25 Mar 2021

Artists putting lives back together at Māpura Studios

From Checkpoint, 5:41 pm on 25 March 2021

An art studio tucked away in a suburban Auckland park is looking to expand.

But Māpura is a unique kind of studio, it specialises in art therapy and connecting people living with the effects of stroke and other disabilities.

Auckland's four Covid-19 lockdowns forced the studio online, but that led to an epiphany that it could reach far more New Zealanders.

"I was delighted to know this place existed where you could come and make art with people in the same situation. And the collaborative interaction here is really conducive to painting and drawing. It's fantastic," one artist, Kerry, told Checkpoint.

Kerry was a lawyer for 35 years, until an accident during a surgery led to him having a stroke. He cannot use his left side, and walking is very difficult.

"When you're working as a lawyer, although it's creative in the sense that you're creating solutions to disputes and problems, and trying to broker good deals and agreements, it bears no relationship to this type of creativity.

"This is entirely different, this is something you do for absolute pleasure. It would be hard to say you practise law for pleasure," he said.

"I firmly believe we have a separate brain, which I call 'Brian', by transposing the vowels in the middle. Brian has his way quite often. I ended up painting a crocodile, for example. Brian does take over, he needs to be put in his place sometimes."

Sitting across from Kerry is Natalie. She used to be a concert pianist in Georgia. She still plays a little, but only with one hand.

"After the stroke I lost all abilities for walking… I had a very serious stroke. Left side totally gone. The doctors gave me only [two percent chance of survival] but my operation went very successfully, I had a brilliant surgeon.

"They saved my life, but of course to dream again, to continue my career as a concert pianist, a classical pianist, that wasn't possible."

Natalie, an artist at Māpura Studio.

Natalie, an artist at Māpura Studio. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Victor was a school teacher. He said Māpura is where he finds purpose.

"I've been here about two years and I've been painting since college days. But I left it until I came to Māpura. It sort of awakened everything here, because it gave me time.

"I don't have time – day to day living, all the responsibilities… it sweeps you away. So this is a kind of sanctuary."

Guy used to work as a barista, but living with the effects of stroke has led him down a different, more colourful, path.

He pictures himself in his painting. He's at home, in the Thai countryside, meandering through lush fields towards the sunset.

He learned to paint at Māpura, and said work like this brings back memories of where he used to live.

"I love it. It brings from inside what I see… The brush and the pen and something I pick up, and all from my memory."

Guy, an artist at Māpura Studio.

Guy, an artist at Māpura Studio. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Ken lost the use of his arm and can no longer walk.

He used to be a weather forecaster and today he's busy drawing a scene from a tsunami warning.

"I come here because there's not much offered in Auckland, which is a million and a half people. But really there's nothing for stroke people, and it's really quite shocking," he said.

Māpura means a lot for those living with the effects of stroke, but when Covid-19 lockdown came in 2020, things had to change.

Director Diana McPherson says classes shifted from Māpura's lively, paint-splattered Fowlds Park studio to the computer screen.

"The biggest issue we found was people wanted to engage but they couldn't always do that. They didn't necessarily have the technology at home or the devices.

"The other thing was many of them generally had support at home under normal times, but that support wasn't there during Covid-19 because at level 4 lockdown it wasn't allowed.  

"The people that were coming in to help weren't there, so they didn't have the ability to actually get online themselves without someone to help them."

An artist who has experienced a stroke at Māpura Studio painting.

An artist who has experienced a stroke at Māpura Studio painting. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

But the problem of lockdown became an opportunity, with the idea to offer classes around the country.

Māpura secured Ministry of Social Development funding after Auckland's first lockdown so it could expand online classes to regional New Zealand.

McPherson says people who come to Māpura have lost the lives they knew. They come to put them back together.

"I'd never really had much to do with disability personally, and I was a little bit frightened when I first came. But they're amazing and wonderful people, and they're so generous. They're incredible."

Board member John Ferriss volunteers in the painting classes, and says Māpura has big plans for expansion.

"The Ministry of Culture and Heritage have announced the CARE [Creative Arts and Recovery] Fund. We'll be applying for that to roll out the stroke class… throughout the country, so we can offer this kind of class around New Zealand, which would be brilliant.

John, a mentor at Māpura Studio.

John, a mentor at Māpura Studio. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

"It would be a great way to use that fund and that resource because stroke is a major form of disability in the country.

"A lot of people, once they've had the stroke and been through the hospital, they're then forgotten. But to offer this… the artists are getting a hell of a lot out of it and they're doing such great work. So it's not only the creative side but also the therapeutic side, the helpful side.

"I think it would be wonderful to offer that to the whole country."

Studio coordinator Sacha Kronfeld is at Māpura every day. She says it is a place to create art without judgment.

"Everything here is often about a personal reflection of who you are, and that's amazing to be around."

McPherson says art therapy at Māpura Studios is for everyone - the young, the old, people with disabilities or those dealing with grief and anxiety.

"People that come here, they find a place they don't find anywhere else. We don't tell them what to do, we don't tell them how to do it. We just help them be themselves."

With online classes for the deaf coming soon, and dance and music groups to follow, even those not physically there can find their inner artist.