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TX: 15.10.08 - Thalidomide Art


PRESENTER: WINIFRED ROBINSON
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ROBINSON
It's 50 years since the drug thalidomide was first marketed as a treatment for morning sickness. The anniversary's being marked with an exhibition of portraits of thalidomide sufferers by the artist Kathryn Rennie. The idea came from three people whose disabilities were caused by thalidomide - Guy Tweedy, Nicola Stowbrick and Geoff Adams-Spink, who's a journalist here at the BBC. They put in thousands of pounds of their own money and they raised the rest from corporate sponsors.

Our reporter Angela Robson went to see the exhibition with the artist and with Matt Fraser, he's an actor and he's a presenter of the BBC's disability podcast Ouch! Matt is a thalidomide survivor.

ROBSON
Matt all the people in these portraits - you're all about the same age aren't you?

FRASER
We are indeed, I mean it's called Thalidomide at 50 because it originated in Germany and the Germans had it for four years before us guys had it or two, two and a half, three years. And we represented - we the Brits - and most countries of the first wave, if you like, had a short window - you know - they marketed it, they sold it, they sold it for a while, ooh it all went wrong, they took it off the shelves - that was a four year span. About 10,000 babies were born in Germany, of which about 1500 survived. Worldwide of that first generation there were about 10,000 births worldwide. We number of around 450 in Britain, other countries have more and less.

RENNIE
This is a painting of Claudia and Oodo [phon.], they live in Germany. Claudia is a clinical psychiatrist and a very passionate woman. We found a great cafe and spent some time getting to know each other. Oodo is a graphic designer and I thought actually this painting comes across quite graphically, the sort of like this red butterfly on red rainbow - all represents hope and transformation really.

ROBSON
And are they a married couple?

RENNIE
Yes.

FRASER
Yeah they're one of the many examples, increasing examples, of thalidomiders getting together with each other. And one of the things I love about this one it is very graphic Kathryn and you've managed to capture the skin - the skin tones of the lines. I mean that - I know Claudia really well, Oodo less so, but that is her staring at us in the most vibrant lifelike way, it's incredible.

ROBSON
Kathryn, I noticed when you described the paintings you do describe the people behind the portraits, you're not describing people physically particularly, you tell me a little bit about their story - is that something you're aware of?

RENNIE
Yeah, I think you know this campaign, this project, really is about awareness and if I've met somebody I can get their character and I really just try to get who they are in the painting rather than how you see them physically. I think that's why I've put so much detail in their faces and maybe a little less in the hands. I mean you can sort of see that the faces and eyes are done in a lot more detail than actually the hands even. So there's a reason for that.

This one in particular - Sadie and Domanic - Domanic has central brain damage and I mean for me when I went to see Sadie and Domanic and spend time with them it was the first time that I really got to understand how this drug not only affected babies and survivors of thalidomide but families and how it destroyed many families. Sadie was, from her husband, told to choose between her thalidomide son or her husband and she rightly chose her son and she's been with him every day ever since.

ROBSON
So her husband left her?

RENNIE
Yeah and she has - she's got four children. I mean you can see Sadie looking on with great pride at her son - Domanic - here who's right at the front of the picture.

FRASER
And also Domanic isn't looking at us, the viewers, so what we get is a great [indistinct word] power dynamic, especially with the accompanying text that explains that Domanic has fits [indistinct word] and very much his mother is a carer. I didn't know that about the choice - that the father gave her.

ROBSON
When you hear about that choice how does that make you feel?

FRASER
Lucky that my parents didn't give each other that stark choice. And I'm reminded that that happens a lot with disabled kids, not just thalidomiders. You know most of the kids who came up at Chailey Heritage, which was a residential place in the '60s, where a lot of thalidomide kids and similarly affected children ended up was because their parents just didn't want them.

RENNIE
At the beginning when we were considering doing this project I think the thing that really touched me was how many babies were lost at birth, in the womb, tens of thousands. So I wanted to do something that would sort of represent their - you know that we haven't forgotten them as well, they weren't forgotten. And is depicted in the sort of angels carrying them up to a better place.

FRASER
Yes a lot of us didn't make it out of the hospital. Out of the womb, then out of the hospital, then out of the home.

ROBSON
Why do you think it's important to have an exhibition like this?

FRASER
It's important on so many levels. On a sort of cataloguing this small blip in history that we will be perceived to be in 200 years time I think it's important that we have physical records, visual records, of what we were that are artistic representations as well as just the old newsreel footage of thalidomide is terrible etc. But also, and more importantly for me as an artist, although I'm a performing one, is to see images of disabled people in an otherwise mainstream arts environment. We're in the middle of New City Hall, lord only knows the sort of posh paintings they have up here most of the time and you know and everyone's on about ethnic diversity and stuff, well you know there's physical diversity as well. And it's so rare and pleasing for me, both as a thalidomide, but also as I suppose a from time to time campaigning disability rights person, to see bare faced good well composed, well presented professional pieces of art of disabled models in the poshness that is City Hall.

This one of Michael Brear, you've got like a short armed individual on a stone wall in what looks like sort of Yorkshirey countryside, it's totally different in quality to the previous two, is that because it's backlit, because the sun's hitting it from behind giving him that ...?

RENNIE
... from behind and also he's such a gentle person I wanted to get that across in his face, a lot more gentle expression. In one painting you're trying to say many things about this person, he's a really interesting character, I remember he one day said to me - you know if you wake up one day and you're not happy then everyone's got the capacity to change it - so this is why I wanted to get this path kind of that leads all the way through because I think that's quite significant of who he is. He was a sheep farmer on the Isle of Man for 15 years I think and he now lives in Thailand and has a fish farm, sells smoked salmon.

FRASER
Probably easier than milking a cow when you've got short arms really, isn't it, or shearing a sheep, yeah.

ROBINSON
And that exhibition - Thalidomide at 50 - can be seen at New City Hall in London until October 20th. If you can't make it to the exhibition but you'd like to see those paintings there's a link on our website and you'll also find details of how you can download that piece as a podcast - bbc.co.uk - that's the place to go, follow the links then to Radio 4 and then on to You and Yours.




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