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Somerset mouth artists: Vanessa Haarhof and Anthony Ashwell

Mouth painter Vanessa Haarhoff painting Photo Vanessa Haarhoff
Mouth painter Vanessa Haarhoff painting Photo Vanessa Haarhoff

‘I think a lot of people say they’re not arty at all, and to be honest I thought I wasn’t arty before my injury, but I guess you can find something within yourself if you’re that desperate’ reveals mouth artist Vanessa Haarhoff. ‘It was a good way to release a bit of frustration, being confided to the wheelchair, or confined within the body really. So, yes, I really enjoy it.’

Zimbabwean-born Haarhoff suffered a spinal cord injury in South Africa when she was 19, resulting in tetraplegia. After beginning to paint with her mouth during her year-long rehabilitation, she returned to university and relocated to the UK to study at the University of Bristol. It was here that the now established artist became involved with the British Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA).

The MFPA is a publishing house and partnership of 33 artists who paint without the use of their hands. It furthers the artistic development of its members and creates income from the sale of their work to give them financial independence. It also invests in outreach activities ranging from free learning resources to the MFPA Trust Fund which supports young disabled people to engage in the arts.

Great British Life: Water Lillies in Monet's Garden by Vanessa Haarhoff Photo Mouth and Foot Painting ArtistsWater Lillies in Monet's Garden by Vanessa Haarhoff Photo Mouth and Foot Painting Artists

A self-help association, the MFPA actively seeks promising new talent among disabled people and acknowledges that its members may first take up painting as a form of therapy. ‘From being quite a sporty person with very little interest in art I decided to pursue an art career,’ explains Haarhoff, who is now immersed in Bristol’s art scene and has created an online masterclass based on her creative method.

Nonetheless there are rigorous criteria for acceptance to the MFPA, which offers its members the opportunity to hone their skills as mouth or foot painters. Once artists have progressed as students through a funded scholarship they can become associate or full members. At this stage they receive a monthly income for life, easing the anxiety that deteriorating health might mean losing the ability to paint.

Great British Life: Cottage in the Snow by Anthony Ashwell Photo Mouth and Foot Painting ArtistsCottage in the Snow by Anthony Ashwell Photo Mouth and Foot Painting Artists

The local connection with the MFPA continues with Yeovil-based mouth painter Anthony Ashwell who has been a member since 1997. Born with arthrogryposis, Ashwell excelled in art at school and now creates evocative winter scenes in watercolour. The MFPA’s annual Christmas edition, which includes cards, wrapping paper and gift tags featuring artists’ designs, is a key part of the association’s ongoing success.

The roots of the MFPA go back to 1957 and the formation of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists by polio survivor and mouth painter Arnulf Erich Stegmann. Early members included the Irish artist Christy Brown, who overcame cerebral palsy to become a celebrated painter and whose autobiography was turned into the Academy-award winning film My Left Foot.

This unique worldwide art movement has further historical links to Somerset. Sarah Biffen, the first recorded British mouth painter, was born in East Quantoxhead in 1784 with phocomelia. She spent her early life as a fairground attraction before a remarkable twist of fate enabled her to take lessons with and eventually exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts as well as creating miniature portraits of the royal family. More recently, Marc Quinn's statue depicting MFPA member Alison Lapper during her pregnancy spent 18 months on the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square encouraging widespread debate. She was awarded an MBE for services to art in 2003 and the piece was reproduced as part of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The MFPA is passionate about representation and empowerment of the disabled community and the transformative capabilities of art.

Christmas cards and products designed by Mouth and Foot Painting Artists are available at mfpa.co.uk/shop

Great British Life: Christmas Candles card by Anthony Ashwell Photo Mouth and Foot Painting ArtistsChristmas Candles card by Anthony Ashwell Photo Mouth and Foot Painting Artists



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