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Sudbury exhibition will showcase pictures by stroke survivors from Suffolk charity art group alongside work by almost 100 artists

Surrounded by paintboxes and brushes, heads bent over their latest artworks, around 20 people are enjoying a weekly get together immersed in their favourite creative pastime.

But they also have something else in common. While joining an art class is a positive move for any aspiring artist, for stroke survivors, picking up a paintbrush or a pencil can be life changing.

It can help ease some of the devastating after effects many suffer after having a stroke by improving concentration and coordination, boosting wellbeing, and bringing vital social contact.

The Success After Stroke art group with staff and volunteers. Picture by Mark Westley
The Success After Stroke art group with staff and volunteers. Picture by Mark Westley

The art group of award-winning Suffolk charity Success After Stroke (SAS) meets every Wednesday morning and spends around 90 minutes working under the guidance of tutor Marnie Bragg.

And next month sees a major milestone with the chance to put their creations on show when the popular Brushstroke exhibition returns for the first time since 2020.

The fundraising art show in Sudbury will feature work by members of the group, supported by paintings and sculptures from almost 100 other artists. And for the SAS artists, seeing their pictures admired by the public can be a heart-warming experience.

Class member Sue Hume with volunteer Peter Somers. Picture by Mark Westley
Class member Sue Hume with volunteer Peter Somers. Picture by Mark Westley

“It’s moving to see your work on the wall, and people appreciating it. It’s very emotional,” said Sue Hume, who has been going to the art class for six years after suffering two strokes in 2016.

Brushstroke is returning to its traditional home at St Peter’s Church, now Sudbury Arts Centre, which reopened last year after a long closure for improvements. It has been a vital fundraiser for SAS but has not taken place since Covid hit in the middle of its run four years ago.

Viv Bourne, a trustee of the charity along with her husband Geoffrey, said the reason for the break was twofold. “Our last exhibition was the week Covid hit and we had to close two days early. We haven’t had one since.

Singer by Carol Livens
Singer by Carol Livens

“It was a bit of both - St Peter’s renovations and the virus.” Now it is all systems go for Brushstroke 2024 which opens to the public on Saturday March 9.

Success After Stroke started more than 20 years ago and since then has grown into a driving force to help survivors to live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives.

It began as a handful of people meeting at the Bridge Project charity’s headquarters in Sudbury after the charity’s leader Anesta Newson’s husband Ken had a stroke. Now it runs a wide range of services that step crucially into the breach after NHS support for survivors ends.

Volunteer Pippa Hart with art group member Antonia McLoughlin. Picture by Mark Westley
Volunteer Pippa Hart with art group member Antonia McLoughlin. Picture by Mark Westley

Sessions, which are open to all stroke survivors, include speech therapy and physio are held at the Stevenson Centre in Great Cornard, where the chance to socialise is also a hugely important part of the service.

Unpaid helpers have always been vital and in 2021 SAS was recognised with a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service - the highest award a voluntary group can receive in the UK.

There are now around 30 volunteers who include Viv, Geoffrey, fellow trustees Haydn Hertz (chairman), Hilary Spivey (treasurer), Richard Furlonger, Elizabeth Alston, Barbara Slade, and Loudon Greenlees.

A painting by Carol Livens
A painting by Carol Livens

Anesta Newson, now retired from the Bridge Project, has come back as a volunteer and husband Ken, a former clockmaker, is still a keen member of the art group.

Ken, who has an engineering degree and used to work in computer development, returned to run the family clock making business in Sudbury after his father died.

At the art group he is using a ruler to measure the picture he is copying, a street scene including his former shop, taking meticulous care to get the proportions right.

Linda Jackson works on her painting during the art class. Picture by Mark Westley
Linda Jackson works on her painting during the art class. Picture by Mark Westley

Strokes often strike out of the blue and can leave long-lasting or lifelong effects that range from mild to severe. They include struggles with speech and swallowing, physical disabilities, and cognitive and memory difficulties.

Ken still experiences problems from the stroke he had in 1999 but has no doubt that the art classes benefit himself and others. “It improves our confidence - we still have good brains but have to adapt it differently,” he says. “We do a lot of laughing too, and enjoy the companionship.”

