Talent without barriers

Disabled artists paint by mouth or foot.

‘A reason to get up in the morning’: Well-known disabled artist Yitzhak Adir (photo credit: YITZHAK ADIR)
‘A reason to get up in the morning’: Well-known disabled artist Yitzhak Adir
(photo credit: YITZHAK ADIR)
The urge to create doesn’t disappear because a person is disabled.
As Monet continued painting even when going blind, artists without the use of their hands find ways to express their vision by holding their paintbrushes between their teeth, or clenching them between their toes.
An organization created to support these artists came into being in 1957.
German painter Erich Stegmann, disabled by polio and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, organized a self-help group of eight disabled European artists in that year. They established their headquarters in politically neutral Liechtenstein.
Their goal: to support disabled artists around the world, not by charity but by the sale of their art, giving them the chance to participate in mainstream life and obtain a degree of financial security by their own efforts. It became a successful movement that covers 80 countries and has 800 members: the International Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, Ltd. In April, AMFPA will celebrate 60 years of activity.
Roaming free: A work by Yitzhak Adir (photo credit: YITZHAK ADIR)Roaming free: A work by Yitzhak Adir (photo credit: YITZHAK ADIR)
Israel’s AMFPA branch office is located on a quiet Petah Tikva street. Metro interviewed the manager, Michal (Micky) Lichtenfeld.
“Imagine living totally dependent, having no privacy. Disabled people need to feel normal,” the soft-spoken Lichtenfeld says.
“Often disabled people just sit at home, feeling useless. Painting gives them a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning.
Exhibiting their work also gives them a role in the community. A few give talks at schools and let the children try painting by mouth. They also speak with social workers and therapists. At exhibitions, we sometimes have a panel of disabled artists answering the public’s questions. It gives them a sense of worth because they’re working, educating and contributing like everyone else.”
Beyond the respect one feels for people who transcend severe disabilities through sheer grit, one is compelled to admire the professional quality of their work. The paintings show the influences of multiple genres, but they always reflect their creators’ personalities and styles. The works I viewed at the Petah Tikva office were still lifes, landscapes and seascapes, sensitive human and animal portraits and abstracts, domestic moments and street life, fields of flowers. A multicolored hotair balloon waits to take off. A bicycle leans against a lamppost. Maybe they’re expressions of the longing for physical freedom.
Many of the artists are self-taught.
Those who can, hire teachers or attend classes. AMFPA supplies a tutor when needed.
Netta Ganor from Rishon Lezion is an inspiring example of human determination to overcome and succeed. At age 15 she caught a super-germ that infected her spine, leaving her a quadriplegic breathing through a tube in her throat. Doctors were sure that she would live her life out in rehab, but she eventually freed herself of the tube and went on to acquire an MA in business management. She currently works managing social media for a hitech company. She is mother to a toddler, whom she brings up with her family’s help. In her spare time, she paints by mouth and has written two children’s books, with another in the works.
Human determination: Netta Ganor (photo credit: NETTA GANOR)Human determination: Netta Ganor (photo credit: NETTA GANOR)
Perhaps the best-known of Israel’s disabled artists is Yitzhak Adir, disabled in a motorcycle accident at age 24. Adir has hewn a respected position in the Israeli art scene. He graduated with honors from the Art Teachers Training College in Ramat Hasharon and is a senior lecturer at the Beit Berl College of Arts.
Adir is the founder of the department for handicapped creative artists, where art teachers working with disabled people train. He is married with three adult children. He has been a member of AMFPA since 1979 and is the Israeli and European representative there.
Portrait of Adir painting German artist Erich Stegmann, a Holocaust survivor who was disabled by polio (photo credit: YITZHAK ADIR)Portrait of Adir painting German artist Erich Stegmann, a Holocaust survivor who was disabled by polio (photo credit: YITZHAK ADIR)
He sometimes portrays himself; a nude self-portrait in his wheelchair is especially poignant. This, and other works, may be viewed on his website, which is not associated with the AMFPA. Adir also speaks in schools on road safety and life after serious injury.
Lichtenfeld describes how disabled artists paint.
“Each has to adjust his/her painting technique according to their particular disability. They have to work very close to the canvas because the movement range of their head or foot is limited, and the paintbrush must be lengthened for easier access. Canvases are usually small to medium-size because large ones are hard to move around. It’s also hard to move themselves around the canvas. Some grasp the paintbrush between front teeth, some between side teeth. An artist may face the canvas, or bend over it. Some can’t move their heads, so they use their feet. Foot artists have particular challenges, as do artists with cerebral palsy, who have spasms.
The teacher we provide helps each one find a technique.
“We have two artists with CP,” she continues. “Neither is able to speak, but they’re mentally sound. People like them used to be put away and half-forgotten.
Today, at least these two make art. We sent them a computer teacher who showed them to create using a special mouse that’s moved by foot. This opened the world up to them.”
The artists may hear of AMFPA via social workers, rehabilitation therapists, or word of mouth – or a branch manager hears of someone hand-disabled who aspires to paint. Those recommended to the AMFPA committee receive free tutoring and a scholarship for buying equipment. Branch managers report each student’s progress and output twice yearly for evaluation. As the students’ proficiency grows, the committee promotes them through several levels of recognition until they’re judged competent to formally join the organization.
“The committee, all of whom are themselves disabled artists, first requires being disabled and willing to work with the mouth or foot,” explains Lichtenfeld. “The artist must commit to a yearly output, determined by his or her physical and psychological ability.
Once artists are accepted, they receive a scholarship that allows them to continue working in security.”
The office helps set up exhibits in cultural centers and galleries. All revenues go to the artist, according to AMFPA’s ideal of financial self-reliance. Artists are also free to organize private showings, which provide opportunities to display works that depart from the AMFPA’s policy of optimistic, non-controversial and child-friendly art.
Lichtenfeld’s role in the organization includes personal contact with the artists.
She frequently travels around Israel to interview candidates and stay in touch with present students and members.
“I’m partly the liaison between the artist and the AMFPA, partly a friend, and even partly a counselor,” she says. “I love doing this. And I intend to keep working here until I get too old to do it anymore.”
The organization supports itself by selling reproductions of the artists’ work in many formats, such as greeting cards, place mats, bookmarks, T-shirts, orders for wedding and other event announcements, children’s games and others.
Original works are also for sale. The Israeli branch has produced an illustrated Haggada in English and Hebrew.
No AMFPA shop exists anywhere. Interested customers may order via the website, email or phone.
The Israel branch of the International Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, Ltd. is located at 5 Ahad Ha’am Street, Petah Tikva. More info: (03) 931-2971, peveregel@gmail.com, www.mfpa.co.il