Making a living as an artist during a recession is hard work, but one organization manages to build solid careers for a group who paint only with their feet or mouths.

The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of Canada pools the talents of artists with disabilities across the country, puts their work on cards, calendars and other products, then uses the profits to provide a steady income. It’s about self-help, not charity.

Cody Tresierra was 19 when a motor-vehicle accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

“I felt devastated when I was first told that I would not get the use of my limbs back,” the Vancouver resident says. “But after that, I just concentrated on getting on with my life.”

He started painting as a form of therapy and his mother submitted his work to the MFPA. He was soon on track for a career in the arts. He joined the MFPA in 1986 and became a full member in 2000.

The artistic success spread confidence through his life. It helped him move out of a group home and into his own place. He also credits it with giving him the guts to propose to the woman who is now his wife of seven years.

Tresierra tries to find a balance between commercial demands of the MFPA and his personal artistic vision.

“I’ve done a lot of landscapes and I’m getting a little bored with them. I’m starting to do a lot more animals, a lot more people,” he says. “Every quarter they catch up with me to see what I’m up to, but other than that they leave me pretty much to explore what I want to explore, and I really appreciate that about them.”

James Parkins has been with the organization for 12 years. Based in Toronto, he explains that the MFPA started in 1956 as a way to enable disabled people to make money from their art.

Artists start as a student, meaning they get a stipend for materials, Parkins says. A promotion to associate member gets them on the products. Next step is full membership, which guarantees an income for life.

“It’s irrespective of whether they have a degenerative disease and can’t paint any more. That was the ethos behind the beginning of the company,” Parkins says.

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