December 03, 2004

Foot in Mouth Charity

Olivia Kember writes...

The envelope was addressed to my flatmate but the letter inside was for Sir/Madam, and printed in wobbly blue letters:

We are a group of seriously disabled artists who through illness, accidents or birth defects have lost the use of our hands. We paint or write by holding the brush or pen in the mouth or between the toes…

They were selling Christmas cards. The cards were enclosed and were pretty standard fare – plenty of candles and angels, pohutakawas for local colour, a bit of gold trim, the nativity delicately alluded to by a couple of shepherds.

It is difficult to find a method of selling that pleases everyone. However this method enables us to describe the background story of the cards produced from our original paintings which required physical hard work determination and patience…if you would like to purchase the set of attractive cards at $16 incl. GST, please use the enclosed remittance form.

And underneath in red, “Tommy Waru – the original of this letter was written by Tommy using a brush held in his mouth.” Then a picture of Tommy, brush in gob, painting a blue landscape.

My flatmate is very generous. His name would appear on a lot of charity databases, probably in bold with a gold star. But even he was revolted by the arrival of cards. They were unsolicited. They were ugly. They had syrupy, badly punctuated slogans of the “wishing you every happiness” variety on the inside, clearly not written by the mouth and foot artists but stamped straight from the Hallmark block.

But there they were, and we had to do something with them. None of us wanted to pay for these cards, since they’d been forced on us. We didn’t want to use them without paying, either. We didn’t want to use them at all. They were embarrassing. We speculated about sending them back, which, in our apathetic flat, also seemed incredibly hard. So they sat for a few weeks.

As a direct marketing ploy they’re almost brilliant. They sat and oozed guilt, especially when you turned over the letter and saw pictures of the artists at work. Underneath the slogan “Self-help – not charity” was poor old Grant, who broke his neck playing rugby and loves painting flowers. Poor Wayne, who suffered “a freak accident” and is now tetraplegic. Rob, whose accident and disability are mercifully unspecified, is shown with Prince Charles, who apparently praised the way he painted snow.

The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists
is an international organisation, and the queasiness engendered by their selling strategy is shared by some mouth and foot painting artists. According to Simon Smith, its founder Erich Stegmann thought that his lack of arms and mouth-painting technique were irrelevant to the quality of work, and that selling a painting using pity was worse than not selling it at all. Stegmann’s followers obviously don’t have those qualms. Smith says the British MFPA gives artists an income whether they create pictures or not, making their income a subsidy for working using their mouths or feet. “It's a case of ‘Isn't it marvelous, aren't they clever!’. A party trick which is seen as more important than the work itself.”

If multiple sclerosis or an accident reduces you from fully-functioning to quadriplegic, completing the tedious process of learning to draw with your mouth indicates at the very least enormous stamina and courage. What it has to do with artistic ability is another question. But if you’re trying to flog your wares – and as Simon points out, getting a much better than market rate for doing so – you need to ask why people would want to buy them.

And in this case, out of pity. No matter what the AMFPA’s bumf might say, it’s emotional blackmail. Simon suggests sending the cards you don’t like to people you don’t like, twinking out any references to the AMFPA and the orifice with which the brush was held and using as normal. He doesn’t specify whether or not you should cough up the cash.

My plan was just to leave them lying around until they got lost, but that’s rather unsatisfying. One suggestion has been to send them to the MPs who expect their marriages will be undermined by the passing of the Civil Union Bill, since doing so will fulfil Simon’s first instruction, postage to Parliament is free and they’ll probably be in need of Christmas cheer. A friend has just pointed out that it’s quite expensive being disabled and perhaps I should give the painters a donation. He’s right, dammit. But it’s not going to the MFPA people. The NZ Spinal Trust
donate button doesn’t work so I’ve gone with the MS Society. Now I can burn these damn things with a clear conscience. Unless, of course, you give me a better idea.

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