As part of my ongoing quest to explore what it means to live a creative life, I periodically invite kick ass creatives to come play with us on the blog.
Beauty, trust, vulnerability, and what happens when your canvas needs a potty break…
It’s such a pleasure for me to share this artist with you! The first time I ever saw Ren Allen’s face and body paintings, I was awestruck. It was hard for me to imagine painting such beautiful works of art on living, breathing canvases – the intimacy of it, and the necessary impermanence. Everything about her work and process attracted and fascinated me, and though I’ve watched her from afar, in blog posts and Facebook updates, it only recently occurred to me that I could invite her here and ask her all about how she does the magic that she does.
Lucky us, she said yes!
Ren and her husband, photographer Keith Dixon, have a studio in downtown Jonesborough, Tennessee. Together they create and collaborate on body art, weddings, portraits, head-shots and video work. In the interview, we talk about Ren’s body-painting process, but you can see it in action (and learn more about her journey) in this mini documentary. Plus, since Keith is a photographer, there are a lot of gorgeous photos in this interview. Prepare to be dazzled. Seriously.
j: Life is demanding. What are your tricks for getting into a creative space?
Ren: I think people who wait to “get into a creative space” miss out on a lot of creative opportunities. Creativity and creation come from a place of being willing to do the work. Being willing to show up. If you keep showing up for your “thing,” the creative space has been made. Staying present throughout the flow of frustration and challenges allows so many great learning moments to unfold. Art isn’t some magical talent that a few people possess. It belongs to those who are willing to show up. Willing to create. Willing to face the rhythm, the ups and downs of the process.
In my case, all I have to do is book a model and put a date on the calendar! There are other people affected if I choose to say no to the process. Whether I’m feeling creative or not, there are at least two other people who have committed to being available (the photographer, who happens to be my husband, and a model) so it does help you commit to being present. If a concept or design frustrates me, I can’t walk away. There is a living breathing person in front of me who is counting on going home at some point that day. There is a photographer in the next room who is saving time and energy for when I am finished. That right there keeps you pushing, keeps you present and keeps you from making excuses.
That might be one of the reasons I love this art form so much. I work best with deadlines or calendar dates.
Also, I’ve never had a problem with a lack of ideas….my challenge is knowing which of the kajillion ideas to start with! My brain is not a calm, quiet place and lucky for me, it is constantly coming up with body paint ideas. I think part of that is just doing the work. Action has great power.
j: What’s the weirdest (funniest, most surprising) thing that inspires you?
Ren: I paint naked people! I mean really, that probably seems weird to most. It is one of the things I love about this art form though. Because every work is a collaboration. Every piece is affected by the shape and energy of the person under my brush.
This art form brings me in contact with so many interesting people and their stories, which is really the main thing that inspires me. Their scars, their longings, their beauty are all part of the process. I have long been fascinated with humans, and now my desire to create, to paint, is perfectly knit with my fascination in the human experience.
Another thing I am constantly enamored with is the very fleeting nature of this art form. All art is temporary when we look at the bigger picture, but with body painting the temporary nature isn’t something you can ignore. The paint gets washed off at the end of the day. You have a finite amount of time to work, and the work exists for a very finite amount of time as well.
This is a great practice in creating and letting go. Over and over again. It reminds me to stay present for every moment. None of them ever exist again but we so easily slip into apathy. My paint reminds me of this.
Death is a great inspiration to me…or more accurately, the life/death/re-birth process that goes on all around us every minute. We are all walking compost. Maybe that seems strange, but the fleeting nature of paint, of body paint especially, keeps me grounded in the knowledge that I am also temporary. I want to use the paint to capture a feeling, a story, a moment and know that it is in the birth of it and the decay of it where the deep beauty lies.
j: I think being publicly creative is inherently scary. How do you manage fear?
Ren: This is a great question and one that has deeply affected me in the past. I remember all too well the very first body art show I organized and how terrifying that was. Not only to paint all day for the public but to have the responsibility for an entire show. Other artists were depending on me, the gallery owner was depending on me and I felt absolutely vulnerable!
I think being a creative or doing any creative work for the public is being willing to be vulnerable in a big way. It lays open every demon you’ve tried to smother. It surfaces every self-doubt you’ve ever had. All at once. The only way for me, is to ignore it. Other fears might need some nurture, some self-reflection but these need to be ignored. You march all over them by moving forward. After a while your confidence gets greater and it isn’t as hard.
I wrote a two-part blog post about this recently! You were part of the inspiration behind that series, J, so I am including the links here.
Once you willingly face the fear and allow that vulnerability, you realize that being publicly creative is a lot less scary and a lot more inspirational. It connects people. It connects your audience to your art, to your process, and I think there is a great value in that.
j: How do you deal with critics?
Ren: I addressed this topic partially in Part 1 of the blog post on dealing with fear (above). But mostly I think you have to care so deeply about your craft that nothing else matters. If you’re focused on your process, on emerging yourself as an artist, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
You begin to develop a pretty thick skin where these things are concerned. You also seek out brilliant artists in your genre who inspire and encourage you. Go where the best of the best can be found and learn what they know. Because there isn’t room for anything but growth.
What other people think isn’t any of my business right? It’s true. The more you care about the work you do, the less you care about naysayers. Fall in love with your art. Love it so deeply and fully that your passion for it matters more than critical words. Be open to useful feedback from artists you trust but don’t worry so much about those who think your art “less than” because you don’t create for them anyway.
Surround yourself with amazing people. Your community will greatly affect your ability to create. But sometimes, your best work comes at the edge of discomfort and fear.
j: It seems to me that painting a body is nothing like painting a traditional canvas. For instance, an artist buys the canvas they think will best suit their vision.Obviously you can’t do that. How does it work for you? How does the humanness of your canvas affect what you paint?
Ren: This is a multi-layered question! I do often bring in a “canvas” best suited for whatever concept I want to create. So we do choose our canvas at times, other times the canvas chooses us. In both instances there are things that emerge during a painting I can’t predict.
The human canvas has a very profound effect on the artist. Mostly because you learn about people when you’re painting them! There is a high level of trust between body painter and model. They are letting you into their vulnerable place and that is something I don’t take lightly.
The human canvas needs breaks to eat, to use the bathroom, to stretch, and all of that has to be factored into a sitting.
I think the humanness of it makes the work more beautiful, more overarching and pointed.
We often hear about art as a healing modality. With body paint the healing aspect of art gets taken to a whole new level. People bring me their fears, their self-loathing, their dreams, their healing journey, their desire to love themselves, their rawness,their beauty or their complete comfort. The impact of seeing themselves as art is one way to uncloud their vision. To be a work of art is an act of courage. An act of healing for some and an act of expression for others. Those colors I put on their skin are a small part of a bigger journey, and I am honored to be present for the unfolding.
Thank you, Ren, for being so generous, both here and out in the world doing what you do like the creative badass you are.
I’d love to hear what you think about this art form? Have you ever participated – as either artist or canvas? Would you like to?