The roots of the Irish Partnership of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists – the MFPA – go back to 1957 when the painter Erich Stegmann and a small group of disabled artists from eight European countries created a self-help association in Liechtenstein.
A polio survivor, Erich Stegmann grew up without the use of his arms yet built a highly successful career in Germany by painting with a mouth-held brush. It was his belief that if painters with similar impairments formed a co-operative it would be possible for them to live by their artistic efforts and enjoy a sense of work security that until then had eluded them.
This aim was to be achieved by the marketing of their work in the form of greetings cards, calendars, prints and illustrated books. The result has been a unique worldwide art movement.
One of the main themes of Stegmann’s credo was that the new international Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists must never be regarded as a charity because many of its members were wheelchair users or even in hospital beds. To him the key word was “partnership” – the word “charity” was as abhorrent to him as the word “pity” – and the Association has always proclaimed that it is not a charity and does not qualify for charitable assistance.
From the beginning its members have had full control of the enterprise that enables them to enjoy a secure livelihood despite severe impairments and which has given them a purpose in life. Many have achieved international recognition through work produced with brushes held by their teeth or clenched between their toes.
The Irish artist Christy Brown, famous for his book (and later Oscar winning feature film) ‘My Left Foot’ and an early member of the Association, described what it can mean to disabled people, to be able to communicate through art in these words:
‘Painting became everything to me. By it I learned to express myself in many subtle ways. Through it I made articulate all that I saw and felt, all that went on inside the mind that was housed within my useless body like a prisoner looking out on a world that hadn’t become a reality to me.’