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Art of the body politic

The canvases are lined up along the entrance hall of Emma Scott-Smith's Stirling flat.

EMMA SCOTT-SMITH: She used her art to document her pain, but now her work has become more positive, and her way of dealing with disability more political.
EMMA SCOTT-SMITH: She used her art to document her pain, but now her work has become more positive, and her way of dealing with disability more political.

Vibrant acrylic colours surround bowed silk ribbons in one series; almost-abstract sections of female legs are the subject of another group of paintings. Her home was already full of her works, some dating back to her teens, but the arrival of between 60 and 70 pieces that were part of her largest ever solo show, which ended last month, is stretching the available accommodation.

The exhibition, The Possibility of Something Other, was a remarkable example of how the internet has contracted our world, because Scott-Smith, who was born and brought up in Alloa, has had all her previous solos in the local area and only occasional contributions to group shows in Edinburgh. It was her website that attracted the attention of the Chen Tang Zhuang gallery in Tianjin in China, who contacted her out of the blue to say they'd like to show her work.

The result was an all-expenses-paid trip to China in the summer, when she took some existing work for a small introductory show, and then an intensive period of work to produce enough canvases to fill the entire gallery space at the end of the year.

"The show was half new work and it was the most colourful exhibition I have ever made. I didn't earn anything from it, but the gallery paid for everything in terms of my travel and experience," she says. The show was always well publicised by the gallery and received favourable press coverage, so a return visit, possibly in tandem with her sister Louise, who is a fashion designer, is a distinct possibility. At home her flower paintings sell for around £600 and larger commissions cost between £1750 and £3000.

The Chinese invitation is just the latest chapter in Scott-Smith's story, but the vividness of those new pictures speaks of what a positive one it has become. As well as making her art, Scott-Smith, now 35, is also studying for a doctorate in psychology at Stirling University, which is also all part of her life-and-art experience.

At the age of 12 she took an adverse reaction to antibiotics prescribed for a chest infection which left her with such chronic back pain that she was confined to bed for a year and half and spent the next 17 years in a wheelchair. In her late teens she was prescribed opiates and over time she has regained mobility, although she still has to be careful not to walk too far, and her drug regime continues to this day.

Her normal schooling, at Dollar Academy, came to an end during her illness, although she continued her interest in art. Some of that teenage work, often depicting an idealised female form, remains in her personal collection at home, alongside other works that show how she increasingly used her work to document her pain and disability, or, conversely, used her disability to inform her work. Until recent work, the human form was always clearly present, but some paintings are studded with her own baby teeth, or tessellated with dental x-rays, connecting with an experience of pain that is more universal than her own.

Her first big break as an aspiring artist came when she was just 19 and her work was seen by the then director of Macrobert arts centre, Liz Moran, who offered her her own show in the venue's (pre-Lottery refurbishment) gallery space. The show, The Last Hope, told the story of how her art had offered her a way to deal with her situation and it sold out, leading her to work with other people who were facing similar problems.

"My work is always themed on the body and reflects aspects of the struggle of all of us. I have a studio space in my parents' conservatory where I can work on large-scale canvases. They have become more abstract over the years; previously I painted a more technically correct female form. But I think I am mixing paint and passion. I like to listen to very loud music when I am working – Prince is a staple and the Prodigy when a deadline is approaching."

Salvador Dali was an early enthusiasm – and a viewing of his Christ of St John compulsory on every visit to Glasgow – and his influence is particularly obvious in Scott-Smith's teenage work, as is the figurative art of the so-called New Glasgow Boys. As her health has improved and her medication reduced, it is clear that her work has also become more positive, and her way of dealing with disability more political.

A show at the Smith Art Gallery in 2005, Useless Eaters, referenced Nazi attitudes to disabled people, and her recent Inside Out project on the Stirling University campus, where she posted a huge portrait of herself outside and invited reaction in filmed comments and graffiti, examined public response to disability.

Now that she is more mobile, Scott-Smith has found common ground with people with mental health problems whose disability is similarly invisible. The Macrobert show led her to community workshops with other disabled people, which sparked her interest in psychology, and – via an access course – her undergraduate degree. She has continued to combine work with a mental health and arts disability group in Alloa in parallel with her studies, and her practical application of her art practice ("artivism" as she calls it) forms the basis of her PhD thesis.

That practice is also widening with the making of a short film, in partnership with Alan Kerr, shown at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, to be followed by a joint exhibition at Stirling's Changing Room gallery in November this year. Going global to a gallery in China is merely another facet of Emma Scott-Smith's rather remarkable life.

www.emmascott-smith.com

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