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Alison Lapper, MBE, artist

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Today’s 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog celebrates artist Alison Lapper, MBE. Alison started painting at age 3 and this creative outlet perhaps allowed her to escape into a world of imagination away from the turbulent life spent in a children’s home that she entered at just 6 weeks old.

Courtesy of Alison Lapper

In an interview with The Guardian in 2005, Alison explained that she was born with Phocomelia, a rare condition of the malformation of a person’s arms and legs. Alison uses her mouth and feet to create her artwork. At 16 she won a local art competition. The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA) contacted Alison after reading a local newspaper article about the competition. She was given a student membership, which gave her access to small grants for art materials.

Alison was transferred from the children’s home to an assessment centre to learn skills to enable her to live independently. She moved to London at age 19. A promising relationship, that resulted in marriage, turned abusive by her husband. She filed for divorce and moved forward with her art. At 25, Alison had gained an A Level in Art and it was suggested she study for a degree in Fine Art. After completing her A Levels, Alison went on to achieve a Pre-Foundation and then a Foundation course before going to the University of Brighton.  

At university Alison was challenged as to why she was focused on painting beautiful people. Her tutor suggested that Alison did not want to face how she looked herself and who she really was. Though shocked at this statement, it spurred Alison to examine deeply who she is, which made her aware of something significant and important about herself. This led to research in the library, where serendipitously a book fell open to reveal a photograph of the Venus de Milo which grabbed her attention. Here was an image of a white marble statue of an ancient Greek woman, with both arms missing. This moment of recognition became the starting point of a journey that Alison says she is still on.

Looking at her own body, how she feels about herself and how others respond and feel about her was channelled into a creative process using the application of Modrock (quicker drying than Plaster of Paris) to produce segments of her own body. Alison could see there were differences with her body, but also similarities to others; her torso was still a torso and she was beautiful in her own right.

After graduating from university with a first-class degree, in 1999 the contemporary arts centre Fabrica invited Alison along with two fellow artists to exhibit in the show Pale Outline. It explored the ideas of ‘boundary’ and ‘personal identity.’ The artists were not concerned with abstracting the body, but of the human condition as manifest (in the eye or mind) or concealed in representations of the body. In 2003, Alison was awarded an MBE for services to art.

During this time artist Marc Quinn contacted Alison. He made many sculptures of her under The Complete Marbles series of work of beautiful sculptures of people born naturally without limbs. Marc wanted to ask why it was that old sculptures with fallen off limbs and ravaged through time had come to receive unconditional acceptance of their beauty. This collaboration would lead to the famous Fourth Plinth, Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005-2007). Quinn wanted to place a statue in among the white male conquering heroes of the past in London’s Trafalgar Square, as representation of someone who had conquered their own circumstances, which displayed a different kind of heroism. Alison saw it as a monument to the future, a modern tribute to femininity, disability and motherhood in everyday life.

Recently on at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery was See Portraits, Be Portraits, an exhibition comprised of a variety of portraits from its own collection selected by teachers from two local schools. It invited visitors of all ages to view the works and then create their own portrait from the gallery resources. The teachers selected Alison’s Angel self portrait.

Courtesy of Alison Lapper

In an interview carried out by the Museum’s Michael Olden, Alison was asked about her reactions to the exhibition. She stated that, ‘people don’t see a lot of people like me, apart from Marc Quinn’s work.’ Michael pointed out that Alison’s portrait was chosen as a mixed media piece and not initially for diversity. In doing so though, the image delivers on many levels: a range of materials used, representation of a living female artist and diversity of body shape.

Alison’s work pushes back against the social norms of the representations of human bodies. By presenting her own body in classical white marble or in mythical angel wings it challenges us all to think about why battered ancient Greek statutes of women with fallen limbs receive unconditional acceptance of beauty and questions why we do not celebrate the diversity of all human bodies in art.

Written by Lisa Hinkins, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, University of Brighton.