Transformations — About the Company

About the Company

— adapted from Transformations! The Story behind the Painted Faces by Christopher Agostino – revised 12/12/12

The first face I painted was in 1976, as a young actor asked to help turn hundreds of my fellow high school students into clowns for a bicentennial parade. By the next summer, the members of our theater troupe had opened a facepainting concession at Adventureland Amusement Park on Long Island, NY. I haven’t stopped painting faces since. (Why would I? It’s too much fun).

In the eighties I began to look at facepainting differently — as an art. The art of transformation. In 1983 I was in LA,  painting faces and bodies at Venice Beach. I joined with another performer and visual artist, Jennifer Green, to promote facepainting to museums and art shows as well as the usual gigs. Jenn’s approach to a face was very different from mine. On the same day that I painted a classic Chinese Opera design on her as a logo for our fledgeling company, she turned me into abstract art.

When I returned to New York, I got a gig painting faces in the window of Unique Clothing right on Broadway in Greenwich Village and worked there on and off through the mid- ‘80s. It was facepainting as public entertainment. As was the case at both the amusement park and Venice Beach, I was painting more adults and teens than kids. I worked on ways to blend my theatrical approach and the Chinese Opera imagery with the punk styles people were wearing on the streets.

The extensive event industry in New York let me move from street fairs, where people paid for each face, to being hired for private parties and corporate events. Sometimes I’d be able to bring along another artist who painted full faces, but most often there would be other freelance facepainters on these gigs with their own styles or just doing cheek art.

As the work became more steady and the events larger, I wanted to always work with a group of artists who approached this art like I did, to present facepainting as more than a cute diversion for little kids. That led in the ‘90s to the formation of the company, Transformations Facepainting, and that was when facepainting really became fun.

Finding a facepainting home like the Bronx Zoo has allowed us to develop and maintain a company of very experienced artists. The members of Transformations Facepainting, over the years, have included: Dennis Pettas, Roberta Halpern,  Jennifer Wade, Miguel Cossio, Laura Metzinger, Michele Carlo,  Angela Izrailova, Miko and Claudia Reese, Jin Young Park, Danny Gosnell, Naoko Oshima,  Margery Gosnell-Qua,  Maria Pirone, Sigfrido Aguilar, Janet Izzo, Denise Lord,  Nirupama Kumar, Christine Gregory, Zak Brown, Lizi Costache, Regina Russo, Phil Zirkuli, Britt Lower, Colleen Gallagher, Deborah Berkson, Abigail Weg. Our website and promotional materials are full of my snapshots of the faces that I paint — their work is vastly under-represented in proportion to their contribution to the success of our company.

The artists who find their way into our company tend to stay with us. It’s so much fun and we like each other.

Before I had an organized troupe, I had friends to paint with. I’d get canvas painters I knew, like Wanda Boudreaux, to try facepainting. Wanda’s from New Orleans, so we also got a chance to paint down there for Mardi Gras, and I have always felt that I learned as much from artists like Wanda as they learned from me. Some of the other artists I’ve painted with along the way include Kate Cain Madsen (who began like me back at Adventureland), Teddy Goldman, Anne Farmer, Diane Epstein, Suzanne Haring and her sisters, Jodi Levitan, Susan-Rachel Condon, Luanne Dietrich, Erica Borillo,  and Therese Schorn. Some of these artists were with me as I first began to discover what I wanted to do with a face.

A facepainter is an artist who entertains, and entertainers get into the most interesting places. One day we may be painting at a party in the inner recesses of the New York Stock Exchange and the next day we’re painting an endless line of kids in the Bronx for the NYC Parks Department. One summer, Transformations was hired by the Nature Conservancy for the Long Island Beach Festival. It was a wonderful event, right on the beach at Smiths Point Park. I got to tell stories and talk about nature and facepainting to the crowd strolling through the tent, and we got a chance to dip our toes in the ocean afterwards. This is a wonderful business.

Usually for such events I’ll give the artists a theme and maybe some source images like masks or sea life photos and they will invent their own faces. This time I tried something different. I gave to the three artists working with me (Naoko, Marge and Miguel), a set of 70 sea life faces I had sketched out for an earlier project at the New York Aquarium and asked them for that day to use my designs rather than their own. We told the crowd we were painting not to worry about what they wanted to be, that everyone would be surprised with a different sea life face.

As these three accomplished artists, who I have worked beside for years, began painting my face designs each took their own approach, brought their own style and vision, and none of the faces looked like I’d painted them. What a pleasure it was to work beside them.

For such artists to believe me when I tell them what I think is possible in this unconventional medium; for them to let me give them certain rules for painting on certain days; for colleagues to let me set a course for their creativity — this is all a very unexpected consequence of my decision to be a facepainter. To have a company of artists who want to do what I do amazes me.

