A loving father who was paralyzed from the neck down in a freak accident when he was only 19 has found his true vocation as a "mouth artist" – spending between 20 and 200 hours on each intricate painting.
Before crashing into a tree at 60mph, when he swerved to avoid a badger in the road, Barry 'Bazza' West, 43, of Uckfield, East Sussex, England, had “no interest in art whatsoever," thinking he was destined to be a laborer, “digging up holes or building walls."
But he now creates vibrant artwork – often joined by his son, Harrison, four, who mimics his dad's technique – also teaching art online, as one of just 33 British members of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA).
Happily married to hairdresser Lorraine, 39, a family friend who he reconnected with on Facebook in the summer of 2013, Bazza readily admits:
“I've had a remarkable life."
“If you'd told me after I woke up, aged 19, in a hospital bed and discovered I'd never walk again, that nearly 25 years on, I'd have a wife, a son, and a fantastic vocation, I would never have believed you."
Bazza was driving to meet a friend on the night of his horrific crash, on May 22, 1996.
Bazza gardening before the accident, aged 18 (PA Real Life/Collect)
When he woke from an induced coma at Buckinghamshire's Stoke Mandeville Hospital, several months after the accident, unable to move any part of his body from the neck down, he panicked that he was late for work.
“The last thing I remember was driving to meet a pal, when a badger came into the middle of the road out of nowhere," he said.
“I automatically swerved and the car – along with my head – smashed into a tree."
The first time Bazza was allowed out of bed at Stoke Mandeville Hospiital, in 1996 (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I woke up strapped to the bed, unable to move and was convinced I was late for work. Little did I know I was four months late and had been in a coma."
Told by doctors that he had fractured his skull and broken his spine in two places, it slowly dawned on Bazza that he would never feel his body from the neck down again.
Refusing to “wallow in self-pity," he was determined to leave the hospital as soon as possible, mastering how to use a mouth stick to eat, drink and maneuver a motorized wheelchair – operated by his chin.
“At first I could move my eyes and nothing else," he said. “I remember seeing another bloke on the ward who couldn't use his arms and thinking, 'poor bloke.'
“No one had the heart to tell me that would be my reality, but I soon figured it out for myself."
Discharged in April 1997, Bazza was grateful to be home – living with his parents, former gardener Morris, 75, and retired seamstress Christine, 72 – but struggled with being the only person in his village in a motorized wheelchair.
Bazza with his family dog, Bertie, within the first year of being discharged, in 1997 (PA Real Life/Collect)
“After 11 months in hospital, I'd become almost institutionalized," he said.
Unable to work, he filled his time reading and endlessly binge watching TV series “before it was the norm."
But it was not until he was confined to bed, after developing nasty sores from sitting in his wheelchair, in 2009, that he taught himself to paint by holding a brush in his mouth.
'We Will Never Surrender' (PA Real Life/Collect)
“At school I was no good at art and, when they tried to get me to paint in rehab, there was no way I was doing it."
“Then, confined to bed for several months by my sores, I gave it another go."
Buying himself a 'teach yourself painting kit' – including a DVD tutorial, text book, easel, drawing pad and paint, with nothing else to do, he started painting day in day out and, to his surprise, was “pretty good at it."
“Indoors for months on end and needing something to inspire me, painting pulled me out of some dark places," he said.
“Able-bodied or not, keeping your mind active is so important."
With subject matter varying from British landmarks to historical battle scenes, over the next few years, he filled his house with paintings, giving some to friends and family, but never selling them.
Bazza and Lorraine at a black tie event in September 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Then, in early 2013, a mate suggested he contact the MFPA – a partnership of disabled artists who paint without using their hands.
“I emailed one of the board members, Tom Yendell, and, within a week, he organized a visit for me," said Bazza.
“He was so impressed that I'd taught myself to paint that he asked me to submit eight pieces to the society."
Kimberly, Bazza and Lilty in 2013 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Within months, to Bazza's delight, he was made a student of the prestigious society, which now pays him a bursary each month in exchange for at least five pieces of artwork a year, which are reproduced on everything from calendars to pillow cases.
Then, buoyed with new confidence, when Bazza saw a photo of old family friend Lorraine pop up on Facebook in the summer of 2013, he sent her a “cheeky message."
Going on to exchange messages back and forth, Lorraine was attracted by Bazza's sense of humor and, the same month, went to his house to reconnect over a cup of tea.
“I've known Lorraine pretty much my whole life through family connections," he said.
“But we hadn't spoken for years when I messaged her on Facebook.
“When she came round for a first date, I was bed bound, so we had a cup of tea and a catch-up."
Bazza, Loraine when Harrison was one-week-old (PA Real Life/Collect)
Quickly becoming a regular visitor, within a few months the pair became an item and had moved in, sharing time between both their homes.
Then, in early 2015, they pooled their savings, spending £18,000 (~$22,200) on IVF, to help Bazza – left impotent by his injuries – become a dad.
And in July that year, after two rounds of treatment, Lorraine – who says she took “about 20 tests" discovered she was pregnant.
Bazza painting Big Ben (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I honestly didn't think it would work, so it was amazing."
Then, on December 31, 2015, with the help of Lorraine's children from a previous relationship – Kimberly, 16, and Lily, 13 – he popped the question.
“The girls asked if their mum fancied a treat, then we surprised her with a Millie's cookie saying, 'Will you marry me?'" he said.
But before they could tie the knot, on Valentine's Day 2016, Harrison was born at Sussex's Princess Royal Hospital, weighing 7lb 12oz.
Their family complete, the couple tied the knot on December 31, 2016, exactly a year after getting engaged, at a small chapel in nearby Eastbourne.
“We wanted to end the year as we started it – with a bang," Bazza said.
Bazza when Harrison was one-week-old, in February 2016 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Now, like father like son, little Harrison is already a budding artist – copying the dad he adores by learning to paint with his mouth before he had any dexterity with his hands.
“Now he paints using his hands and his mouth."
“We had to explain to his nursery that although it might be frowned upon for other children to use their mouths, for Harrison and his daddy that's just the way it's done!"
Rainbow Bird (PA Real Life/Collect)
For Bazza, painting helped give him the confidence to find love and have the family of his dreams.
“I will never forget holding Harrison for the first time."
“I was blown away that I was actually a dad."
“Now my family means everything to me."
Bazza, who has been teaching brushstroke techniques as part of the MFPA's video tutorials during lockdown – showing wannabe artists how to paint a daffodil – also thanks painting for the positive course his life has taken.
“It's amazing how much painting can change your perspective on things – especially when you're stuck in the house, like a lot of us are right now. It's hugely therapeutic."
Bazza and Harrison painting over Christmas 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
“It gives you drive and focus and you notice how pretty the simplest things are around you."
“Your eyes become a little bit wider, and that's what people need, now more than ever."
“And to anyone who thinks painting isn't for them, I have one thing to say: 'If you believe, you can achieve – just look at me.'"
To find out more about the MFPA, visit www.mfpa.uk