My visit to Austin had an inauspicious beginning. Thwarted by a widespread lack of hotel availability – due to the annual South by Southwest Festival of independent film, music, and other media – and a constitutional aversion to pay big-bucks for multi-stellar lodgings, my booking for the night was at a hell-hole near the University of Texas, aptly named the Roadway Inn. I will not catalog the diverse and plentiful dysfunctions of the accommodations. I’ll mention only that my single-pane windows fronted onto Interstate 35.
But things would get better — and a lot more interesting!
I had just returned from a three hour trek through the seamier side of Austin, the cheerful anonymity of a downtown area flushed with the mirth of SXSW, and the solitude of a University of Texas campus becalmed by spring break. In my pack was an order of ribs from Sam’s BBQ and a side of potato salad. It was ten o’clock, and I was starving.
As I ascended the steps to my second-floor abode, I passed a small cadre of semi-giddy women who shared the misfortune of calling the Rodeway Inn “home”, however temporarily. We had seen each other in what passes for the hotel lobby when I checked-in in the late afternoon, so we greeted each other in the manner of foxhole buddies, if not actual acquaintances.
As I climbed the steps, one of the women called for my attention, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” They were, she advised, looking for a volunteer. The statement couldn’t fail to catch my attention since I am, by vocation-replacing avocation, a full-time volunteer and active proponent of volunteerism. Their assignment, however, was a significant departure from the humanitarian, development, and environmental projects I usually undertake.
These women were with a group of face and body painters who had converged on Austin to add color to the SXSW festivities. They were having a painting slam in the hotel conference room and were short of human canvases. I politely begged-off, wished them well, went to my grim little room, and tucked into my dinner.
I emerged from my room a while later to fetch a drink from the hotel vending machine, where I once again crossed-paths with one of the artists. She explained that the painting session was in full progress, but reiterated that some of the models they had expected failed to attend. She asked once again if I would consider participating. “What’s entailed?” I asked. She invited me into the conference room which was serving as their studio to see what was going on.
A dozen-or-more artists, most collaborating in teams of two-or-three, were fast at work covering naked people in paint – or, actually, water-based make-up, as it turns out. One pair of models were being transformed into Batman and Cat Woman, another pair were being prepared as an abstract composition, while still others were slowing morphing into witches, avenging angels, and other superheroic figures. The work was stunning.
The “models” were, in fact, exactly that: aspiring professional models, although this was an unpaid gig. These young men and women provided contours for the artwork in exchange for some rather spectacular photographs of the completed body paintings they could use in their portfolios. Most had worked with these artists on a number of occasions and were completely at their ease. Slightly more than a half of the female breasts in the room seemed real, assuming that those belonging to the artists are not figured into this calculation.
“I’d really like to be able to practice some things,” resumed the woman, “but I have no model. Are you sure you don’t want to do it? It will be fun.”
I’m still not certain exactly what possessed me to accede. Sometimes one just needs to give-in to the craziness of the situation; and that’s what I did.
The woman explained that, for this session, none of the models was naked, as is often the case for serious, high-end projects. This was more of a practice session. Indeed, a more careful look around the room disclosed that each was wearing a skimpy thong, most of which were already painted-over and all-but invisible within the developing artwork. Still, nakedness is a central aspect of this medium. Leaving aside the stunning images rendered by the painters, the most compelling tension in the work comes from the play between the obvious nakedness of the model and the utter concealment of that nakedness within the completed painting. In an ironic, if somewhat facile gesture, my artists were, in fact, planning to paint clothes. Denim jeans, to be precise.
I was issued a spandex thong – a first time for everything, I thought – and retreated to my room to change. This probably goes without saying, but it should be illegal (and may well be in many states) for any man approaching fifty to don underwear that is more notable for its absence than its presence. As with any catastrophe in plain view, however, it was impossible not-to-look; and the image that stared back at me in my bathroom mirror was particularly nauseating. True, I am used to seeing myself in underwear that makes me look substantially more Mormon than Chippendale; but this scene was all-the-more horrifying since there wasn’t anything remotely stud-muffinesque about my butt-crack-underweared self. Before my last vestige of pride could get the better of me, I threw on some pants and descended to the studio.
The women who painted me were not only talented, but quite professional and respectful in their approach. In fact, I was the only one who made even the slightest off-color joke. (As one of them began to transform the front of my thong into the same denim-blue as my legs, I asked, “While you are down there, can you make my penis bigger? …No, I meant by drawing, not with a brush massage!”)
From time-to-time, more experienced painters would come by to offer suggestion on technique to my painters. At the start of the process, someone offered a razor from their art-kit so I could be properly shaved before the application of color. I averred that shaving was not necessary. “Of course it is,” said the interloper. “Otherwise you don’t get the same, clean look.” I clarified my position: “These will be furry, winter jeans.”
In all, the process took several long hours; but the results were quite remarkable, as you see above. I am only sorry that I do not have photos of some of the other works, which were far more ambitious and imaginative than the modest learning exercise undertaken, quite skillfully, by my artists. To get a broader sense of the kind of magic taking place in that makeshift studio on Monday night, take a look at some of the cover photos from Illusion magazine.
The experience was as fun as it was wacky. The artists were grateful to have had a canvas upon which to practice; and I managed to avoid a couple hours of highway noise, locked in my cell-like room. Eventually, though, the project was over, my photos had been snapped, and I took my leave.
Upstairs in my room, however, the curse of the Roadway Inn continued. My shower had only a slow drip of hot water, so it took nearly a half hour to rinse and scrub all the paint off.