The row of artists intently study the models before them – a pair of dancers frozen in a Tango move – then begin to sketch. These are no ordinary artists, but people living with dementia, and their focus and concentration is astounding. 

The class lasts almost an hour, with expert tutors – all professional artists – on hand to guide and encourage.

The Drawing Life project is the brainchild of Hastings-based, best-selling author, Judy Parkinson.

Four years ago, Judy felt there was a need to establish something creative for the dementia community, “I wanted to change perceptions about dementia,” she says, “people are amazed by the drawings, and the way that people who may struggle with speech and memory are able to express themselves through art in a strongly individual style.” 

The models change pose, and the artists are encouraged to overlayer the previous sketch, giving an impression of movement. “Fill the page with dancers,” urges Matthew Radford, an international artist who also teaches at the Slade School of Art, “you probably remember nice crowded dance halls!”

One elderly lady quips that there weren’t many men as handsome as today’s model. “Well we can’t take him home with us!” her carer jokes.

There is banter and laughter throughout the session, which is not only creative but therapeutic, according to Kim Mann, Lifestyles Manager at Hastings Court care home. “It’s confidence-building,” she says. “People become timid when they are unable to do things they used to do with ease, but the tutors here are so encouraging that they feel good about themselves again.”

The classes also provide some respite and support for carers. For the daughter of one artist, they “give us the chance to enter their world without
the frustrations which often accompany communication.”

Directing the models into their final pose, Oska Lappin – another professional artist who offers her time to the project – urges attention to detail: “look at eye shape and colour, the feather in her hair…”

At the end of the session, each artist’s work is shown to the rest of the group to overwhelmingly positive feedback. Some would not look out of place in a modern art museum and, as Judy Parkinson comments, “these artists have the power to teach the tutors a thing or two!”

International artist Patrick Altes, another regular tutor, agrees. “It’s inspiring to see how people living with dementia deal with the fundamental problems of drawing – perspective, angles, movement and so on – and this makes me reconsider my own approach to these things.”

Work done, the artists are happy to tell me about what the classes mean to them. For Anne and Belinda (not their real names) coming to the classes has resulted in a new friendship; Clare was told she was ‘hopeless’ at Art at secondary school but is now one of the group’s stars.

James – formerly a professional musician – refuses to attend any other activities on offer but always attends the Drawing Life sessions.  “I know why that is,” says Belinda. “It’s because the tutors know what they’re talking about. They’re proper artists so we trust them and do our best.”

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