Jan Hunter meets inspirational artist Barbara Agar, who is now offering seasonal art classes after winning a long and complicated battle against illness

LAST month, Stokesley artist Barbara Agar opened the door to her studio which had lain empty and unused for eight years.

Her successful career had come to an abrupt end in 2010 through ill health, but after an extraordinary eight-year journey, she was ready to bring the once-bustling studio space back to life for her 2018 Christmas courses.

Diagnosed at just 27 with systemic sclerosis, a disease where your immune system works against you, she battled against until she was in her early fifties when she was given only a year to live – unless she had a double lung transplant.

The operation, in 2015 at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, was initially successful until traumatic complications set in.

“From day one I was breathing unassisted, but then I had a massive reaction to the drugs I had to take so that my body didn’t reject my new lungs,” she says. “I had permanent migraines which were so painful, and I lost the use of my arms and legs.

Then, I went blind.

Some of my recovery time I have no recollection of at all.”

However, one day while walking assisted in her garden, she found she could see some things. Her sight was beginning to return, although she had permanent scarring on her visual cortex which meant it was fractured.

“I could not draw any more,” she says, “but I found I could see to make simple things. I could make pompoms. I was creating art again so I set off making them with a vengeance, hundreds of them!”

She was on the road to recovery…

But in April 2017, her legs gave way and she had a massive fall. She had very low blood pressure and her bone marrow wasn’t producing red blood cells. She was hospitalised again, and the recovery process had to begin again.

“My body got better, my eyes improved and one day I realised I could read again,” she says. “I was still very weak, but I felt useless and wanted to do something, so I approached Jane Hall, the manager of Stokesley library, and I became involved in stacking books and helping out.

“When I heard Jane talk about a summer programme for children, I was keen to be involved and we made a giant Gnasher with the primary school children, which now stands proudly in the Globe.

“I was creating art again, and I was putting something back into the community after all the support I have had.”

Making massive models has always been at the heart of Barbara’s art. Before she was ill, she organised huge art events, carnivals and festivals all over the world, creating colourful and dramatic costumes, and enormous structures, some of which are housed in a large shed on her farm outside Stokesley.

“I ran teams of textile makers for massive carnivals,” she says. “Some of my costumes are still used in performances all over the world. Some of the structures are so huge we had to send them flat-packed so they could be assembled. One of my favourite creations is the reflective and illuminated drumming costumes which changed colour to the beat of the drums.”

Many schools in the area have benefitted from her expertise, in her ability to take cold and empty spaces and dull and dark rooms, and make them come alive with colour and light.

“I loved working with the children on a collaborative basis,” says Barbara, now 60. “I looked at the skills they had, took their ideas on board and got them to achieve something much more than they expected. In 2000, I worked at Norton Primary school designing their library with the theme of earth, air and sea, and we made the central column into a tree. Every child in the school was involved and we created a bright and inspiring space for them all to enjoy.”

In another school which had students with behavioural problems, she created a calming room with an underwater theme. If the children remained still, lights and sounds and special effects would happen, but any movement would stop the effects. In order to enjoy the room, the students had to sit quietly and remain still.

All of this was before the terrible illness took its hold of her, and before her long and very complicated recovery.

But now she is busy cleaning the dust from her studio, the Byre Yard, and is just beginning her winter programme of classes. There is Christmas wreath and candle making, and courses on creating decorations and gifts as she expresses her love of the old customs and traditions of this country which have always inspired her. Details are available by emailing barabaraagar31@gmail.com, or calling 01642-718600.

“I am so grateful that someone gave me life, and so grateful to the team at the Freeman and the medical staff in Stokesley as without them I wouldn’t be here,” she says.

Barbara is at her happiest working in collaboration with communities, enabling people to achieve way beyond their expectations – which follows the pattern of her own miraculous journey.