None of Angela Rene Roberts’ paintings last longer than a few hours before they’re washed away. In the meantime, the models wearing them pose, walk and sometimes even star in movies.
Roberts, 24, paints directly on models. A cross between performance art and fine art, she uses water-based makeup to transform ordinary people into abstract paintings, zombies, insects or sometimes just puts clothes on them.
“The body is the most beautiful canvas on this planet,” Roberts said. “It’s the most expressive art form on this planet. Every design is designed particularly for (the model).”
Although she only began painting three years ago, Roberts has walked away with international awards as well as notoriety from a performance on the Game Show Network’s “Skin Wars” this year. At this point, she’s working almost entirely from paints that she has won.
Roberts, originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began drawing at a young age but studied architecture in college, where she mostly worked on schematic drawings. However, an accident on the hurdles in track and field left her with a severe concussion, causing her to lose her athletic scholarship and begin making art again.
In 2012, a photographer named Cully Firmin found her work on Myspace and contacted her to see if she would be interested in body painting, Roberts said. The two continued to work together and eventually married in October 2015. They now work together out of a studio in Lafayette, Louisiana.
“I teach workshops, and I travel doing live events,” Roberts said. “There’s also these big events with live performers where I will paint the performers. I do a lot of studio paints. After the Paris attacks, and all those problems … and they were asking body painters from around the world to do tributes. We’ll help people with tributes to that.”
Body painting is one of the world’s oldest art forms and takes many forms — from henna in India to facepainting at county fairs in the United States to tribal tattoos. The painting Roberts does is superficial and can be washed off in a shower after the performance.
One aspect of body painting, though, can be socially challenging — models are almost entirely naked.
Roberts painted a model live at Kenai Peninsula College Tuesday in front of students and the public. Sara Christensen, who volunteered to model for the painting, said it was awkward at first, but Roberts made her more comfortable.
“We chatted a little while before,” Christensen said. “The more we chatted, the more I realized she wasn’t judgmental. Getting to know her more made it more comfortable for me.”
Roberts said she works with models of all body types and wants to promote body acceptance through her painting. She said she recently worked with the American Heart Association on a body paint depicting what a healthy heart looks like in comparison with an unhealthy heart.
Many people are uncomfortable going to the doctor and would rather go to their neighbors or family members for health advice because they feel ashamed of their bodies or health, and the aim of the project was to get people more comfortable with their bodies, she said.
“I do this because it’s about body acceptance,” Roberts said. “My goal is to make them comfortable. I paint all body types, all ages … if they’re comfortable and they love themselves and they’re confident, they’re going to go into the doctor’s office and get checked up.”
At Kenai Peninsula College, it wasn’t an art class that attended the lecture — they were anatomy and physiology students. Firmin said body painting is being used worldwide to teach anatomy in a more interactive way. He said he modeled for a doctor in Perth, Australia who painted organs and bones onto his body for the students to see in a three-dimensional way.
After the doctor had finished, Firmin washed off the paint, and the students attempted to reconstruct what they had seen on his body with paint. He said the students remembered better when they could see and touch the body parts they were studying in real life.
“There’s the elaborate visual where all the students could see,” Firmin said. “I had to be painted, and then there was a shower. Without paint, they’re tested, and they had to do it again. They had to reconstruct it quickly.”
Firmin, who said he has modeled more than 300 body paints in 22 countries, said social norms in the U.S. sometimes make people uncomfortable with the nudity involved in body painting. Other countries do not show as much reservation, but the U.S. has a particular aversion to nudity ingrained in the culture, he said.
“I’m the same gentleman to you whether I’m clothed or nude,” Firmin said. “To me, if someone’s respect for you can be removed with a layer of clothing, they probably didn’t have much respect for you in the first place.”
Trained as a physicist, Firmin said he never intended to be a model but took up photography and eventually became a body paint model as a form of art therapy, he said. It is sometimes still hard to wash away the hours of paint and work after the painting is done, but he and Roberts are able to preserve the art through photography and sell the prints, he said.
The painting Roberts did on Christensen took a total of about four hours, she said. Upon first arriving in Alaska, she said she noticed the mountains first and wanted to capture the culture, so she incorporated a portrait of a Native woman on Chistensen’s back. The glitter was meant to emulate the ice crystals on snow catching the sunlight, she said.
“I came here, and it has to be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” Roberts said. “I get here, and there’s beautiful snow everywhere, and the sun comes up, and I literally cried a couple of times. It’s so beautiful.”