Sunday, 16 December 2012

Fashback: Flamingo Fun

Earlier this year, my husband and I attended a wonderful event called the Ancestor's Trail. One of the things that made the gathering so interesting and fun was that we met a variety people who are interested in science, and who express their passion for this field in diverse ways. One such person was Victoria Gugenheim, creator of the beautiful and very memorable evolution-inspired body artwork on display at the end of our long hike:

(Victoria's body painting project from the Ancestor's Trail.)

After my lecture on the last day of the AT, Victoria came up to chat with me about my topic (humans as an evolutionary force) and about science in general. Realizing that we were kindred spirits, we  became friends on Facebook and continued our discussions there. At some point, I expressed a fondness for Victoria's hand art--a type of body painting I'd encountered while researching my upcoming flamingo book.

(One of many "hand flamingos" that can be found on the web. Photo courtesy of Design Bleep).

When Victoria kindly offered me a mate's rate on my very own hand painting, I couldn't refuse: Ever since I'd seen her in action at the Ancestor's Trail, I'd had an urge to find out what it was like to be somebody's canvas. Also, I loved the idea of including such an uncommon form of artwork in my book--not to mention one that was painted by someone as innovative and deserving of exposure as Victoria. As it so happened, Sasha was scheduled to attend a workshop in Oxford not long afterward; I tagged along and took advantage of the proximity to Victoria's home base. 

She supplied me with very detailed directions of how to reach her studio, but of course--as per usual--I managed to turn the wrong direction when exiting the train station. After a good 15 minutes of failing to pass the expected landmarks, I finally realized my mistake and headed back the way I'd come. Victoria had recommended that I take a bus, but as an avid walker I insisted on hoofing it. Ordinarily this wouldn't have been much of an issue, but between getting lost and encountering patches of road without sidewalk, it made the journey pretty hairy.

About halfway there, I called Victoria to apologize for being so late; she said not to worry, and that she'd send her partner to fetch me and lead me to her studio once I'd arrived at the bus stop outside her building. This was the first time I'd heard anything about a "partner," and I have to admit that for a minute I felt a little panicked. After all, Victoria and I had mostly interacted over the Internet, and for all I knew, she could be half of a hardened criminal duo...that...uses body painting to lure in victims...? 

(Body painting supplies at Victoria's studio.)

Okay, that sounds pretty crazy. But, you know, I'm just a naive country girl at heart, and the world is a scary place. But, as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about (surprise!). Both Victoria and her partner (Wolf of Wolf's BodyMagic) are as safe and friendly as they are visionary and talented. Poor Wolf had to spend the entire afternoon on the phone with IT support people, and he still managed to both stay sane and occasionally chat with Victoria and me.

The first thing I had to do upon my arrival was shave all the hair off the arm that I was going to have painted. This felt very strange--both during the process and afterwards, when my arm was as smooth as a baby's bottom. I was appalled at how much hair wound up in the sink. Because of the length of my limbs, I've always described myself as having "monkey arms"; now I have the misfortune of realizing that the name is also appropriate because I am covered in fur.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part I).

Prior to my arrival, Victoria had done quite a bit of research on flamingos and found a few photographs that she thought she could work from. There are six species of flamingo--all with slightly different morphological variations on the same pink theme--but we decided that the best one to portray on my arm was the Caribbean (a.k.a. American, a.k.a. Cuban, a.k.a. rosy) flamingo. Flamingo coloration varies depending on diet, but, even so, Caribbeans are generally the most vibrant and flamboyant of all the species--and, therefore, the most visually exciting.

Victoria decided to begin with the bird's body; her first task was to create a base layer of pink, after which she would begin the stippling process that would give the painting its feathery look. I was a little worried that my ticklishness might cause me to be a very twitchy canvas, but luckily this wasn't a problem. If anything, the feeling of the brush on my skin lulled me into a bit of a trance. It was quite relaxing in the same way that having your hair washed and brushed at the salon is.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part II).

There were only two things keeping me from falling asleep. The first was having to hold my arm up at a 90-degree angle and occasionally rotate it to give Victoria better access. The other was being engaged in conversation with Victoria about everything from body art to acting in movies to life as an academic. I was impressed with how seemingly easy it was for Victoria to chat and paint at the same time; if I tried that, the resulting piece of work would not be anything that anybody would want to purchase or display.

I was also impressed with how easy it was to chat, general. I'm not very social, and it tends to take me a while to get comfortable around new people. Victoria and Wolf were so relaxed, though, that I felt as if I'd known them both for years. Plus, Victoria is quite the renaissance woman, with many wide-ranging interests; it would have been challenging not to find something to talk about all afternoon.

One thing that was particularly enjoyable was having Victoria explain the body art process as she went along. I didn't manage to inherit the art gene possessed by many people on my mother's side of the family, and so I don't know much about painting, in general, and certainly not about body painting. It was interesting to find out the products and techniques being used, and to see an artist at work in real time; you can learn both from the things that are done and those that are un- and re-done in favor of something else.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part III).

Throughout the afternoon, Victoria took progress shots in order to get a different perspective on her creation and check to see what changes she would need to make to ensure that the bird looked good on camera as well as in person. It was incredible to see how different the flamingo looked from different angles. Even once the painting was complete, it never really looked that lifelike from my point of view; to someone else standing and looking at me, though, the piece was stunning.

The addition of the eye really made a big difference; suddenly the bird began to have some personality. That body part was only a small proportion of the entire bird, but Victoria spent quite a lot of time perfecting it; this was a make-or-break feature of the painting.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part IV).

