In our latest Artist Spotlight, we talk to Leanne Beetham (who has arthrogryposis multiplex congenita) of LippyArt about her work. Leanne is a member of Association Of Mouth And Foot Painting Artists (MFPA), and has been building incredible works of art for years.
Can you talk to me about your goals, and what you want to achieve with your work?
Through my art, photography, videos, and live demonstrations, my mission is to educate the world on the importance of both disability awareness (with emphasis to ability), and wildlife conservation. I endeavour to break stereotypes, challenge perceptions, push boundaries, & inspire others to create.
The term “disability” is too often confused with “inability”; it’s not that we cannot do things, just that we sometimes need to innovate, take a different approach to the norm, and do things in a different way.
I want to encourage people to talk openly about disability, and raise awareness of what is possible, but also of issues in which our world is currently lacking – unnecessary barriers hindering or preventing people with physical and/or mental disabilities from being able to participate in activities many take for-granted. Common sense things, such as basic wheelchair access, should – in my opinion – be commonplace among public services and businesses in modern times. Also, companies should be hiring people with physical and mental disabilities to do the assessing (not just following a minimum government guidelines checklist, which has proven itself limited at best). Although we are slowly improving, we still have a long way to go before society as a whole can be considered truly inclusive.
Issues surrounding subjects like accessibility are one of the many reasons I started my “Fur, Feathers, & Wild Endeavours” and “CONQUERED!” (Aka. Challenge) projects (see my website for details). I don’t like being told I can’t do something on account of my disability, and I especially don’t like the thought that someone else might be told the same, and potentially be prevented from doing it because they believed those words. Never accept that answer. Always research, plan, invent if necessary, never be ashamed of asking for help, and most of all – enjoy the journey; don’t be so focused on the end result that you forget to appreciate how far you’ve come and those who have helped you.
Where does your primary inspiration come from?
Everything around us has the potential to inspire; though, my personal favourite subjects are animals and nature. Our world is a beautiful and fascinating place, if you take the time to stop and truly experience your surroundings. I also enjoy photography (using adapted equipment), which helps me gain reference material for my pieces.
I encourage anyone to make a point of paying attention to the things most pass by without a second thought: the striking iridescence of a starling, a crooked old tree battered by the elements, even how light reflects through a glass tumbler, etc – everything is a potential lesson and source of inspiration worth taking note of. Even if we don’t paint them, our real-life observations can apply to anything, even works of fiction. It’s what makes them believable.
Most recently, I started working with the Sumatra Camera Trap Project, which is a wildlife conservation effort based between Indonesia and the UK. This project uses camera traps strategically placed throughout the Sumatran rainforest to observe wildlife. They have provided me with so much amazing material to work from, I am both overwhelmed and grateful for their partnership. It means my work can actually help and raise awareness for the animals I feel so passionately about.
What would you say that your biggest challenges are on a day-to-day basis?
It’s always the unnecessarily difficult things with simple solutions which frustrate me most.
Presently, I would say my biggest challenges are access to the things most people can do without thinking (e.g. travel accommodation), and public perceptions of disability – though, the latter, in recent years, I feel has greatly improved. Don’t get me wrong, I still occasionally get the patronising tones, or patted on the head like a toddler, but it’s much less common than it used to be.
I travel throughout the UK with my career quite regularly, and I find it increasingly frustrating that basic hoist facilities (an essential for myself and many others) are not available in the majority of hotels. Personally, I am fortunate in that I have a fold-up portable hoist, which has been amazing – but even so, it’s a 3 ft x 4 ft cumbersome piece of equipment. When you have a physical disability, it’s near impossible to travel light anyway, even for a 1 night stay. My basic equipment includes: my wheelchair, pressure-relief mattress, bed-raiser, elephant-feet, various chargers, even a small portable toilet – because many hotel bathrooms are too small for a standard wheelchair, assistant, and free-standing hoist to fit into. Obviously, I have regular items to pack on top of that, and – of course – my art equipment. Consequently, a hoist in the disabled room would make this whole experience unimaginably easier! It’s truly amazing what a difference this one piece of equipment makes.
