We met over a make up counter, I looked up and gasped. 'I love your eyebrows!' I said.
'Thanks, I'm trying to channel Liz Taylor' she replied. It was the beginning of something fabulous, the meeting of two minds, the beginning of a new art project!
Grace is a stunner, tall and slender with striking features and raven hair: She is a burlesque performer, drag artiste and professional make up artist. All these things tick my boxes and excite me! With my work exploring themes of femininity I couldn't miss the opportunity to work with her and I knew I wanted to paint her!
We met up some time later to chat about ideas at Manchester's Richmond Tea Rooms. Over a civilized afternoon tea I asked Grace what make up meant to her. The answer to this simple question gave me a candid insight into her life and, as a transgender woman, it helped to explain what makes Grace who she is. She once told me 'I'm an open book' so with her blessing I will transcribe her story in brief here to help set the scene...
As a child growing up in a small town she knew she was different from the other boys in school but she wasn't like the girls either (one sweet story she told me about was, when asked by her teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up she answered "a mermaid"). As a teen she began to experiment with make up to explore her identity. In a small town a boy wearing make up couldn't help but stick out like a sore thumb and her increasingly individual style soon began to get attention.Unfortunately it wasn't the best attention; getting beaten up and being verbally abused soon became the norm on an everyday basis.
Some people might have tried to conform to stop the bullying, but Grace being the free spirit she is made her appearance more provocative, goth like and severe. At this point in her life make up became her armor. The more she wore the more it stated, stay the f*ck away from me! It was her mental shield, yet ironically it was also the very thing which drew attention to her in the first place.
Make up however was to be Grace's key to success. After beginning a fashion course at college her make up got noticed once more but this time people were asking why she wasn't a make up artist, her skills were amazing! It was then she took up make up seriously and studied it. Her work was so good she landed a role as make up artist to The Irrepressibles on their world tour.
Now living in Manchester Grace continues to work as a professional make up artist. She also performs regularly at nights such as Bollox and the soon to open Cha Cha Boudoir with her brand of glamorous drag/burlesque. This type of performance is a chance to create characters and embody another person but it isn't about escapism, Grace says that it allows her to hold up a magnifying glass to herself and invite others to do the same. It is empowering and joyful. I feel it is her way of taking control. In this way, make up is now an extension of her personality and an act of liberation. It is exactly this philosophy that I stand by and try to celebrate in my own art work!
Grace's strong looks put me in mind of Pre-Raphaelite models, those women with the towering necks, voluptuous mouths and abundant hair. I knew this was going to be our starting point. If you've read my blog before you will know that I am a huge Pre-Raphaelite fan and have often put forward my theory that those paintings depicted one of the first brand of pin up girl. Those women are painted as uber versions of themselves, with heightened sexuality and feminine power. In many cases as goddesses and femme fatales.
I feel this will be an interesting platform to use in my painting of Grace. I also want to reference the Pre-Raphaelite's use of symbolism. I would like to use classic and modern symbolism to tell Grace's story and create a picture that is both a mix of Victorian and contemporary in flavour. I am aiming to paint something that will ultimately question the ideals of beauty and what it means to be a female in the eyes of the world in general. This project will bring up issues of identity, objectification, sexuality and empowerment to name but a few.
With our of love of theatrics and artifice I think this is going to be a really exciting project! Keep posted to find out more as we work step by step through the process. Next post will be about our visit to Manchester Art Gallery where we met some of the Pre-Raphaelite girls face to face!