Brush Strokes

Art ther­apy is help­ing stroke vic­tims speak a new lan­guage.

North & South - - North & South -

None of them could have pre­dicted they’d find them­selves here, in an art room next to a bowl­ing green on the fringe of an Auck­land park. Not the for­mer truck driver, the barista, the weath­er­man, the lawyer, the fu­neral cel­e­brant or the con­cert pi­anist.

They have al­most noth­ing in com­mon, apart from the stroke that changed their lives. Now they share two hours a week be­hind an easel at Māpura Stu­dios, where they leave their dif­fer­ences at the door. Some ar­rive on wheel­chairs and walk­ers; oth­ers can no longer speak. Art gives them all a new lan­guage.

For mar­riage and fu­neral cel­e­brant Ed­die Mcmen­emy, 77, clot-bust­ing drugs pre­served much of his func­tion af­ter his Fe­bru­ary 2017 stroke. He can walk un­aided and speak in­tel­li­gi­bly, but the im­pact on his con­fi­dence and clar­ity was dev­as­tat­ing to the for­mer SAS sol­dier, singer and bass gui­tarist. He ini­tially dis­missed the idea of art ther­apy. “I said, ‘Don’t be daft, I can’t even draw a straight line.’”

He gave it a go any­way, and to­day he’s work­ing on a yacht in a stormy sea, a paint­ing com­mis­sioned by a friend. “I started on stick men and I couldn’t even get them right.” But the art ses­sions have boosted his con­fi­dence.

“At first, I had to get my wife to stay with me be­cause I was ter­ri­fied – mix­ing with peo­ple I didn’t know and hav­ing to talk about how I felt. I was lost. Re­ally lost. You are to­tally de­pen­dent on other peo­ple. And when your feel­ings are in a mess, so is your art. But then you ex­plain what’s in your paint­ing... that’s where the ther­apy is.”

The pro­gramme, called re-start, is thought to be the first in the world tar­get­ing stroke sur­vivors. An anal­y­sis of re­sults from 2014 to 2016 by psy­chol­o­gist Si­mon Walker for his doc­toral the­sis found par­tic­i­pants had a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in mood, anx­i­ety and qual­ity of life af­ter the 12-week course.

For­mer barista Guy Seanyear, 55, is paint­ing an Ōtoro­hanga land­scape from mem­ory. The colours calm him. “When I do the art, I can go any­where in the world,” he says. Ex-truckie Craig Ban­ton had a stroke when he was 45 and did the first re-start course in 2010; his ab­stract pieces have sold for up to $1000 each. “I do ab­stracts be­cause no one else here does them. And I can’t use brushes.”

Once high-pro­file weather-pre­dict­ing “Moon Man” Ken Ring, 73, slowly traces char­ac­ters in pen­cil with his left hand, hav­ing lost the use of his right. The body seems un­will­ing, but “my mind is to­tally clear”. The art keeps his frus­tra­tion in check.

The pro­gramme is fi­nan­cially vul­ner­a­ble, says di­rec­tor Diana Mcpher­son, with Māpura hav­ing to raise $10,000 to $15,000 to run each course. This year’s course, which be­gan in Septem­ber, was con­firmed only with sup­port from the Hugo Char­i­ta­ble Trust.

Par­tic­i­pants strug­gling to cope with a loss of iden­tity af­ter hav­ing to aban­don high-fly­ing ca­reers find new ways to ex­press them­selves through their art, says ther­a­pist Ale­cia Steel.

“One said it was like be­ing re­born. He had the chance to start over.” DONNA CHISHOLM

Ed­die Mcmen­emy, 77. “When your feel­ings are in a mess, so is your art.”

Top: For­mer barista Guy Seanyear, 55, is paint­ing an Ōtoro­hanga land­scape ( left) from mem­ory. “When I do the art, I can go any­where in the world,” he says. Above: De­tail from Ed­die Mcmen­emy’s paint­ing.

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