Saturday, July 24, 2010


Cerebral Palsy sufferer Leo Haines, age 5,
with his mother Marianna and some of his artwork.


At almost five years old, Leo Haines is severely disabled, but the inspirational youngster from Taunton, Somerset, England, has just celebrated his first art exhibition in the UK — selling his abstract art to help other children like him.

It's an astonishing feat in itself that at five years old, little Leo Haines is already an accomplished painter showing his work at his own exhibition. But, when you consider that this particular artist is fighting for his life, suffering from terminal pulmonary vein stenosis, cerebral palsy and intermittent deafness, you begin to realize how special this little boy really is.

Born prematurely at 24 weeks old, his mother was told her son wouldn't survive, not once but nine times. But Leo had other plans. Now, almost five years later, the brave little boy has become such an accomplished artist, that not only is his work selling for up to $160 a piece, he's inspiring other young children with disabilities to follow their dreams and raising money for his local hospital in the process.

Leo's grandfather, Brian Thomas, a retired electronics and communications worker tells about Leo's extraordinary journey so far and how painting has truly changed his life. "When Leo was born, he was so sick, he didn't come home from hospital until just before his first birthday," he recalls, chatting from his home in Taunton. "But my daughter Bella (Leo's mother) was always confident he would make it and he did."

Needing constant oxygen and drugs to control his pulmonary vein stenosis (a rare condition that means the veins running from his heart to his lungs will eventually block, ending his life) added to his cerebral palsy symptoms, which include a lack of mobility and not being able to speak properly, meant that the Haines family often struggled to communicate with Leo.

But when he was two years old, things took a turn for better, after the inquisitive little boy picked up his grandmother's love of painting and a whole new world opened up to him.

Thomas, 59, said: "My wife, his grandmother, is a well-known local artist and it started with Leo joining in, basically uninvited, into her work." (Photo: Artistic Leo, pictured here aged 3, is able to concentrate on his work for over an hour at a time.)

So his wife, who is known in the art world as Marianna Sheldrake, set her grandson up with a little canvas and a selection of paints and they started to work side by side.
"He went off on his own tangent with this abstract style of his and just seemed to flourish," added Thomas.

"It began by getting him to recognize different colors and mixtures and shapes. Now it is his favorite pastime. I suppose you'd call them impressionism — they're definitely inspired by his choice of colors, and I think he's got a very good choice in colors," boasted his grandfather. 

"You have to see it to believe it," says Thomas, who along with his wife and daughter encouraged Leo's newfound hobby, especially when they realized how therapeutic it was for him. "It's another form of communication for Leo and he bonds with his nanny as they sit there and do it together," he said, adding: "He's even started using it to negotiate with us which is incredible — he asks if he can do a little painting and then go to his physiotherapy."

Thomas explained: "Amongst his biggest problems was the ability to communicate because he has cerebral palsy. One of the ways we actually got him to communicate is through activities — painting is one of those things that he can do. My wife's taught him a sort-of no boundaries approach. It has been great for Leo — it's got him communicating. He has at least three sessions a week, and in the winter four or five. Some children of his age would not concentrate for more than 15 minutes, but he loves painting so much he can be absorbed for an hour and a half."

Over the next few years, Leo painted up to five times a week, working with both a brush and a roller as well as using one of his favorite techniques of dripping paint directly onto the canvas, to make dazzling abstract works full of feeling with sweeping colors on black backgrounds.

It wasn't long before Leo had accumulated over 40 pieces of art and the family were left wondering what to do with them all. "Everyone who visited the house used to comment on them so we started to talk about the possibility of an exhibition to raise money for the Musgrove Park Hospital where Leo spent so much time as a baby."

That possibility became a reality when the local library offered to host Leo's work in their exhibition space, thanks to a one-week gap in their schedule. "We only had three weeks notice but we jumped at the chance!" recalls Thomas, who quickly set to work, gathering Leo's art and making a storyboard of Leo's life to display alongside the paintings.

It was all worthwhile when little Leo made his grand entrance at the exhibition. "He kept looking up at his mom and pointing at the wall and then at himself as if to say 'Leo' and then when he realized they were all his paintings, his eyes got as big as saucers and he couldn't stop staring."

The reaction from the public was just as dramatic, with many of them comparing his work to the famous abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. "I had to explain to them that they were in fact painted by my four-and-a-half-year old grandson! They couldn't believe it." (Photo: Little Leo's work has been likened to Jackson Pollock's paintings such as that artist's 'Number 17, 1949' pictured above.)

Proud grandfather Thomas added, "The first day of the exhibition a man came in and got halfway down the wall and turned to me and asked, 'Are you Leo?' - quite seriously. He thought they'd been painted by an adult, and I pointed him to the other wall which tells Leo's story. He immediately bought a painting. We've got about 40 in the exhibition, and they represent two years of Leo's work."

With about half of the paintings having sold, Leo's work is getting more and more popular. "I'm getting emails from people in London wanting to buy Leo's work — it's amazing," said Thomas.

Having raised approximately $370 for the Special Play Fund at Musgrove Park Hospital, the family is thrilled to be able to give something back to the hospital where Leo continues to be treated. The money will go towards buying much-needed toys for the special needs children who stay at the hospital. "We knew it wasn't going to raise a fortune (most pieces sold for between $15 and $60) but more than anything we wanted to highlight this fund and the desperate need for toys for the special needs children like Leo," added Thomas.

Thanks to his art therapy and the special sign language the family have learned called Makaton (developed specifically for people with learning difficulties) the family can really make the most of their precious time with Leo. "He's so delighted now when we understand him and he's communicating all the time, showing colors to his grandmother, getting involved in what's going on around him, it's incredible," says his doting grandfather.

And he's not shy about letting them know when he wants to get his paintbrush out. "He moves his hand up and down in a brush stroke action, that's the Makaton sign for painting and he'll do that almost every day after breakfast," says Thomas, adding: "If you tell him no, you've got a fight on your hands!" And despite his terminal illness and severe disabilities, little Leo never lets it get him down. "I don't think I've ever known a more naturally happy child, he's constantly got a big smile on his face."

While the family has accepted the terminal nature of Leo's condition, they continue to enjoy every single day they have with him and hope that Leo will long live in people's hearts. "We do hope that he's inspirational to other children, but not just to sick children," says Thomas, adding "his story can show everyone that a child with special needs is still a child and while it might seem very lonely and scary as a parent, they're not alone so don't give up!"

If you would like to contribute towards the toy fund at Musgrove Park Hospital, please click here:

Or you can buy one of Leo's inspirational paintings, by contacting:


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