According to a 2017 study conducted by Trailblazers Muscular Dystrophy UK, almost 80% of disabled people have been unable to go on holiday – within the UK – due to a lack of hoist facilities in hotels. According to CHUC (Ceiling Hoist Users Club), there are currently only 18 known hotels – within the whole UK – offering ceiling hoist facilities (7 of which are in London). From personal experience, I can also confirm that the majority of those hotels only have – on average – 1 or 2 accessible rooms available, are expensive, and do not offer family rooms, discount carer rooms, or the option of double or twin beds. This really needs to change.
In the past, fighting for the care hours I require to enable me to live a normal life often felt like an uphill battle, and was a very challenging time for me. Many assessors seem to be very much focussed on basic needs; the bare minimum you need to exist. There is a distinct difference between existing and actually living, and I wish this was acknowledged in the assessment process. Keeping someone physically healthy does not guarantee good mental health. All people – regardless of their disability – need freedom of choice and to be mentally stimulated.
I wanted to live the way I want, on my terms – like everyone else. I wanted to decide when I went to bed, toilet, outdoors, etc. I remember one assessor actually telling me that if I needed the toilet during the hours my assistants were not present, I would have to sit in my own waste until the next one came on shift, because I wasn’t getting more hours, and that was the “sacrifice” I made by refusing to live in a care home. Seriously? How can we think this is ok? Needless to say, the fight ahead was brutal, and I did eventually have to acquire legal help, but I finally got my 24/7 care – of which I am eternally grateful and use to the full!
For me, this care brings the ultimate freedom. However, each year, even though my disability is diagnosed as incurable, I face the anxiety of reassessment, in which I must re-justify every hour of care I receive. I genuinely hope this whole approach changes. People shouldn’t have to fight for something so basic; nor should it equate to your perceived financial worth. We are not “financial drains” or “burdens on society”, we are human – with the same needs and desires everyone has. I strongly believe that if everyone is given the correct tools from the start, they have the potential to do amazing things and make a positive contribution to society.
We do a lot of work around mental health awareness on WARO, and I wanted to ask do you have any coping mechanisms or motivators for any bad days that you might experience?
I give myself a break. We all have bad days (sometimes weeks, months, or years), and sometimes the best approach is to first acknowledge that it’s ok, and then plan a positive change. I try to make a routine of doing something for myself. I often find doing the opposite of what my regular day is can help greatly – if I’ve been constantly around people and talking, I treat myself to some alone time; if I have been stuck indoors, I go outside; if I’ve been generally busy, I do nothing; if all of my recent paintings are commissions, I make time to create something for myself. Furthermore, I take the time to appreciate the little things – a cuddle with my dog, a movie, music – it really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you make the time to treat yourself well, even if sometimes you only get 30 minutes to take a nice deep breath.
On that note, I just want to add that many of us feel this need to take on a lot of responsibility. We don’t like the thought of letting people down or declining anyone. Make sure you add sufficient time to your deadlines (if you have them), to allow for things like bad days, pain days, mistakes, even a little time away from the piece you’re working on, etc. Don’t break yourself for anyone, and don’t be afraid of turning down work that doesn’t feel like a good fit for you. I had a bad habit of this at one point, and the thing is – it’s not just you that suffers, the quality of your work does too. If someone wants your best and respects you, they’ll understand and wait. Taking care of yourself is the most intelligent thing you can do.
What advice would you give to artists who take inspiration from your work, on how to get noticed?
Never give up – there will be times when things come surprisingly easily, and others where you will have to fight, and perhaps even face harsh criticism. Art is subjective, not everyone will like it, and that’s ok. It takes practice and determination – not all of your art will be masterpieces, that’s not the aim. Successful artists are never the “perfect” ones; they’re the ones who made mistakes, but never gave up, and kept putting themselves out there. You can’t fail if you keep going.
Also, get this idea of “bravery” out of your head, it doesn’t exist. I hear too many people say “I’m not brave enough to try that” – neither am I! But I face it head-on and do it anyway. The thing is, avoiding the thing you are afraid of won’t solve it or enrich your life. Whether it’s public speaking, heights, etc – tackle it. Build up gradually if you need to. More often than not you’ll find you surprise yourself and even enjoy it; if not, no losses, cross it off the list. However, by saying “I wish I could do that” and then not ever trying, or giving up because your first attempt wasn’t perfect – it’s a waste of a good opportunity. The stark truth is, we have one life, with an unknown time limit, and should be living as best we can, in the present moment, and in whatever way we choose. Those things won’t be given to you freely, you have to make the first move.
For more on Leanne’s work visit: