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9th April 2024

The transformational impact of painting

John and Nancy

It’s often referred to as ‘transformational’ and ‘life-changing’ for people living with Parkinson’s.  

At the start of a session, people are exhibiting all the signs of their condition – shaking, hunched over, and struggling emotionally. By the end, they are walking straight and their mood is joyful.   

So what is this miracle therapy?  

It’s art. Or more specifically, painting.  

The ACT’s Tingey Painting with Parkinsons Program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year – and its impact over the years has been extraordinary.  

John Pratt (pictured above, left) has been the group’s facilitator for the past 26 years, and says the creative process brings out both an emotional and physical transformation in participants.  

“They often come in and their physical movement is quite constrained and they can also be in a bit of an emotional state, sometimes in tears,” John says.  

“However, once they’re involved in the painting, their gait and physical movement changes. It’s transformed by immersing in a creative pursuit.”  

As well as painting, each session involves meditation, music, poetry or simply conversation to bring out the creative process.  

The program’s founder and creator, Nancy Tingey (right), explains that this helps switch on people’s right side of the brain – the creative side.  

Painting with Parkinsons isn’t about copying a piece of art, it’s not whether something is right or wrong. It’s the physical act of making a mark (on the page),” Nancy says.  

“We always start off with a period of meditation, poetry or music. It’s about switching to ‘right brain mode’, rather than the left side (which is the more analytical side).  

“The left side of the brain is impaired in Parkinson’s, but the right side – the creative ability – is not.”  

Nancy has been a pioneer globally in using painting as therapy for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative conditions.  

As you can imagine, this theory was not common knowledge in the 1990s!  

Nancy’s geologist husband Bob was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1987. Bob became President of Parkinson’s ACT in 1993, but artist Nancy didn’t want to take on the secretary role as was expected at the time, so she started a painting group instead!  

Thankfully she did, because it has been a saviour for many participants ever since. Not only in Canberra, but all over the world.  

“I had been a practicing artist all my life, but no experience in art therapy,” Nancy says.    

“My strength was having a husband with Parkinson’s. I was applying the principles of Parkinson’s with my knowledge in art, helping people just to get started.”  

Nancy soon knew she had to learn more, so applied for a Churchill Fellowship which enabled her to travel the world to meet experts in neurology and art therapy, including the only tutor who had experience in art therapy for people with Parkinson’s, who was based in Italy.  

Nancy too explains how painting appears to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s.  

“When people arrive, they are bent over, they’re using their walking sticks. But then when they leave, you see no signs of their Parkinson’s. These therapeutic benefits are temporary, but they’re there.”  

Nancy ensured the Tingey Painting with Parkinsons Program was patented (without the apostrophe!) and has taken its theories all over the world.  

Groups in the UK, Spain and the US have been established since connecting with Nancy and through her book How Magic Happens, the How Magic Happens practical manual (produced with Ian Bignall) and website (paintingwithparkinsons.org.au). 

Nancy handed over the Canberra group’s reigns to John in 1999, when she and Bob moved to England. Although she stayed connected as she travelled back and forth for many years.  

John has been the perfect person to continue its legacy. When asked if he is proud of the impact the group has had, he is very self-effacing.  

“I’m privileged,” he responds.   

“Witnessing the sense of uplift that occurs during the sessions, getting to know the participants, seeing their response to the art and how deeply felt, intense and emotional it is for them. It’s a really rich experience and such a privilege.”  

John says the music played during each session also has a huge role to play in lifting the mood and emotions of participants, and once every four weeks, this is enhanced with live music from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.  

The group’s regular setting in the Botanic Gardens, with the colours, light and flowers, is also a source of inspiration; while a second group at LDK Greenway Views likewise has a natural outlook to inspire them.  

An annual Exhibition of works also provides a moment of pride for participants, and educates the public too.  

Across the 30 years, the group has often had to apply for grants to keep the program alive, but more recently The Hospital Research Foundation Group has provided the funding needed to sustain the program, giving it a sense of security. 

On returning to the group she founded for its 30th anniversary, Nancy is equally modest in praising the participants. “It’s such a lovely, appreciative group – everyone seems to benefit and the atmosphere is really positive.”   

Thank you to Nancy, John, fellow facilitator Ian Bignall and all the volunteers for everything you’ve done for Tingey Painting with Parkinsons Program. Here’s to another 30 years!     

Lynn’s story

Despite being an art novice before starting the Tingey Painting with Parkinsons Program four years ago, Lynn (right) is now its biggest fan.  

“It’s transformational and enriching,” she says. 

“It’s wonderful to be able to let the brush and colours lead you, to run away with it and tap into your feelings.”  

Lynn was first a carer for her husband George, who lived with Parkinson’s for 15 years before he passed away in 2015. 

Although the couple was very active in the Parkinson’s ACT community, it was only once Lynn herself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2016, a year after George had passed, that she considered the Tingey Painting with Parkinsons Program.  

She actually started online via Zoom during COVID, and still does the online sessions as well as in-person at LDK Greenway Views near Tuggeranong.  

“Everyone makes such a huge effort and overcomes many physical challenges just to get there, but the environment is very calming, supportive, inclusive and non-judgmental,” she says. 

“I’m always surprised by what we achieve, some extraordinary pieces of art are produced.”  

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