Ahead of World Art Day this Saturday, PETER BARRON pays a timely visit to a North-East group where art is being used to boost the health and well-being of members, including a former clown…

IT’S been a tough couple of years for Malcolm Singleton – alias Tommy Bungle, the clown – but he’s determined to keep on smiling.

Malcolm’s turned up in a breakout room at Darlington Hippodrome theatre to join a group called The Art of Survival – and the name could hardly be more apt.

Two years ago, out of the blue, Malcolm was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and life’s been a challenge ever since. He had surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible, followed by radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and the complication of a six-month bout of pneumonia.

Thankfully, that's cleared up, and today's a better day as he strides purposefully into the room, and introduces himself with an outstretched hand: "Malcolm Singleton," he announces before adding just in case: "Remember? Tommy Bungle."

He then goes on to give a thoughtful update on what's happened since his clowning days – and life's chucked a lot more at him than a custard pie.

"The brain tumour hit me like a brick wall, but I’m not going to let it beat me,” he insists.

Malcolm’s been lots of things in his time: a mechanical engineer by trade, then a commercial photographer, a teaching assistant for special needs children – and a clown-for-hire.

“I always liked clowning around, so I made my living as Tommy Bungle for a while,” he explains.

But for the next few hours at least, Malcolm’s happy to simply sketch in his favoured medium of pen and ink and get to know other like-minded people around the table.

“I have an MRI scan every three months, but the tumour’s stable at the moment, so I thought I’d come down and give the art group a try,” he says.

“Art keeps me calm and takes my mind off other things. When I was an engineer, I always enjoyed the design side, and it’s carried on from there.

“It's no good just moping, is it? I want to be out doing things I enjoy.”

The group was founded a year ago by the thoroughly admirable Ken Longstaff, a former mechanic whose life was shattered in 2012 when he was suddenly struck down by a rare neurological condition, called Guillain Barre Syndrome. His condition deteriorated and he was in a locked-in state for seven weeks.

Eleven years on, the father-of-two is confined to a wheelchair, needs technology to help him breathe, and has 24-hour care through his wife, Bev, and local authority carer Anne Hankin.

“I spent three years in hospital and, when I was finally discharged, there was nothing I could do because I didn’t have much use of my hands,” he explains.

He had to find something to keep him going and the answer was art. After extensive physiotherapy, he got some movement back and he started finger-painting. That led to a brush being tied to his finger, but he didn’t have the strength to squeeze tubes of paint, so Anne did that for him.

Gradually, a natural talent emerged and Ken became more and more accomplished, to the point where he was offered an exhibition and began to accept commissions.

“When I realised how much art had helped me, I started to think about what it could do for others,” he says.

“I put an appeal out on social media to see how much interest there would be in starting a well-being art group and it’s taken off from there.

"I'm lucky to have Anne as my carer because she has a degree in art and has been instrumental in getting it going. I couldn't do it without her."

Initially, just four members met in a unit at The Cornmill Centre, but the numbers have grown to more than 20 regulars and, since January, they’ve been based in what's known as the 'education space' at the Hippodrome Theatre.

The group pays for all the art materials through fundraising, but Creative Darlington – an organisation comprising several partners, including Darlington Borough Council, Tees Valley Combined Authority and Teesside University – has paid for the hire of the room since the start of the year.

However, the funding runs out this month, so Ken's hoping to find a sponsor to cover the room costs or provide alternative accommodation.

"The Hippodrome staff have gone out of their way to make us welcome, and we need to keep the group going because it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see the difference it's making to people's lives," he says.

"Some have invisible illnesses, others have physical disabilities, or learning difficulties, but it doesn't matter – we just love art."

Lynn Orchard and her partner, John Moore, are also enjoying being members.

"I needed my spirits lifting and when I'm concentrating on art, I'm not worrying. I've got people to talk to, in a nice, friendly atmosphere," says Lynn.

The group is run on a not-for-profit basis, but Ken hopes it will soon become a registered charity. He's also hoping to develop links with Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, with art students acting as volunteers and bringing fresh ideas.

Ken's existing volunteer group includes Jeana Robinson, alongside professional artist Brandy Derrick.

As well as her talent with a paintbrush, Brandy has a degree in psychology and has managed services for charities involved in mental health and Alzheimer's.

"Working in those areas showed me how artistic and creative activity has an incredibly beneficial effect on well-being," says Brandy.

"What I love about the group is that it's completely non-judgemental. Members don't have to have support needs, though a lot of them do.

"There's a huge age range, different levels of talent, and we have a laugh – it's fun. The only common denominator is that we all love art.

"Everyone gets down from time to time but Ken's amazing, so inspirational, and he embodies the message that it's not over til it's over."

Nearly an hour has passed and Malcolm Singleton, or Tommy Bungle if you prefer, has made good progress on his pen and ink sketch.

"I could have been at home, watching the fireplace, but I've enjoyed myself – it's good therapy," he smiles.

Hopefully, a way can be found to keep art and soul together.

  • Brandy Derrick has a spring exhibition of her work at Studio 27, 6 Skinnergate, Darlington, between May 8 and 14.
  • Anyone who can help the group should email Ken Longstaff at  ken.longstaff1@gmail.com