Ros Dodd meets Melissa Mailer-Yates, whose work celebrates female strength in the face of physical adversity.
When portrait artist Melissa Mailer-Yates popped into a Birmingham art gallery after being offered an exhibition there, she fell into conversation with a customer buying a piece of sculpture.
Melissa mentioned that she wanted a sponsor for her show and the customer, Northampton businessman Greg Kirkman, talked about how he had always wanted someone to paint a portrait of his 39-year-old Birmingham-born wife, Tracey, who has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair.
"We chatted for a couple of hours and by the end we’d struck a deal," explains Melissa. "Not only did I have my sponsorship – Greg said his company would back me – but he had a portrait painter for his wife and we had decided between us that my entire exhibition would be tied into MS."
The exhibition, which opens at Number Nine The Gallery in Birmingham’s Brindleyplace on Thursday and transfers to Northampton for one night, on March 14, is expected to raise thousands of pounds for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
On display will be about 30 paintings, all female nudes, three of the models for which – including a former Miss Wales contestant – have MS.
"The paintings are specifically about depicting the power and strength of women through their innate sensuality and beauty, whether on a physical or spiritual level," says Melissa. "They focus on a woman’s ability to be fully feminine despite anything that might cause people to question it due to their distorted perceptions, even when there’s a physical disability.
"The former Miss Wales contestant, who’s in her 20s, and features in quite a lot of the paintings because she’s a true muse, takes very strong painkillers every day because of the severe pain in her legs, but she’s the most fascinating person and full of life.
"The portraits are also about MS sufferers’ perception of themselves. If you have an illness like this, which often afflicts people in the prime of life, it can affect your sense of femininity. But the paintings show that this isn’t at all the case.
"The models I used have varying degrees of MS, but despite this they look whole. Their femininity is completely intact, because to be feminine, and to feel it, is beyond physicality."
Melissa, who grew up in Solihull and now lives near Hereford, became a full-time artist after starting out in hotel management in her early 20s. Her decision to change career paths was prompted by a commission from the Queen.
"I started drawing and painting almost from the moment I could pick up a pencil, but it didn’t occur to me as I grew up that I could live my life as an artist," she recalls. "But I’d painted pet portraits – mainly dogs – for a few people and when I decided I wasn’t really cut out for hotel management, I decided to give painting a go.
"I wrote to Buckingham Palace, saying I painted dogs and would Her Majesty like a portrait of one of her dogs?
"Much to my amazement, I had a telephone call from Sir Robert Fellowes and in November 1979 I went down to the Palace and photographed the Queen’s favourite gun dog, a black Labrador."
When the picture was ready, Melissa was asked to deliver it to the Palace, but told there was no possibility of her handing it over personally to the Queen.
"When I arrived, however, I was ushered into a room and there she was. So I was able to chat to her for 15 minutes."* The exhibition at Number Nine The Gallery, No9 Brindleyplace, Birmingham runs from Thursday to April 1 (Tues-Sat 11am-7pm, Sun 11am-5pm; admission free).