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Christmas cards painted by artists using just their mouths and feet

This is how a talented group of artists make their living. Genevieve Roberts reports

Genevieve Roberts
Tuesday 08 December 2015 20:18 GMT
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Art of poise: Jon Clayton
Art of poise: Jon Clayton

Letter boxes across the country are experiencing their busiest month of the year. Christmas card season is under way – today is National Christmas Card day, causing joy (to the people who receive them) and dismay (to the people who have put off sending them and are knee-deep in envelopes and address books).

For one group of artists, though, Christmas cards are about more than sending greetings to loved-ones and acquaintances – they're a vital way to earn a living as well as get an important message across.

Painter Ian Parker, 45, joined the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists group (MFPA) after graduating from art school in Stoke-on-Trent with a degree in fine art. He has always used his mouth to paint. “I was born with arthrogryposis, which means my joints are fixed and partially fixed – I can't grip my hands to hold things.”

Jon Clayton and his work 'The Nativity'

He believes that greetings cards are crucial in helping to spread knowledge of people painting without the use of their hands. “Christmas cards are often the first contact people have with us – they haven't heard of us before,” he says. “I get the greatest thrill when people forget I'm in a wheelchair, and that I may hold a brush differently, and connect with my work. If they like it for what it is, that's fantastic. But I'm blessed that I can paint holding the brush in my mouth – I don't get embarrassed about that either – it's part of who I am: if it encourages people or challenges people, that's great.” He is an associate member of the MFPA, and lives with his wife and two teenage daughters, Holly and Emily. He's supports himself and his family on his wage.

Artists for the MFPA hope that their card designs will persuade people to keep up a Christmas tradition that some fear is on its way out. Last year, Dame Hilary Blume, who runs the Charities Advisory Trust's Card Aid scheme, said that sales of cards are tumbling due to high postage costs and changing social habits. Tom Yendell, MFPA International Board Member, says: “Christmas is vital – we make our living at this time of the year. Our products provide a financial lifeline to the artists.” The MFPA was set up by polio survivor Erich Stegman, in 1957, as an artists' co-operative. It now consists of 33 artists in Britain, and 800 across 80 countries worldwide. “It helps families too, and local communities, by showing that people with disabilities can offer something positive,” Ian says.

Artist Ian Parker

Leanne Beetham, 28, started painting when she was three. She, too, was born with muscle arthrogryposis, so her muscles didn't develop properly – and, like Parker, she learnt to do everything by mouth.

She was approached by the MFPA aged 13, after printing Christmas cards with Kingswood school in Hull. She is an art student, receiving a stipend to cover all her materials. She loves painting wildlife, and believes her degree in Applied Animal Behaviour, which she studied at Bishop Burton College, helped her understand her subjects better. “My grandma, who I live with, and my teachers, have always pushed my art. I didn't think about doing something good, I just enjoyed doing it, and now I'm making a career out of it, which is great,” she says.

She gives art demonstrations and talks in schools about the work of people with disabilities. “I've never been able to use my hands, so you just adapt. I have personal assistants who help out, but I try to do everything with my mouth. Only your mind stops you doing anything. And I'm a loud person, so no one dared bully me in school.” She is fundraising for a trip to Africa to paint wildlife. “The only time things are impossible is if you give up.”

'The Robin'

Not all the group's artists were born with disabilities. Jon Clayton, 55, from Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, was paralysed from the neck down at age 17 when he was knocked off his motorbike by a lorry. He spent a year in hospital. “It was quite a dramatic time, but I just had to deal with it. I'm a strong believer in the notion that there's always somebody worse off – I've met people worse off – and my art has kept me grounded in difficult times.”

He is now a director of the charity SPINE, and runs a weekly art group in his local hospital. “It's a social group as well as an art group – we belong to a big family, and this makes sure we're not discarded and forgotten about.” He is a self-taught artist, and says his work has given him purpose. “We're not a charity, but a commercial group,” he says. “It's a community – we help each other with advice – we're competing in a commercial world with able-bodied people so our work has to be perfect.” µ

Buy Christmas cards direct through the FMPA's new website, www.mfpa.co.uk

To donate to Leanne Beetham's African painting project, visit www.lippyart.co.uk/ffwe.html

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