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/
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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Japanese Demons and Kabuki Spooky

by Christopher Agostino
see also: The Eye of the Demon — a StoryFaces Performance to learn about the stage presentation I do based on the legends of the samurai and the demons that they fight
I paint a lot of demon faces this time of year, many inspired by Japanese imagery and folktales. In 2008 particularly, I put an effort into exploring new face designs based on Japanese masks and kabuki makeup. That year I was painting at the Transworld Halloween Show http://www.haashow.com/ for Kryolan Professional Makeup www.kryolan.com and took the approach at the event to paint horror faces based on world mask designs, as a contrast to the traditional zombies and skulls, so most of the examples here are from around that time.
     This mask is a contemporary example of a Namahage Demon from the Akita Prefecture. It is worn for a traditional Lunar New Year celebration which sounds like Halloween in reverse, as young men wear the masks and visit people’s houses to scare their children and admonish them to listen to their parents—or the demons will come back! The parents reward the young men with sake and food. Although frightening, Namahage are said to be gods who bring good fortune, an example of the beliefs connected to spirit worship traditions in which powerful demonic spirits can become protective when they are appeased. Check out the Japanese movies Onmyoji and Onmyoji 2 for a fun depiction of demonic possession and the Ying-Yang master that has to restore the balance.
      In folktales, Japanese demons come with various descriptions. Some may be red or blue faced, with fangs, horns and one, two or three eyes. In the tale of the famous samurai Raiko and his battle with the Goblin Earth Spider, he is attacked by an army that drops out of the storm clouds, including animals that walk like men, beings with three claws and three eyes—one with eyes in its hands—and long serpents with human heads. There’s a few ideas for facepainting. At an exhibit of prints by the artist Kuniyoshi last year at the Japan Society I was very jazzed to see two illustrations of Raiko vs. the Earth Spider with imagery that has re-invigorated the way I tell and depict that tale through faces.

Example of Kabuki makeup, from the book “Body Decoration” (see the book page for info)

The prevalence of such beliefs within the medieval Japanese culture allowed for the growth in Edo province of “Aragato,” the style of Kabuki theater which produced the famous makeup for its samurai hero and for the ghosts and demons he would battle. The origin of Kabuki and other Japanese theater in shamanic ritual and spirit worship is evident in the hero’s ability to do the impossible because they have allowed themselves to be possessed by a powerful kami (“supernatural deity”) and thus have become hitokami (“man-gods”).

       In the book Japanese Tales, edited by Royall Tyler, from Pantheon Books  http://pantheon.knopfdoubleday.com/ I found a scary tale called “The Bridge”, which included a description of the face of the demon that haunts the bridge in the story: “a red face with one amber-yellow eye as huge and round as a cushion.” A folktale that comes with its own special face design included is like finding gold for a storytelling facepainter, and it has become the tale I tell called “The Demon on Omi Bridge”, here in a performance I did for NYC Parks Department a few years ago — a tale that is now substantially different than the original in the book, as all tales evolve and change in the telling, especially as I work to choreograph the facepainting into the tale in performance.

I did a “how to paint a demon segment” on The CBS Early Show last Halloween

I find these multi-eyed demon faces are fun to paint on Dads at family events, their kids get a kick out of Dad looking so weird

I don’t know much about it, but I have heard that Japanese tattoo traditions can include using a demon image to “watch your back”

In addition to masks, I have looked for inspiration in theatrical makeup designs in Japanese horror and fantasy movies, and this idea was from a rougher sort of depiction of a demon I saw in a film.

Turning a demon concept into a vampire on a little girl

Ghost makeup from the Kabuki theatre. Color symbology is key, with reds being the colors for heroes – depicting their positive use of energy – and blues and greys signifying the stunted and misdirected energies of the evil, villains and ghosts


Painted at the Transworld Halloween Show, for a photographer from Hour 13 magazine — a blend of the Kabuki samurai pattern with the demon imagery

From the master printmaker Kuniyoshi, a detail from “The Earth Spider conjures up demons…” 1843. His work is full of imagery I have used to conjure new designs. The story behind the print, however, is that Kuniyoshi frequently used traditional subject matter like this to tweak the powers that be, and this print was read by the pubic at the time as a satiric attack on the government, with various of the demons being identified as caricatures of public officials.