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This London, Ont., mouth painter is dispelling stereotypes one stroke at a time

Exceeding expectations has been the norm for 61-year-old Susie Matthias of London, Ont. 

The mouth painter’s creations have taken her around the world — they’ve been in several galleries, and on greeting cards and a Canada Post stamp. Most recently, Matthias is one of 67 people featured in a Museum London exhibit highlighting resilience in the community. 

Matthias is a thalidomide survivor who was born with shortened arms and legs. The drug was given to pregnant women in the late 1950s and early 1960s for nausea and morning sickness before it was learned it caused limb impairments and malformations in babies.

But Matthias never allowed her disability to stop her from having a successful art career and pursuing activities like electric wheelchair hockey, swimming and boccia ball. 

“I’m stubborn. I’m the type of person that I don’t like to give up,” she said. “When I was little, I knew I was different from everyone else and had to overcome challenges in my life, but through the encouragement of my family, I’ve been able to become independent.”

WATCH | Artist Susie Matthias on her mouth painting journey:

How this London, Ont., artist became a mouth painter

Susie Matthias describes how mouth painting allows her to stay resilient and never give up on any challenge.

Matthias had an interest in art from a young age. She started drawing and painting with her hands, but that became more difficult as she got older, she said.

“There were areas I couldn’t reach with my hands and I found using my mouth worked better, so using my head, tongue and teeth, I’m able to manipulate the paint brushes and move it around to create paintings.”

She later joined the Canadian Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA) on a full-time basis after learning techniques from the late mouth painter Myron Angus, who was from nearby St. Thomas.

An embodiment of resilience

Matthias was one of three artists whose paintings were selected for a Christmas stamp called Adoration of the Shepherds in 2000.  

Her tenacity is what made her the perfect candidate for the Resilient London: Meet Your Neighbours display, said Amber Lloydlangston, curator of history and contemporary culture at Museum London.

Tiger stares
This 2014 tiger painting by Matthias is among creations featured by Canada’s Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA). (MFPA Canada/Facebook)

“Her story speaks for itself. Somebody who was born with shortened limbs and has achieved so brilliantly in her life, I think she embodies resilience through and through,” Lloydlangston said. 

“She’s a powerful representative especially for those who might justly feel like they’re hard done by in life and not want to do anything, to see somebody like Susie who works so hard.

The exhibit, on display until May 12, showcases 67 individuals and three groups who have all shared their stories and donated an object expressing their experiences of resilience.

Matthias’s donation was a few of her paintbrushes. 

“I marvel every time I see Susie’s work,” said Lloydlangston. “I can’t believe the level of detail she’s able to capture, it’s just mind boggling and I’m always in awe of talent like hers.”

Matthias also wrote and illustrated the 2018 children’s book Seasons of Adventure. She’s working on her second book, which will be about her travels with MFPA.

Her message to other people is to always persevere and never give up.

Susie Matthias in front of a few of her favourite paintings. In addition to art, Matthias also takes part in various sport activities like swimming and wheelchair hockey.
Matthias is shown in front of a few of her favourite paintings. In addition to art, she participates in activities including swimming and wheelchair hockey. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)