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Artist Annabel Mednick on changing our image of disability and identity

PUBLISHED: 16:47 09 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:47 09 February 2018

Chrysalis by Annabel Mednick at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Andrew Clarke

Chrysalis by Annabel Mednick at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Andrew Clarke

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Artist Annabel Mednick has just finished a three year study of Leo Collins, a young person with a story to tell. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Annabel about the joy and the challenges of capturing a multi-faceted portrait of someone trying to overcome disability and live life on their terms

Annabel Mednick and Leo Collins at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Waterfront GalleryAnnabel Mednick and Leo Collins at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Waterfront Gallery

Annabel Mednick is a figurative artist who likes to explore the essence of her sitters. Her work reveals not just a likeness but sense of the person, their energy, their character and how they move.

Her latest exhibition, Beneath the Skin, has just opened at the Waterfront Gallery at the University of Suffolk and is an exploration of the identity of Leo Collins.

Leo is a transgender female to male with cerebral palsy who approached Annabel on January 1 2015 with an idea that they could work together.

I am me whatever I am wearing by Annabel Mednick at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Andrew ClarkeI am me whatever I am wearing by Annabel Mednick at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Andrew Clarke

Over the last three years, with weekly sittings in Annabel’s studio, the pair have developed a warm friendship and gradually a multi-faceted portrait has emerged of a young person engaging with the world on their terms.

This multi-picture portrait forms the basis of the exhibition which combines traditional oil paintings, pastels, charcoal and pencil drawings, acrylics and even stained glass paint on acetate. The changing media represents the increasing aspiration of the work as the pair got to know one another.

“Leo called me out of the blue on New Year’s Day. We didn’t know each other, we had no mutual friends, I think because my name is Annabel, mine was the first name he came across in the artists’ directory.

Annabel Mednick at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Andrew ClarkeAnnabel Mednick at the Beneath The Skin exhibition. Photo: Andrew Clarke

“What impressed me was the fact that he wanted to collaborate on a project. He wanted to be an active participant, he wanted to show that disability and constant movement is not a barrier to exploring life. We agreed to meet and the whole thing has developed from there.”

The essence of Leo’s story and the exhibition is encapsulated by the very first image you are greeted with as you enter the gallery. Entitled Chrysalis, it presents an image of Leo wrapped in a translucent pupa – painted on two Perspex panels, mounted one on top of the other, it gives the portrait a sense of depth. Leo appears to be sleeping as he changes from a woman into a man.

“This was the very last picture I painted and probably sums up the experience for me. It puts across that important sense of change and rebirth. I was looking for ways to show his transformation without wanting the exhibition to be just about that. I wanted to capture the whole of his personality.

“I am primarily a painter but I enjoy using different materials to serve a purpose and I am very pleased with how this has turned out.”

Acetate plays an important role in a back-to-back portrait inspired by Leonardo di Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man drawing. “I wanted a contemporary image and it looks almost like a board you would get detailing a crime scene, with lots of notes and other images stuck on around it.

“During our project Leo had an operation performed on his back, to straighten it, and this is our response to that. As it is created on Perspex you can see both images coming through and because there is writing on the Perspex, it gives you an echo of di Vinci’s famous backwards writing.

“One side is very bloody and has echoes of the images of San Sebastian being martyred and reflects the pain that Leo has endured in his life.”

Another key work is Ascension, a dramatic image, painted in oils, of Leo struggling to haul himself up a ladder, pulling himself out of a pile of skirts and dresses which represent his past, but his disability is making the task of climbing onto the rungs almost impossible – but Leo is determined to succeed.

“That’s what I love about painting, is that it can suggest or represent ideas that are difficult to conjure with in words, even poetry.”

Although there is a video diary element in the exhibition, Annabel is pleased that drawing and figurative painting can capture a sense of Leo’s personality and the fact that his condition means that he is constantly moving.

“With drawing you can produce both a sense of stillness and a sense of movement. When I first started drawing him I was worried that I would have a series of cartoon-like energy marks around him, showing him moving but I realised that movement was part of who he was and I was showing it in my drawings.

“The idea of painting and drawing someone who moved, and who had altered his external appearance to fit more with what he felt like on the inside, appealed to me. The exhibition invites the viewer to look at the person rather than the disability, but without pretending that the disability is not there. The exhibition also provides a basis for talks and audience discussion about issues related to disability and appearance, and can be installed in a variety of venues.”

Beneath the Skin: An Exploration of the Identity of Leo Collins is at the Waterfront Gallery, University of Suffolk, until February 26.

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