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Bodies Alive!


Bodies Alive!

Bringing painted bodies to life in performance

The curtain call for Bodies Alive! at FABAIC 2008


Bodies Alive! at FABAIC — A celebration of the artists that paint living canvases. Why do we paint bodies? Because they are alive!

In 2008, our company had the opportunity to create a performance for the annual Face And Body Art International Convention, thanks to the support of Marcela Murad (convention producer) and the collaboration of so many world class artists and enthusiastic volunteers, designed to showcase the talent of the participating artists and demonstrate the potential for painted body stage performances. In just a few days, working under the direction of Lorraine, we all put together a show including UV Action Painting, Jinny’s Singing Faces, the Metamorphosis Models by the convention artists, the Nao Dance Company and the epic tale Li Chi Slays the Dragon. Click here for the program listing the participating artists:  PROGRAMbodiesAlive

Here are some of the videos:










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Bodies Alive! at the Odd Ball

Painted Body Fashion Show featuring models painted by guest artists for Real Art Ways annual Odd Ball.

For the 2009 Odd Ball at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT , the entire evening was bodypainting as performance art. Here’s a video. Fotos and more at: The Odd Ball

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Body Painting Video — The Making of Kryolan 2011 Calendar: Unique Gallery of Modern Art

I just received the new video from Kryolan Professional Makeup on the making of their 2011 calendar. Every year, Kryolan puts out a large format calendar featuring makeup art and body painting. 2011 featured body paintings inspired by famous 19th and 20th century artists, created by a Natalia Pavlova’s Team of artists from Russia (with Anastasia Malysheva and Juliana Mahtyuk) under the direction of Elena Samarina, the head of the Arte-Grim Company, distributor of Kryolan products throughout the Russian federation. The video is also a tour of the extensive line of Kryolan products, including those beautiful big aluminum makeup cases they make.

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Why Body Painting? — 2: Ultimate Collaboration — MODELS, Pt.1 What I have learned from models.

   by Christopher Agostino

For all of my artistic life I have depended on the willing participation of another person. Even the simple act of painting a face requires the acquiesce of the person with the face to be painted. So much more so the body model. I think about this relationship between bodypainter and model a lot, and it is at the essence of the question “why body painting?”

I can’t take a canvas off a shelf and just start bodypainting, and I can’t buy a model at Michael’s. A body model is not an object, not a commodity. They talk, move, think and feel while you are painting them. What would it be like painting a canvas that talked to you? Or that had an opinion of the painting as you were doing it?

We entrust our art to the model, as they trust us when they let us paint them. There is an exchange of intimacy in the collaboration between artist and model: the obvious physical intimacy of the model letting an artist paint their body in exchange for the artist giving them entrance into his vision and the act of creation.

In describing my experience collaborating with models, I can’t speak for all bodypainters, and probably not for most professional bodypainters. I don’t paint in competitions, and don’t take a lot of commercial work. If the painting is for a performance or someone else’s project the process is specific and my role is to support the vision of the director and function like a makeup artist or costumer to make the performer feel confident and look good. Sometimes in teaching settings or painting at the Kryolan booth at a convention the goal is specific and limited, and I may approach that body painting as a sketch or exploration, or repeat something I’d done before because I know it works. In those cases I’m hoping for a model that is professional, comfortable being painted and pleasant to talk to and spend some time with as we work.

It is when I have a strong vision for a realized fine art design I am trying to achieve—whether painting in studio with the goal of generating that one key photograph or painting in public as performance art—that I have come to understand how deep my collaboration with the model is, that I am as dependent on the model as they are on me for success. I need more than the acquiescence of the model, I need their support, their encouragement, to allow me to take chances. I especially need them to let me be vulnerable and to risk failure. It’s not something you have to ask of a canvas off the shelf, and it’s an understanding I’ve only come to learn about my process through the years, and through the failures, as I have tried to find my way forward in this art.

I don’t think this is true of more experienced, professional bodypainters, but I’m not sure.

Behind the question I’ve been addressing in this series of posts, “why body painting?”, is the larger question, “why art?”, and the specific question of why did I choose to be an artist? As a generalization, I think artists are compelled to create art—I couldn’t say why or how, maybe in response to having an awareness of life that seems to them different than the norm, and so the desire to change the norm or at least express their difference. Beyond that original  impetus, I can say for myself that a large part of what keeps me creating art is the excitement of the fight, the struggle to succeed, to “win”. In much the same way I imagine an athlete must feel, setting out to create a painting feels to me like a competition, albeit an internal one between me and the limitations of my abilities to bring that idiosyncratic vision I identify as myself into the world as a physical, undeniable reality, an “object of art”.

