Tuesday 5 November 2013

Hidden treasures

In a basement below Manchester there is a hidden room of treasure.

Racks of paintings and boxes of drawings by some of the worlds greatest artists lie in darkness waiting to be viewed. Unseen and unknown by public eyes.

I followed the curator down the stairs not knowing what to expect but with excitment bubbling in my veins.

The heavy doors were pulled open and the lights switched on.

A room with unassuming grey metal racks lining the walls met my eyes.

The curator pulled a rack out towards me and I came face to face with a beautiful woman; Her eyes looked out at me with depths of emotion, her lips were a perfect rosebud. In one exquisite hand she toyed with a red flame, her other hand rested in the masses of her raven hair.

I gazed with fascination at the Rossetti chalk drawing I never even knew exisited. La Donna Della Fiamma (The Lady of the Flame). This was just one of the many wonders I saw on my visit to Manchster Art Gallery to meet collections curator Rebecca Milner.

I'd emailed the art gallery some weeks before hand to ask if someone could give me some insight into the creative process the Pre Raphaelites used to work a narrative into their painitngs. This was to be research towards my Pre Raphaelite inspired portrait I will be doing of Grace Oni Smith to investigage transgender femininity. (See past posts to learn more about this challenging project)

My expectations were supassed when the art gallery replied with the offer to view some rarely seen Rossetti drawings and the chance to chat about my project with the curator.

 Rebecca Milner Collections Curator at Manchester Art Gallery

So, there I was standing before this image of a mysterious beauty. I was in awe of the softness of the chalk which made up her skin, lips, hair and diaphanous gown. So velvety yet so strongly defined.

Next was a glimpse of a study for 'Pandora'. The same evocative face looked down at me. This was again modeled by one of Rossetti's favourites, his lover, Jane Morris.

As I studied the layers of colour which made up her towering neck and strong features, the details I'd read about the artist and his muse filled my mind; Their illegitimate affair and enduring passions. To think that both these people were present as this picture was created was a true link to the past and a nod to the power of the image. Something about this woman fuelled Rossetti's creativity.

I asked Rebecca the collections curator why she thought the Pre Raphaelites were so inspired by women. 

'They were total romantics. They were inspired by medieval poetry and art and they used women as muses to draw this notion out. As young men they were highly interested in women anyway. They helped to create a new kind of beauty by using women with a truthful contemporary look that was inspired by the past'

My ears pricked up. Wasn't this why I was drawn to working with Grace? 
Grace has a very specific look, and as a transgender woman, she is certainly a product of modern times. There were no trans gender people back in the Victorian era, but I am still drawn to using a style from the past in order to convey her story. Grace's likeness to a Pre Raphaelite painting is uncanny.

Rebecca continued,

'The Pre Raphaelites were drawn to their models because they looked like 16th Century paintings. In painting them they were not using a general version of beauty but something specific'

In using Grace as the starting point to a Pre Raphaelite inspired portrait I hope to highlight her individual beauty and personal story.

I then asked about the use of symbolism to tell stories within Pre Raphaelites paintings. We discussed the use of repeating motifs from the paintings into the frames, as seen in 'Astarte Syriaca' where stylised fruits and flowers can been seen in the the frame and the girdle of the godess within it, helping to underpin the message of fecundity. A repeating motif could be something to think about for my own work...

But what about the audience, I asked, would the ordinary joe be able to decipher these symbols?

'Victorian's loved narrative. They made paintings to be read. So certainly a good number of them would be able to understand what was going on in the [Pre raphaelite] work. The language of flowers was prevalent in their culture with things such as greetings cards and they would have understood the religious symbolism.'

This made me wonder... would a modern audience still be able to read an art work using this form of narrative?

'Audiences today don't use the same language. We don't use signs or symbols from the classical myths. I think a modern audience would find it interesting but not know what it signifies. That's one reason why Pre Raphaelite work fell out of fashion during the early half of last century. It was considered too fussy and too much like hard work to read. It wasn't until the 60's that they began to become popular again.'

It seems obvious when you think about it. As soon as Rebecca said this I realised that I would need to invest time into finding a modern equivelant to the Victorian use of symbols. It was always my intention to use a mix of the classic and comtemporary within this work but now I will only use the Pre Raphaelites as a starting point. The finished piece will have the Victorian aesthetics that a modern audience will recognise but the content will be full of modern signifiers.

