Just 10 years old and already there's an artist in the making

<i>IoS</i> art competition winner Isabelle Cain has a future full of promise and makes light of her remarkably difficult start to life
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The Independent Culture

"I'm going to be a superstar," laughs 10-year-old Isabelle Cain. "Hollywood here I come," she says with a twinkle in her eyes before skipping off towards the photographer who is here to capture this blossoming young artist at home in the quiet Yorkshire village of Dore. This is a little girl obsessed with art and blessed with a talent to match her enthusiasm.

Isabelle was one of 1,200 children and adults who recently entered The Independent on Sunday's Draw for Britain Competition. Her black-and-white line drawing of a sandal was last week highly commended by the Children's Laureate and illustrator Anthony Browne, winning accolades for an attention to detail which showed incredible maturity for a child her age.

But this is not just a tale about a gifted child: it is the story of a remarkable little girl. Isabelle became Britain's youngest surviving twin when she was born at 23 weeks in 1999. Her identical twin sister died in vitro at 22 weeks from Turner's mosaicism syndrome – a chromosomal abnormality that Isabelle also inherited.

Born weighing a little more than a pound, she underwent seven operations before her parents took her home after six months, weighing 4lb. She spent the first two years of her life on oxygen, unable to go outside and risk infection to her damaged lungs. Even now winters are often miserable: she is floored by coughs and colds that other children would shake off easily.

Isabelle is also autistic and moderately deaf in both ears. Her autism means she finds it difficult to express herself to other people; in words, that is – through her art, she can say everything she feels and much more.

I found her lying on the sitting-room floor with her younger sister Juliette, still wearing her school uniform; she is totally engrossed in a multicoloured, Picasso-style cat picture. It is brilliant; I'd be happy to hang it up in my house.

She has been obsessed with art since she was three and sheis undoubtedly happiest when drawing. Many of her pictures tell a story. Animals are often central, and, through furry friends such as Cath the Caterpillar and Super Cat, she can express what she can't say.

Her drawing was one of 19 entered into the competition by her after-school art teacher, Sarah Sharpe, 43, herself a mother of a son with autism.

Ms Sharpe says: "Isabelle has her own special touch. She focuses in on whatever we are doing and gets it just right, but then always adds her own little touch. Of course, all the children wanted to win the competition but they know Isabelle has something special."

Her mother, Josephine Cain, a former secondary school teacher, contacted the IoS after the Draw for Britain winners were announced, bursting with pride that her daughter had been singled out because of her talent rather than her disabilities.

Mrs Cain said: "She's at the bottom of the pack for so many things like maths and science, but whenever it comes to something like painting, everyone is 'wow, look at Isabelle'. It's amazing what she achieved in this competition, on a level playing field, with all the difficulties she has.

"My family is all arty, so she definitely has the arty gene, but her autism fine-tunes it all. She's a perfectionist, so if something doesn't quite work she'll add a detail, maybe some colour, to get it right. That's a wonderful gift. Art makes society see her as a person rather than as a disability."

The after-school art club at St Wilfrid's Roman Catholic Primary School every Thursday is Isabelle's favourite part of the week. For those couple of hours, she is the best among her friends.

I ask her what she said when she heard that she'd won. "I was absolutely speechless," she says coyly. "I didn't think I would win. I feel shy when people tell me they like my drawings. I don't suppose I can show you my clay models when we finish talking?"

This little girl is already a superstar. Not because she's got talent oozing out of every pore but because she is more comfortable in her own skin than any child I've ever met. Joe Cain, her father, says: "I wouldn't want Isabelle to be any different. That would be like wishing for another child when the one we've got is just perfect."