‘The magic’ of art helps Bangor man overcome illness and grief

By Ruth Dowds

A BANGOR artist has spoken of the ‘magic wand’ effect that making art has had in helping her father come to terms with illness and bereavement.
Kerrie Denny, who is known to many locally as Mrs Maker, says that her dad Norman’s discovery of his own artistic talent has enabled him to find peace of mind during the most personally difficult of times.
“I am so incredibly proud of him because you couldn’t write what he has been through,” says Kerrie.
“Art has helped him to focus on the present, the here and now so that he doesn’t think too much.”
Speaking about the family’s recent difficulties Kerrie, who runs an art studio in the arcade in Bangor Main Street, says that her mum Grace was diagnosed with cancer during the first Covid lockdown.
“I’m an only child so during that time it was just me, mummy and daddy because I was the only one who was allowed to go in and out of their house and I took mummy for her treatment.
“It was not a nice time but oddly it also was a nice time because it was almost the way you could be when you were a child,” she says.
Fortunately Grace’s treatment proved initially effective but shortly afterwards Norman was diagnosed with leukaemia.
He was admitted to hospital for eight weeks of treatment and under the Covid regulations in place at the time the only contact he was allowed with his family was via video.
Most distressing of all, the treatment did not work and, understandably, Norman found the situation difficult to process.
“It seemed so much worse for my daddy because he had come through all of that with my mummy and it had worked for her and he knew the repercussions that his didn’t work,” says Kerrie.
She continues: “He couldn’t process it at all as he’s a very quiet man and it was a very emotional time.
“He was back in hospital and I brought him down a paint by numbers. Mum thought it was a bit childish for him but I thought it would be great for him, and it was.
“We suddenly had this thing that I could talk to him about, give him direction and bring him over different materials to try.
“It was a very frightening time and they were isolated and I think the art gave my daddy that escape that he needed given the reality of what was going on.”
As time went on Norman’s interest turned to pencil sketches and Kerrie and Grace were delighted to see that he became absorbed in his artwork, often drawing all day.
Many of Norman’s sketches depict well-known local monuments and buildings such as the Merchant Hotel, the Grand Opera House, Belfast Castle and Bangor Castle, along with landscapes of boats and harbours.
Last Hallowe’en Grace’s health sadly deteriorated and at the same time Norman was readmitted to hospital where he began to fail without his art materials.
Kerrie asked a therapist at the hospital to provide her dad with paper and pencils to give him a boost.
“Within the space of two days they phoned me back to say it was working, he was completely absorbed in what he was doing,” says Kerrie.
By the time Norman got out of hospital Grace had sadly passed away, which made grieving for her more complicated, but his art has carried him through.
Says Kerrie: “He has taken up in my mummy’s chair and he sits there all day drawing. The work he is turning out is amazing.
“Before this he wouldn’t have been doing any artwork but having the time to put into it, his skill is surpassing even mine.
“He says his favourite piece is the bridge over Belfast because it connects you to everything. Everybody who uses that bridge has a different memory with it, one person might connect it with work, another connects it with nights out in the town.”
Kerrie says her dad’s passion for sketching has ‘kept him going mentally and physically’ and even his doctors are amazed by how he has kept going.
“His consultant has said to me that he doesn’t know how my daddy is still here because he has surpassed everything they have said. He is so absorbed in his artwork that it is mind over matter.
“It’s like a therapy that has really worked for him. He has outlived his prognosis and I do believe that it is because he has art on his side. He has become this amazing artist and come through this trauma,” she says.
Kerrie is now her dad’s full-time carer and hopes that she might use her studio in Bangor
to exhibit her dad’s work.
“There are hundreds of drawings and we’ve been chatting about maybe putting a box down to collect for MacMillan,” says Kerrie.
She adds that she wanted to share her dad’s story so that others might learn, ‘how magic art can be’.
She explains: “It’s like the perfect form of escapism. I find that myself. When you are doing art it’s a bit like doing a yoga pose, you’re so focused on the detail and the work you are trying to produce that you’re not really thinking about what’s going on in the world around you.
“They say art is like running away from home without leaving home.
“I feel like art is this magic wand that can help people cope and survive. Once I get a bit more time to myself it’ll help me get through too because it’s a great healer.”