Also very important were shading and highlighting--two techniques that rendered my flamingo more lifelike and realistic. The flamingo's body, for example, was not just a uniform coral color; it also contained streaks of light pink, white, and orange. Likewise, patches of the face were greyish rather than simply white with black features. To help achieve all of this layering without too much smudging or drying out of the paint, Victoria would frequently spray my arm with a fixative that ultimately allowed me to keep the flamingo in place nearly the whole way back to Oxford.

Once the painting was complete, it was time to move on to phase 2: the photo shoot. In addition to dreaming up and creating out-of-this-world body art concepts, Victoria also does all of her own photography. I had to avert my eyes from her massive camera in order to avoid becoming too envious. I had thought that the photo shoot would just be a brief little thing at the end of the day, but actually it took quite a while to find the proper lighting conditions and the optimal position for my hand. It was very difficult for me to contort my fingers into the shape required to mimic a flamingo's bill. In fact, I couldn't achieve the positioning myself, and needed to have Victoria do it for me; once she'd bent my hand where she wanted it, I could hold it there until the photos were snapped.

I could tell that Victoria wasn't too impressed by the first two or three dozen photos. After a while, though, she found something that worked; a combination of my arm position, camera angle, light angle, and background. We took a variety of photos, all ever-so-slightly different, under these conditions, and then took a peek at them on the computer.

(After much contortion, the final product!)

It appeared that we had found our winner! All that remained at that point was for me to get digital copies of Victoria's hard work, then head back to the train station. I was hoping to keep the bird intact until Oxford, since I wanted to try to show it to Sasha before washing it away. Unfortunately, it had begun to rain outside, which didn't bode well for my flamingo's longevity. Victoria sprayed on some extra fixative and Wolf located a plastic bag for me to wrap around my arm. We then said our farewells and I headed out into the weather.

It so happened that I was out and about during rush hour, which was fascinating. I so rarely spend time in urban areas, and, of course, London has practically defined what it means to be a city. It has such a different feel from any other place where I have regularly spent much time. Even though I am intellectually aware that cities exist, and that people behave differently in cities than in places like Falmouth, it is still quite a shock to actually experience the difference--all the concrete, and the traffic, and people in suits, and women in high heels, and masses of people moving into and out of the train/Underground station. It is just a whole other world. It's great to experience that in short bursts, but I think I would go mad if I had to hang around for more than a few days.

By the time I hopped my ride on the Underground, I was warm enough that I needed to remove my jacket, which gave me the pleasure of watching my fellow passengers gawk at my pink-painted hand. I was very sad to note that nobody smiled or laughed; they just stared. I'd like to think that, if I ever saw someone with a flamingo painted on his/her arm, it would bring a smile to my face. Those Londoners, though: They are a grizzled bunch.

(Flamingos like tea, too.)

I managed to get about three-quarters of the way to Oxford before I could no longer bear having to do everything one-handed. Despite the inconvenience of the body art, I felt very sad at washing it away; I had to console myself with the thought that my flamingo was preserved forever in photograph form.

While all of that may sound like quite enough excitement for the day, I still had more adventures to come. Sasha was out dining with his colleagues, leaving me to find my way from the train station to our accommodations at Oxford's Keble College. The college is quite beautiful--even in the dark--but a little intimidating. The entire place is surrounded by a tall brick wall; once you find the single gigantic wooden door, you have to ring a bell in order to enter. After you've gotten that far, you then have to ring another bell in order to gain access to the night porter, who can then hand over your room key.

Part of the college has been converted into hotel-style accommodations, but the rest is still inhabited by students. So, basically, you're paying hotel prices to stay in what is unmistakably a dorm room. The only reason they can get away with this is that people are willing to pay for the experience. I admit, it did feel a bit Harry Potteresque, which was kind of neat.

(Mural in the main entrance of Keble College, Oxford University.)

Sadly, the weather the following day was overcast, so I wasn't able to get very good photos of the grounds. Still, even with the muted tones, you can tell that Keble is an attractive place (if a bit manicured):

(Keble College grounds; our room was on the third floor towards the end of the building to the right.)

(Keble College chapel, which reminds me very much of Westminster Cathedral--one of my favorite London landmarks.)

Sasha had a bit more workshopping to do, whereas I was hoping to partake in some early Christmas shopping, so we didn't hang around Keble for much longer than was necessary. After a quick breakfast at Starbucks (it always makes me feel super American to visit international Starbucks shops rather than finding a local hangout), I visited a quirky little store that stocked a little bit of everything: jewelry, statues, candles, vintage clothing. The proprietor was a very chatty guy, and we ended up talking for at least an hour. Nobody was more surprised about this than I, since, again, I'm really not much of a people person. The shopkeeper was very interesting, though, and had all sorts of questions about botany and conservation. Evidently he enjoyed our conversation--he gave me a 20% discount on everything I bought!

With my purchases in tow, I headed back to the university to meet up with Sasha and a mutual friend/colleague for lunch. Sadly, there was not much opportunity to take in many more of Oxford's picturesque scenery, since we were due in Truro for a (wonderful) gourmet meal with Sasha's family. One day I would like to go back, though, and explore more of this historical city. However, that is not to say that I have any regrets about this particular trip. I managed to pack in a lot of adventure into a mere 2 days: navigating to unknown destinations, socializing with new and different people, being painted, sleeping in one of Oxford's storied colleges...Not the kind of things most people get to do on a daily basis. Thanks to Victoria for making it all possible!

(The dramatic skyline during Sasha's and my trip back down to Cornwall.)

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