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TEDGlobal 2013

Alexa Meade: Your body is my canvas

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Views 2,691,776

Alexa Meade takes an innovative approach to art. Not for her a life of sketching and stretching canvases. Instead, she selects a topic and then paints it--literally. She covers everything in a scene--people, chairs, food, you name it--in a mask of paint that mimics what's below it. In this eye-opening talk Meade shows off photographs of some of the more outlandish results, and shares a new project involving people, paint and milk.

- Visual artist
Alexa Meade paints mesmerizing, illusionistic portraits directly on living subjects, subverting familiar visual cues with perspective and color. Full bio

You may want to take a closer look.
00:12
There's more to this painting than meets the eye.
00:14
And yes, it's an acrylic painting of a man,
00:17
but I didn't paint it on canvas.
00:21
I painted it directly on top of the man.
00:24
What I do in my art is I skip the canvas altogether,
00:27
and if I want to paint your portrait,
00:30
I'm painting it on you, physically on you.
00:32
That also means you're probably going to end up
00:35
with an earful of paint,
00:37
because I need to paint your ear on your ear.
00:39
Everything in this scene, the person, the clothes,
00:43
chairs, wall, gets covered in a mask of paint
00:46
that mimics what's directly below it,
00:49
and in this way, I'm able to take a three-dimensional scene
00:52
and make it look like a two-dimensional painting.
00:56
I can photograph it from any angle,
00:59
and it will still look 2D.
01:01
There's no Photoshop here.
01:04
This is just a photo
01:07
of one of my three-dimensional paintings.
01:09
You might be wondering how I came up with this idea
01:13
of turning people into paintings.
01:15
But originally, this had nothing to do
01:17
with either people or paint.
01:20
It was about shadows.
01:22
I was fascinated with the absence of light,
01:25
and I wanted to find a way that I could give it materiality
01:27
and pin it down before it changed.
01:31
I came up with the idea of painting shadows.
01:33
I loved that I could hide within this shadow
01:36
my own painted version,
01:38
and it would be almost invisible
01:40
until the light changed, and all of a sudden
01:43
my shadow would be brought to the light.
01:45
I wanted to think about what else I could put shadows on,
01:48
and I thought of my friend Bernie.
01:51
But I didn't just want to paint the shadows.
01:54
I also wanted to paint the highlights
01:57
and create a mapping on his body in greyscale.
01:59
I had a very specific vision of what this would look like,
02:02
and as I was painting him,
02:06
I made sure to follow that very closely.
02:08
But something kept on flickering before my eyes.
02:10
I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at.
02:13
And then when I took that moment to take a step back,
02:15
magic.
02:19
I had turned my friend into a painting.
02:21
I couldn't have foreseen that
02:24
when I wanted to paint a shadow,
02:25
I would pull out this whole other dimension,
02:28
that I would collapse it,
02:30
that I would take a painting and make it my friend
02:31
and then bring him back to a painting.
02:36
I was a little conflicted though,
02:39
because I was so excited about what I'd found,
02:41
but I was just about to graduate from college
02:45
with a degree in political science,
02:47
and I'd always had this dream
02:49
of going to Washington, D.C.,
02:51
and sitting at a desk
02:53
and working in government.
02:56
(Laughter)
02:58
Why did this have to get in the way of all that?
03:00
I made the tough decision
03:04
of going home after graduation
03:05
and not going up to Capitol Hill,
03:09
but going down to my parents' basement
03:12
and making it my job to learn how to paint.
03:14
I had no idea where to begin.
03:17
The last time I'd painted,
03:21
I was 16 years old at summer camp,
03:22
and I didn't want to teach myself how to paint
03:25
by copying the old masters
03:27
or stretching a canvas
03:29
and practicing over and over again on that surface,
03:31
because that's not what this project was about for me.
03:34
It was about space and light.
03:37
My early canvases ended up being
03:40
things that you wouldn't expect to be used as canvas,
03:43
like fried food.
03:46
It's nearly impossible
03:48
to get paint to stick to the grease in an egg.
03:50
(Laughter)
03:53
Even harder was getting paint to stick
03:55
to the acid in a grapefruit.
03:58
It just would erase my brush strokes
04:00
like invisible ink.
04:03
I'd put something down, and instantly it would be gone.
04:05
And if I wanted to paint on people,
04:08
well, I was a little bit embarrassed
04:10
to bring people down into my studio
04:13
and show them that I spent my days in a basement
04:15
putting paint on toast.
04:18
It just seemed like it made more sense
04:21
to practice by painting on myself.
04:23
One of my favorite models actually ended up being
04:26
a retired old man
04:29
who not only didn't mind sitting still
04:31
and getting the paint in his ears,
04:33
but he also didn't really have much embarrassment
04:36
about being taken out into very public places
04:38
for exhibition,
04:40
like the Metro.
04:42
I was having so much fun with this process.
04:45
I was teaching myself how to paint in all these different styles,
04:49
and I wanted to see what else I could do with it.
04:53
I came together with a collaborator, Sheila Vand,
04:56
and we had the idea of creating paintings
04:59
in a more unusual surface,
05:02
and that was milk.
05:04
We got a pool. We filled it with milk.
05:07
We filled it with Sheila. And I began painting.
05:10
And the images were always
05:13
completely unexpected in the end,
05:15
because I could have a very specific image
05:17
about how it would turn out,
05:20
I could paint it to match that,
05:21
but the moment that Sheila laid back into the milk,
05:23
everything would change.
05:26
It was in constant flux,
05:28
and we had to, rather than fight it, embrace it,
05:30
see where the milk would take us
05:33
and compensate to make it even better.
05:34
Sometimes, when Sheila would lay down in the milk,
05:38
it would wash all the paint off of her arms,
05:42
and it might seem a little bit clumsy,
05:44
but our solution would be, okay, hide your arms.
05:47
And one time, she got so much milk in her hair
05:50
that it just smeared all the paint off of her face.
05:53
All right, well, hide your face.
05:56
And we ended up with something far more elegant
05:59
than we could have imagined,
06:02
even though this is essentially the same solution
06:04
that a frustrated kid uses when he can't draw hands,
06:06
just hiding them in the pockets.
06:09
When we started out on the milk project,
06:13
and when I started out,
06:15
I couldn't have foreseen that I would go
06:17
from pursuing my dream in politics
06:20
and working at a desk
06:22
to tripping over a shadow
06:24
and then turning people into paintings
06:25
and painting on people in a pool of milk.
06:28
But then again, I guess it's also not unforeseeable
06:32
that you can find the strange in the familiar,
06:35
as long as you're willing to look beyond
06:38
what's already been brought to light,
06:40
that you can see what's below the surface,
06:41
hiding in the shadows,
06:44
and recognize that there can be more there
06:46
than meets the eye.
06:48
Thank you.
06:50
(Applause)
06:51