It's going to be fun figuring out what things to put in and how to use them!

I immediatly thought of Grayson Perry whose work I love! He is an artist who takes massive inspiration from the past to make sense of the present. For instance his work The Vanity of Small Differences took the work of William Hogarth's, 'The Rakes Progress', as the template for his huge tapestries which tell the story of modern class mobility and the influence social class has on our aesthetic taste. 

Each tapestry is full of details helping to push the narrative.

Incidentally this work is now on show at Manchester Art Gallery and will definatley be a field trip for this project. Get down to see it if you can!

Back in the picture store beneath the galleries, Rebecca showed me more treasures from the past. We flipped past gorgeous watercolours and drawings by countless artists including tiny intricate drawings by Rembrandt no less! We settled on a pencil study of Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti's first muse and wife. I tried to get my eyes as close to the page as I could without my nose smudging the line work and Rebecca thinking I was a bit odd. It was so beautiful up close.

Then on to another box of tissue wrapped gems. She folded back the rustling paper to reveal another Rossetti piece, this time a study for a painting called 'Silence'. Jane Morris again, this time she sat on a chair her hand resting on the heavy folds of a curtain behind her. No other information was within the drawing. This was a good example of a subject matter being symbolised by a woman. The sitter personifiying the topic, becoming and idea. 

We discussed Rossetti who as you have read is a big influence in this project; In his later work especaiily he would work with a single abstact idea such as Silence, or Music for instance and deptict them through the beauty of women and nature. For him beauty was something to be celebrated and revered. This simplicity makes his work immediatly accessable and is probably one of the reasons I admire him so much.

Rebecca pointed out how 'Silence' like much of Rossetti's work flattened the space within it. 

'Something stops the viewer from going further into the picture, and makes it immediate and intense'

I love this idea and will use it in my portrait of Grace. I want it to invite the viewer into her personal world, a space that is unique just to her.

As my visit to the gallery wound to an end and the art works were locked away in dark saftey once more, I thanked Rebecca for giving up her time to help me in my research. I certainly feel I got a lot out of it. I have many things to think about and ideas to work on. Plus I got the opportunity to view art work that fires me and fuels my imagination. Next time you take a stroll down Mosely Street, spare a thought that nearby somewhere deep beneath your feet lie glorious images that are just waiting to be seen and inspire!

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Interview with Grace Oni Smith

In a busy coffee shop in the middle of Manchester I met up with Grace Oni Smith to interview her as part of my project investigating trans-gender femininty. In time Grace will be posing for me as I paint her in a Pre - Raphaelite inspired piece exploring her femininity and personal story (see past posts for for info on what we've done so far). I thought it was about time to really get to grips with the subject matter, so please read on to find out more in this unabrigded interview which involved coffee, cake and very candid chatter...

-Hi Grace how are you?

Good thanks!

-What have you been doing today?

I slept in today, it's my day off. I washed my hair, plucked my brows and watched an episode of Buffy with a slice of quiche. Tonight I'm hosting Drag Bingo at Vivid Lounge.

-You’re a very busy woman of late, not only working as a full time professional make-up artist but also moonlighting as a drag/burlesque performer; can you tell us something about how you juggle your time and how your jobs might influence each other?

It's a mixed bag really but it all involves artistry. My drag work is about character, mood, creating an other self. With my make up work it's the same, it's about faces and peoples persona. Making people feel good through the way they look. Outside of work I focus on myself as a canvas but the message is similar both ways. Creating looks and characters that are empowering, inspiring and creative.

-For anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain exactly what ‘drag’ performing is, and how it relates to you as a trans woman?

Lots of people assume drag is all about a man in a dress and a wig impersonating a woman. But in my drag family it's about creating a persona and a character and amplifying different facets of your personality. That's why drag can be a man a woman or a trans person. It's a chance to create an amplifyed version of yourself.

-Can you give us the scoop about your next incarnation?