Marnie Bragg has taught the art group for around 10 years. “I came as a volunteer and then got asked to take over,” she says. “I just love it. The work they do here is amazing.

Carol LIvens, whose paintings were used on the Brushstroke invitation cards. Picture by Mark Westley.
Carol LIvens, whose paintings were used on the Brushstroke invitation cards. Picture by Mark Westley.

“I try to find pictures for people to copy that suit each person. Once they have been for a little while you get to understand their style. We have such a happy feeling in here. Everyone’s confidence will just come up.”

The group currently has a project on the go that all members can take part in. “We are working on a big picture which will be a montage of everyone’s work, then we are going to auction it off,” she explains.

Sue Hume had two strokes after developing an abscess on her brain. Family and friends who bring people to the art group are welcome to join in.

“My best friend Lesley found this group for me, and we have both been coming,” said Sue

“I started off with a colouring book because I couldn’t do eye and hand coordination. Then Marnie started to push me into starting painting.

“I began with an owl and carried on from there.” She is currently working on an intricately patterned psychedelic hare. “I like painting animals and I like bright colours.

“My coordination has improved a lot. Art has definitely helped. It teaches you such a lot and helps us to concentrate. It’s also about the good friends we have made from stroke club.

“Stroke recovery is not a quick fix. The brain is forever damaged and doesn’t mend overnight. There is no aftercare on the NHS. People are left with nothing. You’re sent home with no-one apart from family.

“There is a sense of bereavement for everything you have lost. Before, I could drive, work, I had horses, dogs and cats and had to give them all up.

“I have good days and bad days. We have made a good thing out of our strokes - made friends. People who have never had strokes don’t understand what it’s like.

You can say to people here I feel like this today, and they understand.”

Sue and Fiona Yerofeyev have become good friends through SAS. Fiona says: “I’ve been coming to the art group for five or six years.

“I had a stroke in 2014 aged 48. Symptoms developed slowly then I had a massive migraine at work. I fell into bed still wearing my work uniform - I was assistant to the director at an opticians and was training to be an optical assistant.

“I woke up 11 hours later then noticed other symptoms, confusion, I couldn’t remember the alphabet, but I went to a friend’s daughter’s wedding and was ‘there but wasn’t there’. The next morning I couldn’t use my right side. I lived alone and when I called for an ambulance I couldn’t speak.

“My speech has come back but I still have problems with spontaneous conversations,” said Fiona who has now gone back to a different job with her previous employer.

“I went to the physio here, and the social group. Then I heard about the art group. I did painting when I was in middle school, then a few watercolours in my 20s.

“This is my solace now. I’ve made great strides here.”

The artists paint to the sound of music from singer and guitarist Richard Warner, who does music therapy sessions for SAS on Fridays, and they agree it boosts the atmosphere.

“It’s wonderful to have the music in the background,” said Fiona. “It makes a difference.”

Two vibrant paintings by Carol Livens have been used on the invitation cards to the Brushstroke private view. Unlike many of the other group members she had already enjoyed art as a hobby.

“When I was in my 40s I bumped into an art group in Gibraltar where I’d gone with my husband, and the teacher said come and join us.

“I had my stroke about two years ago. I woke up one morning feeling unwell. I phoned my neighbour and she came round and the next thing I remember is waking up in hospital.

“The stroke has affected my memory. Now facial recognition is a problem for me

“This art group is wonderful. We are so lucky to have it in our area. And Richard coming and singing makes such a difference.”

The Brushstroke exhibition at Sudbury Arts Centre (St Peter’s Church), Sudbury is open from Saturday March 9 to Saturday March 16 from 10am to 4pm.

It is closed to the public on Monday March 11 for a ticket-only event when art historian, writer and broadcaster Lucinda Hawksley - a descendant of Charles Dickens - will speak about Three Remarkable Women.

The talk, which starts at 10.30am and features Victorian artists Lizzie Siddal (artist and muse to Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Princess Louise (Queen Victoria’s daughter) and Kate Perugini (Charles Dickens’ daughter), will be followed by lunch. Tickets cost £35 and can be booked by emailing sas.brushstroke@gmail.com

For more information on Success After Stroke go to successafterstroke.org.uk