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About the speaker:

Alexa Meade - Visual artist
Alexa Meade paints mesmerizing, illusionistic portraits directly on living subjects, subverting familiar visual cues with perspective and color.

Why you should listen

Alexa Meade creates paintings in 3D space that make the real world appear to be a 2D painting. What may look like a traditional painted portrait is actually a photograph of a living, breathing person whose face, clothes and surroundings are all covered in acrylic paint. The 3D paintings can be photographed from any angle and maintain the illusion of flatness without the need for digital effects.

Alexa stumbled upon this technique by accident. While she was studying political science in college, she had an idea for an art project: what would it look like if she covered up shadows in the landscape with black paint? This question led her down a rabbit hole of experiments with painitng in 3D space that led to her discovery of this new style of optical illusion. She paints on people around the world who become part of the urban landscape as living street art. The photographs of the ephemeral painting performances hang on the walls of galleries and museums.

She recieved critical acclaim from CNN, Wired, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and more. She has lectured at the CalArts, UC-Berkeley, Apple, Adobe and National Geographic London

Alexa travels the world creating live painting performances, art installations and commisioned portraits. Currently, Alexa is collaborating with scientists and researching spacetime at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Alexa is making a series of magical paintings with David Blaine, transforming her home into a "Fun House" with Chris Hughes, developing a line of toys and volunteering in the art program at the Braille Institute. 

More profile about the speaker
Alexa Meade | Speaker | TED.com