Photo Gallery: Greedy for life, artist Steve has a passion for painting
PUBLISHED: 13:20 14 November 2013 | UPDATED: 13:20 14 November 2013
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2013
He's the illustrated man whose mouth-painted illustrations have sold across the globe, STACIA BRIGGS met the Norfolk-based artist whose money is where his mouth is.
Steve Chambers considers himself one of the lucky ones.
A misspent youth “running with the bad boys” in Denham, Buckinghamshire, could have led him into the kind of trouble that would have been hard to leave behind and at age 14, a career as an artist wasn’t even on the radar.
“To be honest, I was thinking about girls, tattoos, having a laugh and having a drink,” said Steve, who lives in Briston with wife Jo and has four children, Kaley, 22, Connie, 21, Christopher, 17 and Clayton, 15.
“I’m lucky – I didn’t end up being stabbed, I didn’t get any girls into trouble, I got away with it. I am, what they call, a bit of a lucky git.”
Steve has never let his disability dictate what he does, or doesn’t do. Born with arthogryposis syndrome in 1961, both his arms and legs are affected, leaving him with very little movement in the former and limited movement in the latter.
“The syndrome causes stiffening of the joints and the muscles – there are different variations, but I pulled the short straw with my arms and legs,” he said.
“I’ve never known anything different. You adapt, you make the best of things and for me, my mouth takes the place of my hands.”
It’s a modest statement that belies the great talent that Steve possesses as an artist, a talent that has seen him become one of only 36 full members nationwide to be recognised by the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists association.
His work hangs on walls worldwide and he is one of six artists from around the UK who has recently been asked to submit a painting of something that inspires them about their area of the country.
Steve’s painting of Happisburgh Lighthouse is one of countless artworks he has created using only his mouth to guide the pencils and brushes. His full membership to the MFPA acknowledges that his standard is that of an able-bodied artist.
“When people say to me that I’m so clever, I think ‘no, I’m not, I just do what I need to do’. I’ve never felt sorry for myself – what’s the point?” he said. “I’ve never seen myself as any different to anyone else and other people don’t see me as different, either.
“The people that impress me are the ones who were able-bodied but then have an injury that totally changes their lives. I can’t imagine what that must be like.”
The MFPA formed in 1957 and is an international association of disabled artists who earn their living by painting with a brush held in their mouth or between their toes.
Run by the artists themselves, the group sells artwork – either original or reproduction – often in the form of unique greeting cards and calendars.
Steve’s career success couldn’t have been predicted by doctors, who offered his mother a gloomy prognosis about her son’s future capabilities.
But after spending much of his early life at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Steve confounded medical expectations – doctors had told his mother he would never walk, but he remembers being desperate to cast off his calipers.
Encouraged to exercise by his dedicated mother, who would spend hours massaging his legs, Steve walked unaided at the age of five and is now able to walk short distances.
“I hated those leg irons and I wanted them gone. I felt they were the only things that made me stand out from other kids,” he said, “so I learned to walk without them.”
His love of painting was fostered by his grandfather Will, a hobby artist who painted insects and birds in a shed at the bottom of his garden, watched by his inquisitive grandson.
“I’d always used my mouth to hold a pencil and so it was natural to use a paintbrush with my mouth, too,” he said.
“I loved watching my granddad paint and I learned a lot from watching him. I enjoyed art at school, but never thought it’d be how I made a living. I was too busy being naughty!”
After mainstream school (“I’m not particularly proud of how I behaved there…”) Steve was awarded a place at art college which led to him being accepted as a student member of the MFPA. Thirty years on and his career has gone from strength to strength.
“I love to paint landscapes and for the last seven or eight years I’ve been concentrating on monuments because they appeal to the perfectionist side of me,” said Steve.
“If I paint a building and it has 1,000 windows, my painting will have 1,000 windows. I drive myself to distraction with my obsession for details. I’ll keep going back and back to a painting until it’s perfect.”
Steve and his family moved to Norfolk 16 years ago after visiting family in the area and falling in love with the house they now own in Briston.
“We were at a family barbecue and a few of the chaps popped out to the club for a drink or two. I spotted a house for sale that I loved on sight and, after a few pints, I went back and told my wife about it,” he said.
“She said there was to be no discussion, that I’d had a few and it was a ‘no’. Then she went out for a walk with some of the girls and when she came back she said ‘I saw this house…’. It was the same one.”
Within months, Steve and Jo had sold up, bought the Briston house and moved in. He is, he admits, “the kind of person that takes chances in life”.
For example, he proposed to Jo within weeks of getting together and then, when she said she’d marry him if he sorted out the ceremony, organised the lot in two hours.
Learning to drive and finding the right adapted car took slightly longer, but was a longheld dream that Steve accomplished eight years ago.
“If I really want something, I tend to do everything I can to achieve it,” said Steve.
“There’s no point sitting around thinking about things: you need to do them. They might go right, they might go wrong, but doing nothing isn’t an option.”
The family love living in Norfok and Steve in particular thinks there’s nowhere better for an artist to work: the county’s huge skies, beaches, countryside, the light – it’s an area almost custom-made for an artist.
His Happisburgh painting took 40 hours to complete. Painted in acrylics to match the other five in the series – Steve prefers watercolours – it is one of his favourite views in the county.
“No matter how many times you go and see the lighthouse, and you could go and see it every day for the rest of your life, it will look different,” he said.
“The light will be different, the seasons will change, the fields may be filled with rapeseed – it’s an ever-changing landscape and I love that.”
In addition to creating art, Steve and wife Jo also like to collect it: on their bodies.
The pair boast countless tattoos, all of which have a story and a meaning, like a living journal, a skin diary which charts holidays, major events and important symbolism.
“I collect art, but I collect it on my skin,” said Steve, who says he has “one” tattoo, a large one that covers him from head to toe.
“It’s the story of my life and it’s how I express myself and I hope that doesn’t offend anyone because that’s certainly not something I’d like to do.
“I had my first tattoo at 14. Two of my friends had had them and I asked my Mum and she went beserk.
“Finally, she said: ‘give me one good reason why you should have a tattoo’. I thought, ‘careful here, Steve, you have to be quick’.
“I said to her, with my big puppy-dog eyes, ‘when people stare at me and look at me because I’m different, because I’ve got these little arms, I want to give them something else to look at so I can break the ice.’
“From that day on, people starting looking at me because of my tattoos and not because of my disability.”
Steve’s favourite tattoo (according to him, the most painful parts of the body to be tattooed are the backs of knees, the palms and the bottom of the spine) is a Japanese Oni, or demon, on his head. The Oni is represented in many colours, each signifying a particular trait – Steve’s is red, the colour of greed.
“It doesn’t mean I eat all the pies,” he laughed.
“It means that I am greedy for life. The more life I can pack in, the better.”
For more information about the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, visit www.mfpa.co.uk.