My next show is at the Cornerhouse [this Thursday] and is for the Vogue Fashion Night Out. It ties in with the Double Indemnity show thats on at the moment and is inspired by the women in film noir. In film noir women are personified as characters like the bitch, the damsel in distress or the femme fatale. It's similar to drag in that way. We'll be dressed as film noir characters for people to sketch on the night. Our look will be monochromatic, like we've just stepped off the screen and been placed in the gallery. My look will be based on Marlene Dietrich, Sheila Blige will be a Joan Crawford type and Anna Phlactic will be based on Monroe. Then there will also be a drag king posing as Humphrey Bogart. We'll be creating tableaus and will break out into lip syncing songs.

-Sounds amazing! I'm going by the way!


 - You’ve stated in the past that performing on stage, rather than pretending to be someone else, is a chance to ‘hold a magnifying glass up to yourself’. Do you feel that it is the audience or yourself who learn the most from this experience?

When I first started it was purely from a selfish place. Through performing I got to show off the trans body both the glamourous and the ugly side. It put me in a cathartic mindset. I've always felt that if there's a part of yourself you hate then you should get it out and shake it around. Show people. In that way you're able to let go of the things that you're tortured by. It's an unusual way of having therapy; Celebrating the things you're not proud of and making them into something you can be proud of.

People responded really well [to my performing] so in the end it became about the audience too. One time someone came up to me after a show and said, 'I can't beleive you got your scars out! I've got loads of scars, it's great to see someone embracing it!'

Now I feel an obligation to celebrate the things that make me different instead of hiding them away.

- Brilliant! Ok next question: Many women have a certain degree of maintenance in their lives, be it waxing plucking tanning or manicures. You've already touched on plucking your eyebrows earlier today, can you give us some insight into the upkeep and maintenance involved in being a trans woman?

[Laughs] Well obviously there's the hormonal treatment you have to have before surgery. I have to have a tablet injected under my stomach every three months; it lowers the male hormones to a level of a biological lady. It's called Anti Androgene, I always thought that would make a good drag name, you know, Auntie Androgene!

Then there's estrogen tablets I take every day, and as far as womens maintainance it's somewhat more; plucking, waxing, laser treatment.

-You recently got your lips done didn't you?

Yes, well I got my nose done in the new year and I got bored waiting for more surgery so I decided to get my lips plumped up. I have priorities but if I won the Euro Millions I'd go on holiday and come back a totally different person!

I'm getting my boobs done next year and I plan to get my teeth done too.

-What, like veneers?


- You don't need to I like your teeth the way they are, they have character!

Character! What like an 18th Century syphilitic? [laughs and mimes a diseased mouth]

-[Also laughs] No no! Like... You know before David Bowie got his teeth done, he looked better than he does now. He looks a bit boring now, a bit too perfect. I like his old teeth.

Well, I want a perfect smile, I want that horse look!  As far as other forms of up-keep goes, just use your imaginations... anything a woman does to keep herself looking good, times it by 10!

-Is there anything you find challenging on an everyday basis that many other people might never even think about?

People find it difficult to understand how being transgender affects every facet of your life. From waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror, going to work... Everything always reminds you that you're transgender. I'd never claim it's a disability because it's opened up new communities and people to me. But unless you go through that every day is difficult to understand.

I tried to explain it to a male friend like this: You're a man, you look like a man, you feel like a man you act like a man but imagine you have a massive pair of big bouncy tits instead of your normal chest. How would you feel?

When you walked down the street that's all anyone would look at. You'd still be a male but this unusual difference would set you apart.

Even children pick up on transgender people.

It's about how you feel as well as how other people react to you.

-Have you always felt like that?

Yes always. But I was lucky when I was little, my mum was great and never dictated what I should be like. How many little boys do you know who go home from school to play with their Barbies and watch Splash!?

-You come from a Jewish background, how has your faith affected your life as a trans woman?

[Takes a moment to answer] The main thing I always say to myself is God tests us. There's lots of conflicting ideas; plastic surgery, changing bodies... Would God want me to live my life and be miserable with negative emotions? As transgender, ultimately the journey is about relinquishing yourself of demons. Do you just stay the way you are to be accepted visually or do you change what you can? Instead of introverting your energy, put it out there to help people. 

-So how has the Jewish community been towards you?

Jewish people are mostly accepting. My gender is not relevant. To them I'm just another Jewish woman.

-The project we are working on is something that ticks all my boxes; glamour, history, narrative and the celebration of femininity (your femininity in this case) to name but a few! Can you tell us why you wanted to partake in this work and have your portrait painted? 

