It’s a bright Sunday afternoon in mid-February at a studio at 8 1/2 N St. SW, and the Anacostia-based photographer Adrienne Mills is swooping around Tasha Lenai, a crouching young woman wearing an Afro wig, a tube top, and tight Capri pants—not to mention swirls of gold, blue, and red paint on her neck, face, and upper body.
“Relax!” says Mills. “I know it’s hard because the paint is tightening up now.”
“I feel like a creature.” says Lenai, an Alexandria resident and aspiring actress, who’s keeping her fingers splayed as if she’d just put on nail polish. “I don’t even know who I am.”
Getting out of yourself seems to be one of the points of “Being Art,” Mills’ second solo photography show of body-painted subjects, on exhibition at the studio until March 21. For the show, Mills invited several area artists—including Mark Clark, who owns the studio—to paint on volunteer models, whom she then photographed.
On selected weekends throughout the show’s run, the public can also watch the process live. Bethesda artist Phillip Pradier, who’s just finished taking the brush to Lenai for 45 minutes, admits he’s never done body-painting before. But he says the human body—like the canvas, wood, and Masonite he usually paints—is just another surface.
“Some people say painting is dead,” says Pradier. “But is painting just about a flat surface on a wall? I am interested in this collaboration with another two-dimensional artist, a photographer, on a three-dimensional surface.”
Clark agrees. “I’ve been painting on flat surfaces for years,” he says. “To paint on something that gives is strange….I’ve never had a painting laugh if I tickled it with the brush. Flesh is kind of springy—there’s musculature and bones. But we’re quick to adapt [to bodies].”
Mills, a Corcoran College of Art and Design graduate, had almost given up her Anacostia portrait studio in 2001 because business was so bad. While she still had the space, though, she wanted to try body-painting, a technique she’d first seen at age 5 when her artist aunt painted her cousin’s arms, legs, and face with makeup. After a lot of experimentation on friends, Mills found that she liked theatrical makeup, nontoxic acrylic artists’ paints, and liquid latex, to which she could glue or otherwise attach objects. “Taking [the latex] off,” she says, “is like ripping a giant Band-Aid off.”
“[The acrylics] come off easily after a shower,” she adds. “It almost looks like you’ve been to a spa—your skin looks so soft and smooth afterwards.” But Mills advises her models to have a bag handy so that the paint, which comes off in a film, doesn’t go down the drain.
Today, Mills does a robust trade in head shots of local actors, musicians, and models, a business she says has built steadily from referrals from her body-painting subjects. “[Body-painting] is pretty much like a fashion shoot, except clothes are painted on,” she says. “The hardest part is to stop laughing….It’s hard to get a serious face [from the subjects].”
“Give me a growl,” she commands Lenai halfway through the shoot. Lenai, suppressing a giggle, mimes a snarl.
Whereas today’s models are all clothed, Mills’ business card sports a naked crouching woman painted in stripes and swirls, her mouth opened ferally and her hair wildly hanging down. But there are still some projects she refuses.
“One guy wanted to be painted as a bear and another guy as a tiger, and they were going to fight,” Mills remembers. “I didn’t want to deal with it.” —Bidisha Banerjee