Part Two of the story of Darlington husband, dad and grandad, Ken Longstaff, whose life has been torn apart by a rare illness. This week, PETER BARRON explains how Ken’s therapy has been enriched by the discovery of a wonderful artistic talent.

HE may be confined to a wheelchair, and dependent on technology just to help him breathe, but Ken Longstaff refuses to give in: “There are definite positives in what’s happened to me,” he says.

One of them is the discovery of a hidden talent as an artist, even though the former Darlington mechanic struggles to hold a paintbrush and needs his carers to squeeze his tubes of paint for him.

As explained last week, Ken’s life was devastated nine years ago by a rare neurological condition called Guillain Barre Syndrome, which left him in a locked-in state for seven weeks. He is now confined to a wheelchair and requires 24-hour care.

“I just thought there's nothing much else I can do, so I'll try painting," recalls the father-of-two. "I did finger-painting at first but I wasn't happy with that. I couldn’t hold a brush so I used to tape it to my finger but, gradually, the dexterity got better."

Three years on from those first artistic experiments, he's improved so much that he's been given an exhibition of his work in his home town of Darlington, and admirers are booking commissions.

"I still find it hard to hold a paintbrush for a long time but I just love it – it keeps me sane," he adds.

Just watching Ken work, with his carers by his side, is an inspiration in itself, while his wife, Bev, looks on with pride at the standard he's reached.

"It's incredible, really – we didn't even know he could do it," she says. "If it wasn't for his art, I don't know how he'd fill his time. It's become a huge part of his life."

He works in acrylic paint because it's cheaper and faster-drying than oils, plus it's easier to recover from mistakes than with water-colours.

His exhibition is at 'Working It Out' in The Cornmill Shopping Centre, and can be viewed between 10am and midday on Mondays and Wednesdays.

He also manages a Facebook page – Painting Against The Odds and Crafty People – aimed at encouraging other disabled people to paint, draw and be creative.

His commissions – ranging from landscapes, seascapes, wildlife, and family pets – help to fund his physiotherapy.

Meanwhile, Ken's life as an artist is being given another helping hand thanks to a dedicated band of volunteers who have created a sanctuary in a little known woodland area behind a locked metal gate off Smithfield Road, in Darlington.

The Smithfield Road Community Gardens features allotments, a pond, ancient damson orchard, phone box library, hedgehog house, and is teeming with wildlife.

Council-owned but run by the allotment-holders and a friends' group, it's now being used as a haven for those in need of peace and quiet.

"It's a magical place where people can feel safe," says Ian Burgess, one of the volunteers, who has formed a friendship with Ken.

"It's for anyone who wants to get away from the world – autistic children, people with mental health problems, or just those who love wildlife and might not have their own green space. It could also be used for yoga, tai chi, or music," suggests Ian.

Ken has been made a friend of the community gardens and he plans to use it as an outdoor studio once the warmer weather arrives next year.

"It's so peaceful and beautiful here, so it will be the perfect place to do some painting," he says during one of his regular visits.

"It's frustrating not to be able to do the things I used to love, like fell-walking, but I've learned new things, like my art.

"And if it hadn't been for my illness, I'd never have discovered the beauty of this place."

There are lessons for us all in the way the remarkable Ken Longstaff focuses on the positives.

THERE’S always lots of positivity and clapping to be heard at the Darlington South Park parkrun, but the warm applause directed at Karen Harland amid the wind and rain last Saturday was particularly well deserved.

Karen, pictured below, is stepping down as the official event photographer, having volunteered to be out in all weathers since 2012, taking an estimated 180,000 pictures of the runners legging it round glorious South Park.

The Northern Echo:

And, although she’s reluctantly decided to give up her duties at the parkrun, she’ll still be busy taking pictures for Markse United and Redcar Town football clubs, as well as Darlington Harriers, and all kinds of other grass roots sporting events.

In making a presentation to Karen on Saturday, Philippa Rayner, Darlington Parkrun director, told the assembled runners: “Everything she's done has been out of the goodness of her heart, and she has been a truly amazing supporter.”

The fact that Karen travels to Darlington from Saltburn, often without sleep after a long night shift as an NHS nurse, puts her contribution into even sharper focus.

Karen Harland, thank you for being a picture of dedication.

ANOTHER grass roots star emerged when I drove over to Billingham to be guest speaker for the Wolviston Court Townswomen’s Guild last week.

Ann Tetlow was honoured for the rare distinction of being a member of the guild for 50 years, and was presented with a certificate and lapel badge by chairman Valerie Otterson.

The Northern Echo:

“I’ve made such a lot of friends over the years, and being a member of the guild has always been such a source of support,” said Ann, who was also a member of Billingham Ladies’ Bowling Club for 20 years, as well as a stalwart of Hartlepool Rambling Club.

Many congratulations, Ann – wear your badge with pride.

FINALLY, back to the Darlington Parkrun and evidence that you’re never off duty when you become a journalist.

There I was, washing my hands in the gents toilets before the run on Saturday, and a fella shouted over to me: “Hey, you’re from The Northern Echo, aren’t you? How about getting some hand-dryers for these toilets?”

Well, that’s my next big campaign sorted – I'll keep you posted on progress!