All the same reasons as you! Art history; before I started this project I didn't realise how many parallels there were betweeen me and the women in the [Pre-Raphaelite] paintings. They have strength and confidence. It's made me delve deeper into that movement in art than just thinking 'oh that's a gorgeous picture'.

Plus it's an interesting idea. I'm glad to be part of the process; working together to create something with power behind it. Especially with my [gender re-assignment] surgery in three weeks. This is a strange peiod of my life, and it's never really been explored before. It's nice to look at it in a beautiful and romantic way. It's subversive in a different way. 

Since I've seen some of the drawings you've been making of me I've come to think of the finished styling and make-up for the piece as much softer. You've been drawing me as I am, not as I usually like to be seen. It's challenging, more real and raw. For instance I'm sat in front of you now with no make up on, but a couple of years ago I would never have done that. The drawings have made me think, 'That's what I look like'.

 -I've just drawn what I see, I still think you look beautiful as well as real. 

There's lots of parallels with me as a trans woman. [The Pre Raphaelite style] has strong and powerful women but they are soft too. I remember my mum saying I would never be a namby pamby woman, she said I was more of a Grace Jones, an amazon. That's what I've always identified with, but I've since realised I can be more refined and feminine too.

-How has art in general been an influence in your life?

That's a big question! Really in every way! I've always been very artistic; painting, crafting... that's always been an outlet. as a teenager I was always hiding in the art department learning differnt ways to be creative. I'm not academic so art was a way to express myself. Performance is a way of bringing it all together. Arts always been an outlet, always will be.

- Do you have a favourite artist?

Many many many, too many and it always changes.

-This year is a big one for you with your gender re-assignment coming up next month, how are you feeling about things at the moment?

Just... ready. I'm tired of waiting. I'm looking forward to six months time. That's really exciting to me. I'm looking forward to five years down the line when this [time] is a distant memory. I'm really ready and looking towards what the future holds!

-Do you have any words of advice or experience for anyone else that might be beginning or on a similar journey to your own?

I think the best advice is just be who you are 100%. Trans people shouldn't be afraid to embrace both their masculine and feminine sides. It's what makes you special in your own way. View it as a blessing not a curse. 

If I could just take a pill and be totally happy with the way I am right now I would. But you can't do that so you have to be you and make the changes you can. Life's a journey so you've always got to move on. And if you haven't got the support of your family make your own family. I get so much strength from my family and community I wouldn't be where I am right now without their support.

There's also my queer family, I'm lucky to have met a group of people so loving. There's so many people going through the same thing. There's a wider community and support network and I take strength from that.

-If you could describe yourself right now in three words what would they be? It's a lot harder than you think...

Three words... Shiny; I've got a LOT of moisturiser on today! 


Erm... this is hard! Um... Determined.

-Good choice! Thanks Grace! Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?

Just, thank you. I'm grateful that you asked me to be part of this and I'm glad to be working with you. If it was anyone else and not Gemma Parker doing this I don't think I'd have said yes.

-Thank you!

There then followed a conversation about the trans community. I said I was getting on really well with the Pre Raphaelite side of the project but I wanted to know more about the trans side of it. Grace suggested we visit a particular bar in the Gay Village well known for it's 'tranny night'. But she said the experience would show me a dark side of trans life. 'The girls there are all so desperate to be noticed and accepted even if that means getting exploited'. To be frank it means that the girls who frequent the bar can be targeted by men after the fantasy of sex with a 'tranny'.  Grace described it as a 'dark sordid little rabbit hole'. She certainly paints a picture with words.

Grace stated there needs to be a positive change to open up the trans community as there is no one in mainstream culture who represents them. It's just not questioned or talked about. 'There's no one like Pete Burns or Boy George on mainstream TV these days... Can you imagine a person who plays with gender that way as a guest on Blue Peter nowadays?' In truth, no. 

Talking with Grace this afternoon about her trans life amongst the bustle of city workers and shoppers, sipping their coffees and gossiping, felt like the most natural thing in the world. My project might not make the positive change Grace was talking about but by working together and simply chatting this way I feel we've begun something that will at least start to question peoples understanding of life as a trans person and will celebrate this little understood path of femininity.