Artists strive for the edge, both in the sense of a place they’ve never been and in the sense of a place they are unsure of, walking the razor’s edge, unsure of their footing. I’ve felt that edge most keenly in performance before an audience, especially on stage alone trying new material, unsure of how to perform it and knowing that success or failure is in my hands—and audiences let you know if you fail. I’ve also felt it late at night all alone in my workshop making a sculpture out of a piece of clay, or painting a canvas—though it’s so much harder to assess success or failure in that setting and I’m sure I’m not the only visual artist who sees the things they’ve created over the years and remains uncertain of which category they fall into.

But, speaking strictly from my own experience, there is something about body painting that feels different. Added to the usual angst of creating art is the awareness of its immediacy and ephemeral nature—you get it right or you don’t, like a performance—but it’s also there before you as a physical object. That “object” is a person, a person whose participation I appreciate and whose feelings I care about, and I want to succeed for them as well as for me. They are becoming the art I am making and I feel responsible for that in a way I’d never feel for a lump of clay, and maybe that connection to the human I am working with helps me reach deeper. The model is also invested, showing me confidence by giving me permission to paint them, plus the time and physical sacrifice involved (unless you have been bodypainted or done a bunch of bodypainting I don’t think you can understand quite what a body model is agreeing to when they let you paint them—we artists ask a lot, they work hard). Often the models I paint also help with the design and the process, making suggestions, showing me movement ideas, helping with decisions, in addition to the beauty of who they are that they bring to the painting in a  way beyond any other canvas can. When it’s really working, the model is right there at the edge with me. In a stage performance, you work to energize and engage the audience so that you can soar on their wings to new heights. When bodypainting, it is more of a direct collaboration, if we are to fly we fly together.

And then, there is that magic thing that happens when I finish the painting and now the model takes it, owns it, brings it to life—takes it away from me and makes it more than I had conceived of. This is the pivotal difference between painting a person and painting a canvas. Not only does the art come to life, but as soon as I am done it is no longer mine, it has a life of its own now—how different that feels than seeing a canvas I’ve painted hanging on a wall.

The ultimate lesson I have learned from models is about my own limitations. I don’t believe I can transcend a model’s limitations, whereas I know they can transcend mine. I’ve seen it happen, I’ve seen a model take the limited work of my art and make it into something more. That alone would be answer enough to “why body painting?”


Painting Becca at FABAIC 2007

I’ve had quite a number of very positive collaborations with models, here are just a few practical examples of how models have helped me, helped my art.

The first time I painted someone as a recognizable, famous painting, the Picasso “Seated Woman, 1937” image in the previous post, it was because Becca told me to paint something on her I’d always wanted to try but never had the chance, and that I could take as long as needed to work it out as we went. I had a few months earlier painted some kids with Picasso faces, for a museum exhibit of his work, and with her encouragement tried it as a bodypainting. (Recently she flew to New York to let me paint her for a project with no pay, and made me feel like I was doing her the favor.)

Just as I was starting to experiment with modern art imagery, I did several paintings with Emma, who is an art historian as well as a dancer, and it was an education for me as we talked about the concepts behind the imagery. I appreciated how, given her background, she saw that what I was working to achieve was valid as fine art.

You can’t be a bodypainter without a body model. And yet, it feels like we aren’t that kind to them, asking them to stand there, forever, not moving, without any clothes on, and after all that, that’s when we want them to work even harder, bringing the art we just painted to life. I’d spent hours painting Christina at the Kryolan booth at FABAIC 2009. When we were done, it was late. Still, she went on to pose for hours. First for spectators, than for one photographer, and finally for the convention photographer, Lisa Konz. By that point it was maybe 2:00 am and Christina wouldn’t quit until she got the photo right, the photo at the top of the post of her leaping that became my Painted Bodies Living Art logo. Once the body is painted, we depend upon the model to present it at its best, even better than we conceived of it—and also on the photographer to capture it and preserve it. The result is a collective, collaborative art work.

Thank you to all of the models who have joined me in this adventure over the years.

Emma, as Cubist Tiger Pop

Christina also worked hard to get this wonderful action shot, photographed by Lisa Konz

Learn more at my Body Painting Page

From African Masks to Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch Spring Quarterly 2000 cover, photograph by Bruce Weber

by Christopher Agostino

From early on I was taking inspiration for face designs from the makeup and mask art of other cultures. During  the summer of 1999, I was able to initiate my company of artists in this process as we painted faces in African Mask inspired styles over 8 weekends for the opening of the Congo Gorilla Rainforest exhibit at the Bronx Zoo .  None of the culturally inspired faces we paint can really be “authentic,” removed as they are from the culture that gives them meaning, so taking a traditional art as source material needs to be done with an understanding that we are artists finding inspiration in a visual image and we can claim no ownership of the intrinsic cultural content of that image. During the “Congo Summer” of 1999, I sometimes questioned the propriety of my being a white American in New York painting these wonderful African images, especially on the beautiful black faces they might be said to really belong to. It’s a tricky question I frequently confront as an artist and storyteller whose work includes cultural sources, and I try to be open about it. I was very gratified once when a woman trusted me enough to ask me to paint a Maasai design on her son’s face, telling me that this was his heritage but he knew nothing about it, so she wanted me to paint him and tell him the significance of the design.

