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The brushstrokes of Los Angeles-based artist Alexa Meade touch many people—both figuratively and literally. Her artistic approach is centered around painting directly on the skin, allowing bodies to be the canvases and her surroundings to be the 3-D scenes.
Meade is also known for her art shown in traditional settings—like at the Saatchi Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery in DC, Postmasters Gallery in New York, and Galerie Ivo Kamm in Zurich—and her accolades, including being honored the Disruptive Innovation Award by The Tribeca Film Festival and partaking in a Google artist in residence program. Additionally, she’s created commissioned works for brands—like PATRÓN, Mercedes-Benz, Desigual, Ralph Lauren, and Instagram—and painted a handful of influential people, like architect Bjarke Ingels and musician Ariana Grande.
We got a big screen glimpse of Meade’s work in Grande’s 2018 music video for the song God Is a Woman. With her paint on the submerged musician’s skin, milky swirls of pink and purple created a surreal sight for the clip. “I was really inspired working with Ariana,” said Meade. “She has a point of view and aesthetic, and I was really impressed to see her confidence on set.”
Last month, the artist held a live painting at The Oculus in New York and has created a collaborative installation in the city entitled “Immersed in Wonderland”—now postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In lieu of its opening, Whitewall caught up with her to see how her career has evolved and what she’s working on next.
WHITEWALL: Tell us a bit about your creative background leading up until today.
ALEXA MEADE: I grew up in DC and was really into politics. I thought that was going to be my profession. I didn’t know that I had creativity in me or that I was going to be a professional artist. I ended up developing this technique to make 3-D spaces appear 2-D by accident, and since then, I’ve been exploring my creative side.
WW: After that, when did you really begin exploring type of work?
AM: When I was a senior in college, I had this idea to put paint on shadows. When I did experimentations with that, and painting the shadows on a human, I realized that it did interesting things with the spatial depth perception and it made it hard to distinguish the human form from my paint brush strokes.
WW: What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
AM: On weekdays, I’ll typically have to spend time in the morning on my laptop and phone, handling business related matters. I have a wonderful team who handles most of that for me and makes it so that I have time to step away from my laptop and get to do what being an artist is all about—which is actually making artwork. In my art process, there’s a lot of components that go into it. There’s figuring out what props and set dressings will go into an installation and then sourcing those.
There’s seeing what materials need to be primed before I put paint on them, because I’m not working with a uniform surface like canvas. I might be painting on a velvet jacket or a silk scarf or a shag carpet. All of these different textures take paint differently, so it requires a base layer to prime it to make it more uniform first. At that point I’ll then work on painting the items, I’ll paint the model’s clothes, etc.
WW: Your TED Talk “My Body Is My Canvas” has been viewed by millions online. Can you give us a highlight from that talk?
AM: Shortly before I did my TED Talk, I had completed a body of work with performance artist Sheila Vand where I painted on her and she went in a pool of milk, the paint on her body would dissolve off her body, swirling into beautiful designs and patterns all around her. Turns out a music video director saw my TED Talk and my Milk collaboration with Sheila Vand and reached out to me asking if I could paint a pop star for her next video. And that’s how my collaboration with Ariana Grande began.
WW: Late last year, you worked with PATRÓN in Los Angeles for a Día de Muertos party. Tell us a bit about this.
AM: When I was asked to do a painting for the event, it seemed like a really intuitive collaboration. There has been a long tradition of face painting when it comes to Día de Los Muertos. And when it comes to using people as my canvas, it seemed like a great opportunity for me to take what I do and add another layer onto it—in homage to this long-standing tradition.
I created an installation that featured an ofrenda, or an alter, that had marigolds; it had the boquitas, and other symbols of Day of the Dead. I painted masks that guests could wear and painted headpieces, skulls and painted margarita glasses. I painted a live model as part of the installations.
Normally when I’m painting on people, I paint to make them look like a version of themselves, but in this case, I had an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and paint my model with a sugar skull design on her face. The event was also really interesting because guests had their faces painted by professional makeup artists, and there were people walking around with skull makeup on, interacting with my painted model—who had an impressionist painting of a skull her face.
I took inspiration from the orange colors of the marigold; the vibrancy of the patterns and the activity in a lot of the photos I was seeing in Día de Los Muertos celebrations. I started collecting those items and figured out a way to present them all together in a scene. I then painted on the strings of marigolds with light brush strokes, the models’ clothes, and the background. I had all of this painted in advance, so leading up to it, we transported everything there and re-assembled the installation on-site.
The model arrived early so that I could paint her and photograph her before guests arrived. Once I completed that photoshoot with the model, she washed off and got back on stage in time for the start of the event so that I could paint her in front of a live audience. Once she was completed being painted for the second time, in front of a live audience, the guests were able to take photos with the model. They could also take photos throughout the event with the installation—putting on some of the painted jackets, props, and accessories that had been created to blend in with the painted world.
I first painted her in an impressionistic style and more naturalistic colors. Once I completed the layer of paint on her face, I painted a skull on half of it so she would be transformed into what would look like a painting of a person on a normal day into what would look like a painting of a person on the Day of the Dead.
WW: You’ve been a part of an array of brand events, engagements, and live paintings. What is your favorite type of art scenario to create?
AM: Each type of scenario is different. I will do paintings for, let’s say, a music video shoot (like for Ariana Grande) or a live event (like for PATRÓN’s Día de Los Muertos) or for an in-studio short film (like for Color of Reality) and I think they are all exciting and interesting. But there’s something about the live component where anything could happen, combined with the audience and their reaction—seeing how they put their own spin on the artwork.
There is also this tension in the air when I’m painting live at an event (like Día de Los Muertos) where I feel more open to the serendipity of the moment. It feels like there could be an opportunity to go off-script in an unexpected way that adds to the beauty and creativity of the process with all of the elements of the different people brought together in that space with the art.
WW: What are you working on now?
AM: I am working on a short, non-stop-motion animation film with some friends. It’s been in the works now for two years and it’s in its final stages of post-production, so we are hoping to have the project fully wrapped and ready to go by Spring. Yes, it’s taken us two years to make this seven-minute-long stop-motion animation short film!