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Extraordinary Artists Feature In Somerset Life Magazine

‘Transcending Boundaries’ is how the 3-page article that appeared in the December 2023 issue of Somerset Life magazine described two extraordinary local artists who paint by holding a paintbrush in their mouth.

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Water Lilies in Monet’s Garden by Vanessa Haarhoff

The article talks about two artists based in the Somerset area, Vanessa Haarhoff and Anthony Ashwell, both of whom are members of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists.

Born in Zimbabwe, Haarhoff suffered a spinal cord injury at age 19, resulting in tetraplegia. She began to paint with her mouth as part of her rehabilitation programme and briefly returned to her university in South Africa before relocating to the University of Bristol to study, where she also became involved with the MFPA. The artist then described how the British MFPA, now a partnership of over 30 artists, helps students with artistic development. Over time this provides them with the opportunity to achieve financial independence from their original artworks, which are reproduced and sold as products by the MFPA. It can also lead to them being promoted to Associate or Full member artist, which provides them with the security of a monthly income for life.

The article continued the MFPA’s Somerset connection referencing Anthony Ashwell, a Yeovil-based mouth painter, who has been with the association since 1997. Born with arthrogryposis, Ashwell excelled at art in school, this despite not being able to hold a pencil or paintbrush in his hand and he now creates evocative winter scenes in watercolour.

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Cottage in the Snow by Anthony Ashwell

The piece also described the roots of the MFPA beginning in 1957, when a mouth painting artist named Erich Stegmann (inflicted with polio as a child) had the vision to form the MFPA and to provide disabled artists, unable to use their hands, the opportunity to make their own living from their art. The piece also refers to an early member of the MFPA Irish artist Christy Brown, who overcame cerebral palsy to become a famous foot painter and whose autobiography was turned into an Academy Award-winning film titled ‘My Left Foot’.

Somerset’s mouth painting connection continued in the article when it referenced historical links to Sarah Biffen, Britain’s first ever mouth painter, who was born in Somerset in 1784, with a condition known as phocomelia. Although the early years of her disabled life were spent as a fairground attraction it later, through a twist of fate, led her to taking mouth painting lessons and eventually exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Art and subsequently to her creating miniature portraits of the ruling royal family of the period.

To read the full 3-page article you can purchase the Somerset Life December issue here:

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Vanessa Haarhoff at work

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