Belfast Telegraph

Wellbeing and health: How art has given us our lives back


Puppy love: Andrea Hope (right) and her partner Diane Marks with their guide dogs, Morris and Debbie
Puppy love: Andrea Hope (right) and her partner Diane Marks with their guide dogs, Morris and Debbie

Being disabled is no barrier to creativity thanks to the charity Open Arts. Here, Stephanie Bell talks to three women who will be showcasing their work at Belfast’s Black Box during June.

Being blind yet creating visual arts is just one of the many achievements made possible thanks to the work of the disability charity Open Arts.

And now as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations this year, the charity is giving everyone a chance to see the great work being produced at its art classes with a unique exhibition throughout the month in the Black Box, Belfast.

Embroidery, watercolour and action painting are just some of the techniques which will be showcased in the Three in One exhibition, featuring artwork created by people attending three weekly visual arts groups run by Open Arts.

Eileen Branagh, chief executive of Open Arts, says: “Our artists do not let their disabilities hold them back and this exhibition demonstrates that, given the right support and encouragement, there are no limits to their creativity.”

Based at the Crescent Arts Centre, Open Arts runs a core programme of high quality drama, dance, music, writing and visual arts activity for hundreds of disabled adults from across Northern Ireland.

Three in One is currently running in Belfast as part of Late Night Art until Saturday, July 1 and entrance is free

We caught up with three artists whose work will be featured in the exhibition to find out what it has meant to them to take part in the Open Arts art courses.

‘Coming here gave me back my independence’

Andrea Hope (35) has been blind since birth. Originally from Wales, she moved to Northern Ireland in 2004 and has been part of Open Arts’ visual art group for four years. She is also on the group’s board of directors and is a member of the choir and the dance group. She lives in Belfast with her fiancee Diane Marks who is also blind. She says:

When I moved to Northern Ireland in 2004 I wanted to join a choir and found the Open Arts had one.

Since then the group has become a big part of my life. As well as the choir, I go to art classes, am a member of the Luminous Soul dance group and take part in Gamelan, which is an Indonesian percussive orchestral type of music from Java, and I am also on the charity’s board.

I came to Northern Ireland to do a foundation degree in music and, had it not been for the Open Arts choir and their support and encouragement, I wouldn’t have gone on to do a music degree.

Open Arts really allows people to reach their goals whatever they may be and more. Sometimes you don’t even realise that you have surpassed what you want to achieve.

Because I’m visually impaired I never thought that I could do visual arts. At the classes we work with textiles which allows me to ‘feel it’.

The art classes have such fantastic facilitators who are determined to help people achieve their goals and it’s the same with dance.

To be part of a professional dance company for disabled people and go out and perform is something which is fantastic for me as someone who is blind.

There is a real family atmosphere (in the classes) and that is so special.

I’m from Wales and moved to a college in England when I was 16. There I became friends with someone from Northern Ireland, which is how I ended up here. Coming to Belfast gave me back my independence. I also have a guide dog, Debbie, who I couldn’t be without.

People here are so helpful and it is the little things that make such a big difference; just being able to get on the bus and go into town is brilliant, there is a real sense of freedom in that.

And taking part in classes with Open Arts takes that a little bit further too.

I was at an awards ceremony for guide dogs in London when I met my partner, Diane.

She was there with her dog. My dog saw her dog and it was puppy love.

The dogs are both retired now and living together and we’re also together. Diane came over to live here from Brighton in October 2015 and we got engaged in December that year.

We are both completely blind and Diane also goes to Open Arts. People say it must be hard (to be blind) and sometimes it is. I wouldn’t have any understanding of colour but there are other ways to see things — through touch, for example. At Open Arts classes the tutors are great at explaining things to us and giving us new ideas.

For the exhibition we worked with textiles, putting fabric on canvas.

It is about creating something which shows how we perceive things and how we would like it to look. It is nice that the exhibition will show people what our abilities are.”

‘It can be difficult... but you have to be positive’

Katy Megahey (34) from Belfast began to lose her sight in her teens and has had only 10% vision since her 20s. She was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Bardet-Biedl Syndrome, which affects around one in 160,000 children. She has been part of the Open Arts art group for the blind and visually impaired for over four years. She says:

I was diagnosed with Bardet-Biedl Syndrome when I was six. About a third of children with this illness die with kidney failure and I was very lucky that didn’t happen to me. It affected my sight instead.

New challenges: Katy Megahey and guide dog Tara with some of her work
New challenges: Katy Megahey and guide dog Tara with some of her work

My eye sight has gradually deteriorated over the years.

When I could see I did everything — I loved sport, performing arts, art, dancing, playing football, tennis and trampolining.

It was very hard to lose my sight and have to relearn how to do everything from being mobile to doing things round the house. I also had to learn to read Braille.

Lifeline: Deirdre Ward loves her weekly art classes
Lifeline: Deirdre Ward loves her weekly art classes

While it was emotionally difficult you learn to cope and just get on with it.

Now I keep busy, playing blind tennis at Windsor Tennis Club, taking part in the Open Arts choir, the Luminous Soul dance group and attending art classes.

My guide dog Tara and I also do a bit of work with Guide Dogs for the Blind here.

I’m a qualified complimentary therapist and am currently trying to get a job — but that is proving quite hard.

Joining Open Arts was an opportunity to meet new people and do things that I loved to do before, but had stopped doing, because I had lost my sight.

I had just stopped everything and it was great to be singing again, dancing and doing art.

You really have to be positive and I feel lucky that I have lots of friends.

I love going to shows, gigs, shopping and travelling.

The art class is great as it is very tactile.

For the exhibition we worked on a canvas, twisting, plaiting and turning different fabrics together. The end result is a very bright and abstract piece of work.

It is nice to have our work on display and show others what we can do. It will be a brilliant experience to be part of the exhibition and a great opportunity for all of us.”

‘At the first art class I felt as if I’d escaped the terror and anxiety’

Deirdre Ward (51) from Belfast has been living with Bipolar Affective Disorder for the past 10 years. She joined the Open Arts art class in 2010 which continues to be a lifeline. She says:

Now medically retired, I had worked as an outpatient physiotherapist. I had been experiencing episodes of what my doctor called ‘nervous irritability’, but was not diagnosed until I attempted to take my life in 2007.

Afterwards I spent a year in hospital and, even after I left, was significantly incapacitated for many years.

I went from being totally independent to having to hold my late mother’s hand; it was like being a four-year-old child again.

My life is still very limited (compared) to what it used to be before my diagnosis.

I live with a very high level of anxiety and panic attacks which I call ‘terror attacks’ because that is how it feels to me.

When I was in the hospital the occupational therapist took me to an art class in a bid to get me out of bed.

I had done two A-levels in art and at that first class, for a split second, I felt as if I had escaped the pressure of the terror and anxiety.

For me it was a eureka moment and it gave me hope there was a place beyond what I was feeling. 

I joined Open Arts in 2010 and that Friday art class has become like a lifeline to me. It is the highlight of my week.

I have made friends through it and gained confidence. Social isolation and low self esteem are a big part of my illness and the class has helped me with both.

The tutors are brilliant and are very considerate, not just of your creative needs but also each individual’s personal issues.

They really help you to come out of your shell. When I was busy with my nine-to-five job I hadn’t realised how many art venues there are in Belfast which is another silver lining. Since joining the art class I have been able to find the artist in me again.

I’m exhibiting a pencil drawing with a collage overlay which has a canine theme for the event.

It is good to have your work exhibited somewhere where other artists’ work also hangs.”

  • For further information on the work of Open Arts,

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