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How we drew strength from art to help us to turn our lives around after serious illness

Ahead of Ards and North Down Borough Council's Creative Peninsula exhibition next month - one of Northern Ireland's largest celebrations of arts and crafts - three people tell Karen Ireland how it helped them create new careers

Staying postive: Ellen Cunningham works in ceramics and also teaches
Staying postive: Ellen Cunningham works in ceramics and also teaches
Ellen Cunningham
Creative success: former mechanic turned sculptor Andrew Cooke
Andrew Cooke
New career: Sharon Regan at work in her Project 24 pod on Bangor seafront
Sharon Regan

Ellen Cunningham (55) and her husband Paul live in Newtownards with their children, Rebecca (27) and Adam (17). Ellen says:

Twenty years ago I was in a really bad car accident and it took a long time to work out what was wrong with me. I was left bedridden and couldn't wash or dress myself. I couldn't even walk to the end of the driveway.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and fibromalgia as a result of the trauma of the accident.

I was told I would be left in a wheelchair and at just seven years old my daughter Rebecca asked me if I was going to die.

I answered her in shock that I was sick but I was damned if I was going to die. I was going to get better and be there for my children.

After that I was determined to take steps to help myself. I went to see a psychologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital and they recommended that I find something I was interested in which I could do for myself.

At school I'd always been good at art and had been encouraged to go to art college. So, I saw this as a second chance. I went back to school -slowly and leisurely at my own pace.

Ellen Cunningham

I trained to be a teacher and I also took art classes.

Eventually I did my teaching diploma and became a teacher of ICT which is something I could work around my illness as, at the start, I only did it a few hours a week.

I continued to study art and did a foundation degree at Bangor Tech. They understood my illness and knew I wasn't well enough to travel to Belfast every day.

I discovered I had a real love for ceramics and designing and creating pieces. The art freed up my mind and helped my brain to heal and to cope with the illness. It had a very therapeutic and calming effect on the mind.

I was still extremely tired due to the ME and the fibromyalgia meant I had pains all over my body. But I felt the creativity helped me calm down and forget about it for a time.

At the same time the internet was just being born so I started researching and looking into different ways of coping with the illness.

I came off a lot of the medication and started to use alternative treatments such as acupuncture.

With illnesses such as mine, doctors tend to give you medication and you end up on pills for the rest of your life which you can't come off. I didn't want to be like that.

So, I changed my lifestyle and let the art take over. Two years ago, I decided to give up teaching and concentrate on the art.

I grew up in Groomsport and was always by the sea so a lot of the inspiration for my pieces comes from that.

I have created special pieces on the stones and sands at the Giant's Causeway. I work a lot in the colours and tones of the sea.

I also teach and enjoy watching people come who perhaps have low confidence or been through some life changes explore a new talent.

I enjoy taking part in the Creative Peninsula each year as it is a chance to showcase local talent and to let people see the types of work that is available and it promotes community crafts by letting people visit artists in a relaxed and informal way.

My health is so much better now. I still fight with the beast but I have studied mindset a lot and am into the power of positive thinking.

I am off all medications. Every day I drink aloe vera gel which I believe helps me. I have proved the doctors wrong and looked for alternative solutions. I eat healthily and I detox my body.

My head is in a good place and art has helped tremendously with that. I work hard and I persevere. I don't work in the nine to five rat race any more and I love that.

I surround myself with positive people and I like to give back to the local community. I have taught people who are now full-time artists as well and it is great being part of their journey."

Andrew Cooke (50) is married to Jean and has one daughter, Chloe (18). They live in Dundonald. Andrew says:

Creative success: former mechanic turned sculptor Andrew Cooke

I was a car bodywork mechanic for years and did a lot of specialist, intricate work. About 12 years ago I was coming back from holidays when I noticed that I couldn’t grip the suitcases. My hand was sore and I had no strength in it.

Up until this point I had been working away but my job was stressful and strenuous.

After a few weeks my hand was bandaged up and I couldn’t work.

This went on for months while they tried to diagnose me.

Eventually it was put down to a form of arthritis. The pain bounces about and sometimes my hands will be sore and sometimes the pain will be in my back or hips.

I was put on medication which started to ease the pain. But I was in a very dark place. I wasn’t even 40 and I felt like my career was over and I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

I started to do some airbrush work and then I enrolled in a course in Bangor Tech. When I brought in my work and showed it to them they immediately accepted me on a foundation art and design degree and then I went on to do my degree at the University of Ulster.

