
“REME are some of the bravest people I’ve ever met. They go out into a war zone and fix tanks while being fired at! Most of them were younger than my son.”
Graham Lothian’s injury leads to a discussion about how stroke survivors often loose the use of one side of their body, and how some members of the Success After Stroke art group have had to learn to paint using their left hands.
“My father had a stroke when he was in his 70s and lost the use of his right hand,” says Francis - his father being the rather legendary artist Bill (William) Bowyer, whose portraits and landscapes hang in the Royal Academy, and who died in March this year.
“But he carried on painting for 18 years – beautiful and sensitive pictures. I often get my students to paint with their left hands to get them to think outside their normal way of creating. Similarly, people who have had strokes start to think differently creatively. In some ways it can unblock old habits.”
An inspiring thought for those who have suffered strokes. No wonder Francis gets invited back to Brush Stroke each time.
“It’s a great charity to be involved with,” he says. “And important to me because I saw how painting helped my father. I honestly feel it gave him a few extra years.”
Finally, we talk about Francis’ Suffolk connections. He, his father and brother have all produced stunning landscapes of the Suffolk coast, particularly Walberswick. He remembers coming to Walberswick in the 1950s as a boy and camping on the beach while his father went off painting. They went back every summer, he says, gradually moving from tents to caravans to buying an actual house.
“The light is spectacular,” he says. “We love the place and use it constantly. But at the same time I’m aware we are visitors. We are what’s wrong with the place, the Londoners coming in and taking over.”
Perhaps being an outsider is somehow necessary as an artist, however deep the bond to a place. It’s a constant internal conflict, he says, but one he’s aware of.
“I realise now that I’ve know people in Walberswick longer than I’ve known anyone – since I was eight years old! It’s so familiar, I could paint it in my sleep. I can visualise the dunes on the beach in all weathers and at any time of the year. It’s something I carry with me wherever I go.”