April-May 2022 | Features

Painting your own path

Painting your own path

North Hampshire Rotarian Tom Yendell has been consistently defying expectations for decades now to establish himself as a professional mouth and foot painter.

Hands are a waste of time and why you have them I have no idea. The cost of having arms! I mean long sleeves? Wristwatches? Under-arm deodorant?”

Those are the wise words of Tom Yendll, a Hampshire Rotarian and famed member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists’ Group. Rarely will you meet someone with such a strikingly honest and humorous outlook on life.

Tom was born in 1962 without arms or hands when his mother has been prescribed Thalidomide during her pregnancy.

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Since then, he has forged a career as an artist by painting and drawing with his mouth and feet.

While some people may view Tom as‘ disadvantaged’, he sees himself as anything but.

“I’ve grown up using my feet like you’ve grown up using your hands so I’ve known no different.

“As soon as you started scribbling with a pencil or crayon with your hands I did it with my feet.

“I won a handwriting competition writing with my feet when I was 10.”

We are not here to drive Mercedes or Bentley’s or to own massive mansions, we’re here to generate our next generation because that’s how the world will survive.”

From day one, Tom never viewed himself as ‘disabled’. “I’ve never considered myself ‘disabled’ and I’ve always hated the word ‘disability’.

“The word ‘disability’ is such a negative word when you think about it – dismember, dissatisfy – they’re all negative words and the fact that I was born with no arms has never been negative to me, it’s always been the most positive thing.”

Instead, an unexpected yet poignant experience seven years ago in Bristol provided Tom with the perfect outlook of his and everyone else’s lives.

He recalled: “They have a massive hot air balloon festival in Bristol every year and we had a little exhibition there.

“Normally when we do an exhibition like that with children there I have a big pile of blank postcards, I write their name in bubble writing, do a little cartoon and give it to them.

“There was this young lad called Adam who came with his parents. I did this card, ‘footed’ it to Adam and he turned around took three paces and stopped.

“Adam came back – he was around 10-years-old, I think – and he just said ‘thank you so much for my picture, I love your uniqueness’ and that was it.

Tom Yendell balances his career as a professional mouth and foot painter with his charitable work.

“Uniqueness is such a fantastic word to describe everybody – whether it’s someone with blue eyes and blonde hair or it’s someone with no arms and no legs.”

This was the spark which gave Tom the idea for the Unique Art Awards, a national art competition for children aged 7-21 with ‘uniqueness’ that culminates in a September final in London where big money prizes are presented to the winners of each category, with their families in attendance.

“We have tables of families come in ‘to the Unique Art Awards’ because sometimes this is the first time that their autistic kid has been recognised for doing anything good. It’s a really inspiring event.”

Tom is keen to use Rotary as a force for good by providing clubs with the opportunity to support the activities involving disability, art and children.

“In that event in September we hand our cheques out to other organisations as well, so if you can think of something that we can give you £6,000 for that’s to do with disability, art and children then we can fund it.”

Not content with sustaining a busy art career and running a national art competition, Tom is also a Trustee for a charity called The Education and Book Appeal for Ghana (TEABAG).

Tom explains: “Our charity puts kids through school – its £20 and that puts a kid into school from the three villages we work with in Ghana.

“I saw it was great we were giving them education but they didn’t have a thing to go onto so I got the village to give me a bit of land and I built a vocational college.

“It’s the proudest thing I’ve ever done in my life really, the fact that I have over 160 kids out there learning a vocational skill.”

I’ve grown up using my feet like you’ve grown up using your hands so I’ve known no different.”

Despite all his incredible achievements, Tom has never seen himself as an inspiration, but is happy to take on that role if it means it sets up the next generation of change makers.

He added: “We are not here to drive Mercedes or Bentley’s or to own massive mansions, we’re here to generate our next generation because that’s how the world will survive.

“My biography is called ‘Here for a Purpose’. I really do believe we’re all here for a purpose in life and that’s one of the reasons I joined Rotary.

“My purpose to say to people that just because I don’t have arms doesn’t mean I can’t ride a horse or ski or scuba dive or drive a car or travel on my own – all things I have done.

“If I inspire someone to get up from in front of the TV and become part of Rotary or even just hold a charity box for a small charity local to them. And if the fact I don’t have any arms does that, then that’s what I’m here for.”

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