A cancer diagnosis can shatter worlds. But artist Jennie Maizels' Sketchbook Club at Maggie's Centre in Southampton is helping to put the pieces back together again, one brush stroke at a time 

In bustling Southampton, a little corner of a hospital car park has been transformed into a stunning garden and elegantly designed building. Inside this space, every other Friday, an art class takes place. But this is no ordinary art class. Or just an ordinary building. 

The building is the independently-run Maggie’s Centre, which opened in 2021 and was inspired by the ecology of the New Forest, describing itself as ‘an oasis of calm in the turbulence of life with cancer’. The art workshop is available, free of charge, for anyone affected by cancer - past and present. Artist, Jennie Maizels hosts the group, a space in which a remarkable class of individuals harnesses the powerful effect that creative expression can have on wellbeing.  

‘You have cancer’ are three words nobody wants to hear but every day, thousands of people across the world are faced with this reality. As many as 1 in 2 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. 

Gilly Howard-Jones, the Centre Head explains: ‘Anyone can come. It’s not just for people going for treatment, it’s also for people with partners or family members with cancer. It’s really important that people supporting those with cancer also take time for themselves and have an outlet’. 

The exquisitely-designed building offers an uplifting space for those in need, with therapists on hand to help guide through the cancer journey. A total of 24 centres are run in the UK and are visited by over 245,000 people a year by people with cancer or family members of those affected.  

Great British Life: Artist Jennie Maizels brings her Sketchbook Club to Maggie's Centre every other FridayArtist Jennie Maizels brings her Sketchbook Club to Maggie's Centre every other Friday (Image: Mattea McKinnon)

Artist Jennie, who hosts the class, is also an illustrator, university lecturer, and the creative genius behind the hugely popular Sketchbook Club online. After graduating from St Martins School of Art, she went on to design displays for Harvey Nichols, The Body Shop and Dillons the Bookstore. With the firm belief that ‘anyone can draw’, she is hugely passionate about her workshop.  

She shares: ‘It’s really humbling to be offering something so positive for people who are having a negative experience of their lives. I absolutely love coming here and hope to continue this as long as possible. I can get emotional when I see the elation the students have when they have created something they are proud of.’ 

Today, the students are finishing off the final touches to a step-by-step lobster, using water colours and salt to produce texture.  

Great British Life: Paula is undergoing chemotherapy and finds great joy through Jennie's classesPaula is undergoing chemotherapy and finds great joy through Jennie's classes (Image: Mattea McKinnon)

Paula, a student who is undergoing chemotherapy, talks about the importance of art in her life: ‘I’ve found such great joy through these classes. Now I want to paint all the time. I look at everyday objects at home and want to paint them. Even a pepper pot I find interesting. I just want to keep learning about the techniques – I just love it.’ 

Another student adds: ‘I just love filling the water on the paper first – I love the way it moves. I love the freedom!’  

Jennie shares her expertise through the lessons, saying: ‘What is so unique about this method which I haven’t seen before – is that you are guaranteed a masterpiece at the end. That can be much more empowering than traditional art therapy. It results in a strong sense of pride. If you are having a tough time in life, it’s really important to get those endorphins running. Lots of people can be quite damaged by what teachers have said when they were at school about their art. We all have the abilities inside us.’  

Great British Life: Kerrie hasn't been able to work through her diagnosis so Sketchbook Club has been a vital life line Kerrie hasn't been able to work through her diagnosis so Sketchbook Club has been a vital life line (Image: Mattea McKinnon)

Student Kerrie says: ‘Attending the group has given me the chance to meet other people in a similar situation to me, and also allowed me to have some time away from thinking about cancer. It’s made me feel relaxed and has been really good therapy. Going through chemo I don't have much concentration and I have a real lack of motivation. During my treatment I have not been able to work, so being able to come to sketchbook club has really helped me mentally. She adds: ‘Jennie has been amazing in guiding me and helping me build my confidence in drawing and using watercolour. Even in the weeks I could not attend the group, due to the side effects of chemo, I was able to take my pack home with me and do some painting there. Jennie allowed me to message her if I was stuck or needed advice. Sketchbook club has given me the confidence to paint and draw - I've never been an artist and never considered being very good at drawing but being able to explore with paints and pencils has been amazing.’ 

The centre is the perfect location to host the classes, flooded with natural light from a large skylight. It has private areas and consulting rooms, with communal spaces to bring people together. 

Great British Life: Maggie's Centre was designed to be a home from home for cancer patients and their familiesMaggie's Centre was designed to be a home from home for cancer patients and their families (Image: Mattea McKinnon)

Gilly explains the background behind the centre: ‘Maggie was diagnosed with incurable advanced breast cancer when her children were teenagers. She was dourly told this news in a hospital waiting room. She felt it was a bad way of doing it and recognised that the hospital environment needed changing. She wanted to create an environment where people could get emotional and practical support. Her motto was not to forget the joy of living whilst dying.’  

She continues: ‘It could have been a hard day or you may have had a difficult consultation – you can just come in and get some support. If you have had a cancer experience that has impacted, you – you are welcome. Family and friends. We’re not restrictive and it’s all free. People describe it as a safe haven – we go to great lengths to make sure it isn’t a clinical environment. We don’t have signs; we don’t wear badges. We make it as low key and as homely as possible.  

Great British Life: Jennie Maizels and Gilly Howard-Jones work together at Maggie's CentreJennie Maizels and Gilly Howard-Jones work together at Maggie's Centre (Image: Mattea McKinnon)

‘We do therapeutic support, support groups and specific cancer-focused groups. The art class has been great. It offers a bit of fun and something to focus on. Something cancer patients really need in their lives. Jennie is fantastic – she really helps people get results. And for people who don’t want to attend a cancer support group, this is an alternative option where cancer isn’t the focus.’ 

Many studies demonstrate that art-based therapy can reduce stress levels, improve our mood and raise self-esteem. Those attending can feel less alone, exchange ideas and find a ‘new normal’, despite the challenges of life - Jennie’s art class highlights the power of art combined with human connection.