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Powerful painful empowering

Alison Lapper's new exhibition Lost in Parys at Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham

By Raymond G. TaylorPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 4 min read
Lost in Parys at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, March 2024, Photo: RGT

Not an easy exhibition to see, Lost in Parys describes in painful detail the love and loss of a mother following her son's death at the age of 19. Artist Alison Lapper is perhaps best known as the subject of a nude sculpture by Marc Quinn, which was mounted in Trafalgar Square, London, between 2005 and 2007. Controversial at the time and drawing the obvious idiotic comments about nudity, beauty, the female form and whether pregnancy and disability were suitable subjects to put on display in a public place. These days one would hope that the world is a little more tolerant and a lot more understanding.

Bethlem Museum of the Mind: Lost in Parys invites the viewer through a landscape of loss and the expression of grief. The poignant dialogue between three artists, Alison Lapper, Marc Quinn and Rankin, unfolds an intimate narrative that travels through the complexities of life and love of motherhood. The exhibition is supported by the charity The Drug of Art.

Alison Lapper: Lost in Parys

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be guided through the exhibition by the artist herself, along with my wife Sandra and a small group of other visitors. Each painting by Alison was described in painful detail, whether it related to her son Parys when he was alive, or more so after his death. The paintings in the exhibition include a beautiful portrait (not shown above) of the teenage boy and, when I first saw it, I wondered if it was a self portrait of the artist at a young age. You could tell from seeing the artist alongside her work that the two were mother and son, sharing a striking resemblance.

Alison Lapper, 2018, photo via Wikimedia Commons

Other of her paintings were less beautiful, but no less imbued with the love that she felt for her deceased boy. A love that she said she had nowhere to direct. Yet to see her paintings is to feel that love radiate from within these haunting images. One in particular had the striking and heart-rending image of the artist's pain at losing her son which she said during her talk had begun before his death. This feeling of loss developed as Parys sunk into drug misuse and declining mental health while becoming reluctant to accept help. It was this mental ill health and drug use that led to his death from an overdose, though there was no evidence (concluded the Coroner in a narrative verdict at the inquest) that Parys deliberately ended his life.

Another painting depicts the artist kissing the face of her deceased son. An image that could send a chill down the spine of some viewers while others would see, not a person kissing a corpse, but a mother caring for, and loving, her only son.

Alison spoke of her life before and after the birth of Parys. How social services were itching to take her baby away from her and just waiting for her to fail as a mother. Being a single parent must be hard enough, without the added difficulties arising from her disabilities. Difficulties which, through her strength, Alison overcame, presumably with sheer determination.

The exhibition includes works by two other artists, photographer Rankin, and sculptor Marc Quinn. Two of Quinn's works are shown in the featured image above. The sculpture to the right of the exhibition photograph is the one that was displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square London from 2005 to 2007. A giant replica of this was paraded at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics held in London.

Opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics in London

The other sculpture, shown in the left foreground of the featured image of the Bethlem exhibition, depicts Alison holding her baby, Parys.

A graduate in Fine Art from the University of Brighton, Alison Lapper paints expertly with her mouth, and is a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World. In 2003, she was awarded an MBE for services to art.

The two photo portraits of Alison at the far end of the room in the featured image at the start of this article are by Rankin. The exhibition also includes a display cabinet showing a collection of Parys's personal possessions. In addition, there is a moving tribute to Parys consisting of flowing net cloth printed with images of the young man which, as the material moves, allow the images to flow in and out of sight. The meaning of this installation is not difficult to grasp.

Through the pain that is clearly felt in this exhibition, the message is ultimately empowering. Yes, a disabled woman can bring up a child. Yes, a woman who has no arms can become a celebrated painter. Yes, a mother's grief can be directed to create art that projects her love for her lost child, and a young man's, and her own, beauty.

The exhibition was supported by the Drug of Art: Introducing art to young people to support their mental health.

Please help by making a contribution to the crowdfunding of this project.

Alison Lapper: Lost in Parys will be on show at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham, Bromley London Borough until 1 June. 2024

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About the Creator

Raymond G. Taylor

Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.

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Comments (5)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knockabout a month ago

    Beautiful & moving, Raymond. I kept having to return to the first picture to realize first that she is a dwarf, second that she has no arms. We have become so inured to distortions & missing limbs in both sculpture & painting I hadn't even paid attention to those details.

  • Shirley Belkabout a month ago

    What a beautiful, unstoppable woman she is!

  • John Coxabout a month ago

    Wonderful and moving review, Ray. Thanks for sharing!

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    It's so sad that Parys committed suicide. I can only imagine how devastating it must be for Alison 🥺

  • Mark Grahamabout a month ago

    This would make a great piece for a Social services course dealing with diversity.

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