At the Zenger Group printing plant in Buffalo, New York, Christmas came early … really early. It was August when holiday cards were rolling off the presses –a summer-time snowdrift of paper, each card as individual as a snowflake.
You might think in these digital days of ours that sending greeting cards like these is a bit old-fashioned. But for the very special artists who paint them, it's anything but just a quaint tradition.
"I would love just for people to just enjoy the piece for what it is, and not necessarily be taken back by the way that I'm doing it," said artist Alana Tillman.
She was born with a condition that left her arms locked in place, but she's been drawing with her mouth since he was a kid.
"No one taught you how to do it? You just figured it out?" asked correspondent Lee Cowan.
"No, I just kind of figured it out," Tillman said. "I've always had to prove myself to people that I am capable. Doubters in my life just made me want to achieve even more."
Then there's artist Brom Wikstrom: "When I got out of the hospital it was just something to maintain my sanity, you know, to give me something to do," he said.
"More therapy than anything?" asked Cowan.
"Yeah, to help me feel better about myself."
Wikstrom was paralyzed at age 21, when he dove head-first into the Mississippi River in 1975. He's been painting with his mouth almost every day since. "I would just paint from morning until night," he said.
"So, it sounds like it's almost a need for you to paint," Cowan said.
"At this point, I can't imagine what else I'd be doing."
It's remarkable to watch either of them paint – the detail, the finesse, the control.
And no, they don't just paint holiday cards; they each have huge portfolios. But it's the Christmas cards that have helped pave the way for their careers, and which have helped make possible an association called the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. Its name takes a bit of getting used to, but not its goal: the money from its Christmas cards goes to financing disabled artists. It's not about charity; it's about empowerment.
It is, said Jim March, the director of North American Operations, "very much not a non-profit. They're very proud of not being a non-profit situation. It's a business to make money to give them a living."
The MFPA, as it's called, was started in 1957 by Arnulf Erich Stegmann, a German painter who had lost the use of his hands due to polio. Despite his challenges, he became an accomplished artist and publisher, who sought out other painters like him to help further their skills and build their careers.
Today, there are about 800 artists who are members of the association, and every one of them gets a monthly stipend based on their skill level. They enter as student members, like Alana Tillman, who lives on her own in Santa Rosa, California. She gets enough to pay for art courses as well as supplies, and it certainly helps pay the rent.
"Before they came along, I was just living off of my Social Security. I didn't really feel like I was a contributing member to society," she said.
"So, has it given you a sense of independence?" asked Cowan.
"Way more independence."
She's adapted to just about everything, including driving to work. She now owns her own business, called ArtXcursion, where she offers painting lessons (people don't have to paint with their feet or mouth), with a side of wine and appetizers.
"Talking about my adversities, I think is what kind of helps them realize that they can actually do it, too," Tillman said.
Brom Wikstrom has been with the MFPA so long, he gets a full salary, the equivalent of what any other commercial artist near his home in Seattle might be paid. "I thought that I was going to be on public assistance, or you know, how was I going to make it?" he said.
Now he's on the payroll forever, regardless of whether he stops painting or not. "It is a lifetime position now, so if physically I was incapable of working, they would be there for me," he said.
That's a relief not only for him, but for his wife of 30 years, Anne. The association, she said, has not only provided Brom with a living wage, but something much harder to quantify: Confidence.
Wikstrom works part-time at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, and he volunteers at schools, showing children that, yes, anything really is possible.
As successful as both Wikstrom and Tillman have become, their daily struggles remain. But what they hope can be changed is perception.
They want to be seen simply as artists, not "disabled artists," who at this time of year are truly making our season bright.
"I think people do us kind of a double kindness because they're buying our cards, but they also get to send those cards out to their loved ones," Wikstrom said. "And it seems like such a small thing but it means a lot."
For more info:
- Mouth & Foot Painting Artists
- Alana Tillman's ArtXcursion (Instagram)
- Brom Wikstrom (bromwikstrom.com)
Story produced by Aria Shavelson.