Traditional Maasai bodyart, from a photograph by Art Wolfe in "Tribes"

Photo from Art Wolfe's tribes of a decorated Maasai.

Part of the profound beauty of a painted face is that you can’t see the color of the skin beneath. All you see are the eyes — the very human eyes. My explorations into the earliest human art and cultures convince me that we all truly are one people, sharing a universal view of life and our core aspirations, originating in a single fundamental culture — which anthropologists today tell us began with a small group of modern humans in Africa and subsequently spread around the world and diversified. By using cultural images, I believe we remind our public audiences of the unity of the family of humanity.

Whereas all of modern humanity may have sprung from that one, small unified group of humans in prehistoric Africa (perhaps, scientists say, a group of as few as 600 individuals), to use the term today “African Masks” or “African Art” is an inaccurate shorthand at best. Africa is a continent of many diverse countries and ethnic groups, and the mask and body arts of these cultures vary greatly. We found a wealth of images, styles and conceptual approaches to transforming a human face in our search for inspiration as we painted faces at the zoo that summer of 1999, from the rock paintings of the San bushmen of Southern Africa through the abstract spirit masks of equatorial Africa and north to the henna designs of the Berber. I have come to see that the experimentation that summer gave my company of artists a new overall perspective on facepainting as a larger art, including a foundation in stylizing and abstracting designs that take the artist beyond realist imagery.

My photo of the Abercrombie & Fitch model before they costumed him

In October of that year, the photographer Bruce Weber saw me working in this stylized “tribal” approach as I was painting at another New York event, and he hired me to paint a group of models in Florida for the Abercrombie & Fitch Spring Quarterly 2000. The foto he chose for the cover was of a model painted in a spirit mask inspired baboon design I had been experimenting with all that summer.

And it was while I was researching the mask and sculptural arts of Africa that summer that I read about how in 1905 Africa again became a source of inspiration for world culture as traditional sculptures and masks made their way to Paris and changed the approach of a whole generation of Western artists at the dawn of the Modern Art movement. As Frank Willet states in African Art: An Introduction (Thames & Hudson,1993), when masks from Africa were seen by Picasso and Matisse, “the revolution of twentieth-century art was underway.” 

"Spirit Mask" inspired baboon design from that Congo Summer, 1999.

That was a spark that set me into an ongoing exploration of this linkage between traditional and modern art, primarily through a series of fine art bodypaintings in which I blend iconic modern art images with the tribal bodyart and mask images that inspired them: the “Modern Primitive” series.

The first third of my book is about the lessons I’ve learned from cultural sources. To learn about my book, and about the other books mentioned here, go to:

For a related blog post, see: From a mask to a painted face:

The Omo River region in Ethiopia holds several cultures that still maintain some bodyart traditions. These geometric patterns in earth tones may be so different than the facepainting most people are used to, yet they make for very pleasant looking finished faces, and I find people are very receptive to being painted in this way.

This Surma photo from the wonderful book "African Ceremonies" has proven to be a style of design that adult women enjoy wearing. In the photo on the right, I copied the pattern of the original design while altering the colors because I was painting it on a caucasian face.

The designs of Surma males are different, in this example the men have covered their whole bodies in a white clay, then scrape the design into that white base so that their dark skin shows through to make the geometric patterns. In a regular facepainting setting I can't really imitate the scraping technique, so I imitate the pattern instead.

This face painting was for a demonstration on African bodyart for a student group at Columbia University, based on a sketch of Lobi facepainting from the book "Body Decoration".

Combining imagery with a simplified "Tribal" style

Spending 8 weekends working in one style allowed for a lot of possible areas of exploration, including trying faces using just pieces of designs or patterns from African cloth and masks.

Another design from a cultural source that makes a pleasant face for an adult. The original came from one photo I saw of bodypainting among the Loma people for a girl's coming of age ceremony, in which she will be painted in plant dyes that slowly fade over a few weeks, and once they have faded she will be eligible for courtship. Again, though, I have to approach this image primarily as visual inspiration for I have no full understanding of the cultural context.

We have also had the chance to bring an "African style" to theme events at other venues, including the Coney Island Aquarium where I painted these two stylized Starfish faces.

here's my friend Kate painting during the Congo Summer event. Having 10 artists at the zoo for 8 weekends gave me the chance to invite in some guest artists like Kate to work with us and try our Transformation approach.