It wasn’t until I started my foundation course that I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Very suddenly, everything I had struggled with made sense.

I had only left school with one O-level, in art, and a lot of struggling, but being creative suddenly made sense.

When I started concentrating on the art and sculpting I felt great about myself and my confidence soared.

Andrew Cooke

I haven’t looked back. I thought my life was over but it was just beginning.

I make a lot of niche work which I mainly sell at shows and on the internet.

I had a bad motorcycle accident about four years before I took ill which I think added to the condition.

Since then I have had a love/hate relationship with motorbikes which comes across in my work.

I make motorcycle helmets out of clay and I make specialist cocktail mugs which people collect.

My work reflects my interests such as old cars and motorbikes.

People all over the world have been buying my pieces and I feel very fortunate.

We were in Florida a few years ago and we met up with people who were fans of my mugs. It was amazing.

I couldn’t do what I do without the love and support of my family. My wife Jean is amazing. She takes care of my admin as, because of the dyslexia, I am useless at all that.

Getting through university was tough. I could make things and do all the practical work but when it came to the essays it was difficult.

I am proof that if you persevere you can turn your life around. I struggled with confidence issues and now I have overcome these and believe in myself and my ability.

I love taking part in the Creative Peninsula as it is a fantastic opportunity to display or work in the community.

I will be taking part in special night-time tours when my studio will be open for people to come along and see what I do.

When I lost my job, it was like a bereavement — but now I have a whole new life.”

Sharon Regan (52) lives in Donaghadee and has two grown-up sons, Peter McConnell (33) and Mark McConnell (31). Sharon says:

New career: Sharon Regan at work in her Project 24 pod on Bangor seafront

About eight years ago I had my own holistic and beauty therapy business. Life was good and I was doing something I loved. I thought I had everything mapped out. I would grow the business and take on staff and train them up.

But my life changed within two weeks. I was having problems with my throat and with my swallow. I was sent to the hospital two weeks before Christmas and after a scan I was told my throat was full of lumps and tumours.

My business was closed over the Christmas holidays and I thought ‘they’ll operate and I’ll be back after a couple of weeks’.

How wrong was I? I was warned that I might be left with no voice, but I didn’t really take it in as it all happened so quickly.

I was in surgery just after Christmas and when I came around I couldn’t really speak. All that came out was a whisper and even that exhausted me.

After a few months I realised any hopes I had of going back to my business were gone.

There was just no way I could spend all day talking to people.

I was completely lost and had no idea what to do next or where to turn.

It took about a year of medication and speech therapy to get my voice back to a certain strength although I learnt that one side of my vocal chords was completely paralysed.

During this time, I started doing some oil painting and selling them at fairs.

Sharon Regan

I then decided to do a foundation degree at my local technical college and then go on to do my degree.

I realised during my foundation course that I was interested in sculpture and ceramics.

I found I loved creating animals and wildlife. It gave me time to stop and observe what was going on around me and to recreate it.

Life stopped me in my tracks but it has a way of working out. I would never have had the courage to leave a successful and secure job to do what I am doing now but I absolutely love it.

I now teach others about art and give tutorials online on how to get started and turn a hobby into a business idea.

I have a studio at the Project 24 pods on Bangor seafront and the response to my work has been amazing.

I used to be into drama and I might not be able to do that any more but I am exploring new avenues and finding new interests in other things.

I hope my story gives hope to other people who suffer life-changing events — whether that is redundancy or illness or a bereavement.

Life can completely turn around and good things can be just around the comer.

People come to my classes with such low expectations of themselves and the rewards and the talents they find far surpass what they thought they could do. I love to see that.

I think the Creative Peninsula is a great way to give people a taster into art to see if it is something which they want to explore and develop further.”

The 17th annual Creative Peninsula, one of Northern Ireland’s largest celebrations of art and craft, takes place from August 3-15. Organised by Ards and North Down Borough Council, it offers free and bookable opportunities for people of all ages and levels of experience to see and try their hand at a host of different art and craft forms practiced in the local area. For more details visit, call at Ards Arts Centre, Ards Crafts and North Down Museum, any of the local visitor information centres (Ards, Bangor and Portaferry) or by contacting the council directly, tel: 0300 013 3333

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