HARLEM, Manhattan (PIX11) — Reducing stigma and spreading awareness through art is the goal of The Vascular Birthmark Portrait Show at Positive Exposure gallery in Harlem. The paintings by Celina Leroy highlight people with facial differences caused by port-wine stain (PWS) birthmarks and other venous malformations. 

Approximately 3 out of every 1,000 babies are born with a PWS birthmark, which appears as a reddish mark and can become darker and thicker over time.

Leroy is a Brooklyn-based artist and New York City school teacher. She was born with a PWS on her chin, lip and cheek. Leroy started painting people with birthmarks in 2020, posting the work and taking requests on Instagram.

People with PWS birthmarks often face bullying and social exclusion. “Art has the power to change perceptions,” said Leroy, who was bullied herself in high school and started the series to educate people on vascular birthmarks. 

“Confirming that what makes us different, makes us beautiful” said Jessica Dickson, who saw the artwork for the first time at the show opening and has a PWS herself.

“Growing up I would hear, ‘Did your mom hit you? Did you get burned?'” said Patricia Contreras, referring to her PWS birthmark on her cheek. “There’s such a lack of awareness,” said Emma Albert. Contreras and Albert are two of the subjects of Leroy’s paintings.

“People just heard about this exhibition and they showed up today, and they just felt welcomed. People came and they felt they belonged. It was family. It was community,” said Rick Guidotti, the founder of Positive Exposure, which is hosting the art show.

Positive Exposure is a charitable organization that promotes a more inclusive world through photography, films, exhibitions, lectures and educational programs. “We all have the same needs, the need to be seen, the need to be heard and the need to belong,” said Guidotti.

“Having yourself as a work of art makes you feel beautiful,” said Leroy, who hopes her art can increase self-esteem while combating bullying. “The goal is to end the stigma around facial differences so people don’t feel like they need to hide it. They don’t need to feel ashamed of it.”

“It sucks that other people have experienced it, but also the universality of, OK, other people have experienced it too. I’m less alone,” said Contreras.

Ten large paintings are featured as part of the show, along with several smaller ones in a collage. There is also a video accompanying each large painting where each subject tells their own story, paired with behind-the-scenes timelapse videos showing the paintings being created.

The Vascular Birthmark Portrait Show will be on display at the Positive Exposure gallery in Harlem at 14 East 109th Street through the end of February 2023.