Why Body Painting?—2: Ultimate Collaboration—MODELS, Pt.2: Just how much a model can help, Amber and Kuniyoshi at FABAIC 2011

"Angry Ocean / Waterfall Tears"

by Christopher Agostino

In bodypainting, you kinda know what you paint, what you achieve, as you paint it, but you don’t know how it will survive, what it will be in the end. I have worked to learn to value the process first and understand that, for me, it is the process of painting that is my art. The photograph that results is not my art—it is a new thing, an amalgam of my art, the model’s art and the photographer’s art.

Here’s something else I find about painting people rather than canvas: when I look at my work—the final result, the photograph that makes the ephemeral act permanent—in addition to any self-critique I may make, or understanding of intent or technique, there is also always the memory of the interaction with the model, the story behind the painting. In the case of this particular painting I did with Amber LaValle Morrisey at FABAIC 2011, the story is about just how much I owe this model and a very clear answer to the question “why body painting?”
I believe that Amber is more responsible for this painting than I am. She very consciously worked to bring me to that edge of my abilities in a situation where I would not have gone there on my own. I hardly know Amber. I wish I could say we were friends but I’ve only met her, and painted her, the one time, and so I am stepping out of bounds to be describing her intentions like this, but I am aware of the results and self-aware enough to know how much I relied on her help as I painted. This is not something you could ever say about painting a canvas, that it helped—it is absolutely an example of how bodypainting is a shared act of creation by artist and model.
I painted this on Amber on Saturday night at FABAIC (Face and Body Art International Convention http://www.fabaic.com/). Although I like to paint in public as a performance art, painting at a convention is not the same thing and I will own up to the fact that my ego gets in the way there and I feel like I’m in competition with the other artists, rather than working just to my own goals. There is a fear of failure in front of my peers. Friday night I had failed. I failed to paint anyone, as the model who had asked me to paint her backed out at the last minute, too late for me to find a replacement (see how much we depend on our models?) I also failed my sponsor, as I spent Friday night sitting embarrassed on my little stage at the Kryolan booth rather than painting www.kryolan.com. Very unprofessional, and very pissed off.
So by Saturday night I felt that I did have something to prove. The pissed off part of me wanted to show off, but I also had a need to prove something to myself, that it was the art that mattered and not the praise, not the public response. That’s why I decided to take a shot at this Kuniyoshi design, the serious kind of design I’d usually save for painting at home where I have more control over the circumstances and the final photography. So that’s all on me, the decision to try something difficult for the sake of the challenge, with the awareness that I would have a beautiful woman as a model—on Friday, when I was sitting there stewing, Marcela (trying to make me feel better, I imagine) introduced me to Amber and arranged for her to model Saturday night.
Here, as I understand it, is what Amber brought to the table: she made it her business to put me in the position to succeed. Starting off by being very easy to talk to, opening up about herself and drawing me out, getting me to talk about what I was trying to do with this painting and how frustrated I was about Friday, engaging me so that I was much less concerned about where we were doing this and more fully focused on the painting process between us. And (again, stepping over the line to describe her intentions) I think that Amber is a very savvy person and worked this interaction to encourage me and get me feeling confident, confident enough to take chances. You don’t get that from a blank canvas. She also fully acquiesced to the idea that it would be a long, difficult painting process and might not come off at the end, that there were some parts of the design I was uncertain of, that we could be wasting our time—but she made a point of talking throughout like success was certain. More than that, Amber made me aware that she was fully committed to this painting being a successful work of art, and I therefore felt compelled to get past any baggage I had brought into the process to join her in that effort. So, in this case, I felt that the model led the process, not the painter.
In addition to her being a very professional model, she and her husband Bill are both photographers, so they (and my wife Lorraine) were able to help me work out some of the design questions. At one point we all conferred about how to treat the line of the waterfall at her eyes, just where it should be positioned for maximum effect and I was greatly appreciative of having that supportive collaboration.
One other thing Amber did bears mentioning, because it was unusual, and (I think) very deliberate. She started drawing attention to the painting as I was working, praising it to passersby, telling people they had to stop and look at it, pointing out details—forcing me to confront and get over that ego demon that inhibits me at conventions, giving me permission to show off while embarrassing me enough to keep me in my place.
There is a point in a bodypainting in which I have to release my art—let the model take ownership, let the photographer see it through their vision—and wait for it to return all grown up. In the best case, just like in raising children, the result exceeds the parent.
By the time we finished this painting it was 2:00 am, the convention floor was shutting down and we were rushed through the convention photography studio. Bill tried to get a shot there, but the lighting was too harsh. So Amber and Bill went off to shoot it at their own studio, and I went to bed not knowing what it would survive as, what the final result would be—only knowing how I felt about the process, the collaboration, and how much I enjoyed the challenge of the painting.
What a bonus to work with a model who has her own photography studio. After the convention, when I saw this photograph that Bill had achieved, I was overjoyed. It was much more than a record of the painting. Amber’s pose, the curl of her hand. The way they had cropped it. The colors. And if we are looking to answer the question “why body painting?” we need to look no further than her eyes.
I know that part of the reason I paint people is that I am not good enough to achieve something like this on my own. I can’t make a painting on a canvas with the poignancy of this photograph. I need the model’s help, I need her humanity. The answer to “why body painting?” is right here in Amber’s eyes.
Please check out Bill and Amber’s work at http://www.lmstudios.us/
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About the painting: I had seen an exhibit of work by the Japanese printmaker Kuniyoshi at the Japan Society and was working on a design using several of his images when the Tsunami struck Japan, changing the direction of the piece.  At the top, Hatsuhana stays under a sacred waterfall for 100 days to purify herself so that the Buddha will heal her sick husband—and this was the initiating image for my design concept. Kuniyoshi is considered one of the major masters of Japanese wood block prints, both in his illustration technique and in his subtle manipulation of colors and shading in the printing process to create effects such as the transparency of the water as it falls over Hatsuhana. The figure at the bottom of her torso is the Emperor Sutoku who turned into a demon and ravaged the land in revenge for being disrespected by his successor. The image on her back (below) is from a remarkable triptych print “Miyamoto Musashi kills great whale”.

Kuniyoshi c.1842

Kuniyoshi c.1842

Kuniyoshi - Miyamoto Musashi kills great whale -1847

Learn more at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/
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