I am scheduled to meet with Manchester Art Gallery next week to speak to one of their curators about their Pre Raphaelite art collection including the chance to view some Rossetti drawings not usually on show to the public! I will get the chance to chat about my project to get some direction in how to put Grace's story into a narrative within her portrait. I am very excited! See you next time... :)

Friday 6 September 2013

Grace the face!

Hi! Here's what I've been doing since the last post:

Grace Oni Smith visited the studio a few weeks back to pose for some sketches and photos that will help me in the run up to the painting I will be creating of her in a Pre Raphaelite inspired portrait.

I want to get used to drawing her face and I have really enjoyed putting down the lines and shapes that create her unique looks. In fact I can totally see how one person can become a muse; if they have that certain something which makes it a pleasure to draw them, and also sparks the imagination!

We used some well known images as points of reference, the object being to create poses that embodied a classicly feminine ideal. As a trans woman, Grace is still a challenge to the popular perception of femininty even in this day and age, and one of the things we want to achieve is a strong provocative/sensual image that will get people asking themselves questions. 

 The Rose leaf by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
It's easy to see what a strong resemblance Grace has to a Pre Rapheaelite stunner. It's this strength of features which first inspired me to work with her, and lends itself so well to the project.

Pre Raphaelite work brings to mind sumptuous images of women, romantic scenes and sensuality. I think using this style of art is a good way to translate Grace's story to a wider audience. In other art work exploring transgender issues there is little scope for celebrating femininity without going down the full on route on par with traditional drag. Or on the flipside being very serious about the issue. 

Amanda Lepore by David LaChapelle
With our Pre Raphaelite vision we get do the dressing up and extreme glamour (see my make up post 'Smoke and Mirrors' for more on this), but we also get a chance to talk about trans gender in style that allows for sensitivity and sensuality. 

As part of my research into the style and ideas behind creating a Pre Raphaelite portrait I went to visit the Edward Burne Jones exhibition at the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight last week. 

Burne Jones was one of the biggest names in the Pre Raphaelite circle and one of its most successful. It's probable that even if you don't know his name you will probably have seen one of his paintings at some point, or even one of his stained glass windows.

The show 'The Drawings of Edward Burne Jones' runs until January next year and showcases a selection of drawings too fragile for permanant display. 

Many of the models in this exhibition had a certain androgenous aspect. this blurred line of gender works well for our project
It was wonderful to get up close and personal to the delicate pencil work. His preparatory studies of his models are so complete and refined. They offer a sense of strength but are produced in the most sensitive way (a balance I hope to acheive with my work on Grace).

A preparatory study of a zephyr for the painting Sponsa di Libano, shows the soft detailed application of chalk. Something I later tried to emulate in my drawings of Grace...

I'd reccommend a visit to Port Sunlight any day and especially the Lady Lever Art Gallery. It is a hidden gem containing a multitude of goodies that you can easily spend a day getting lost in.

Next post; As we put together ideas for the narrative for the portrait I interview Grace to explore her daily life as a drag/burlesque performer and trans woman.

For more images from the photo session and examples of drawings check out my Facebook Page :)

Friday 24 May 2013

New art project part 3: Smoke and Mirrors

Tuesday saw the next stage of my new project with burlesque/drag and professional make up artist Grace Oni Smith. 

Planned as a skills swap session, I was going to draw her in preparation for her Pre Raphaelite style portrait and she was going to show me her make up ideas for the painting. (To find out more behind this project about transgender femininity take a look at past posts)

The thing was I hadn't counted on how much work goes into creating a drag persona. Cue almost 2 hours of make up application as Grace, using Rossetti paintings for reference (particularly Bocca Baciata as seen below), slowly transformed herself into one of the Victorian glamour girls.

It was fascinating to watch, and I'll take you through the many stages right now to give you a taste of how the transformation happened.

Lets start with a before shot like they do on QVC. Here we see the lovely Grace sans any make up and incidentally any eyebrows (I'll come back to this in a bit). She is sporting this seasons must have,  the make up pashmina (for keeping you glamorously warm while applying). I gotta get me one of those! 

Here is Grace's make up, this is just a small part of the many drawers full to the brim with foundations, powders, creams unguents and glosses. To a make up fanatic like me, this was Aladdin's cave!

Primer: Throughout the afternoon, I saw many comparison between applying make up and the painting of a picture onto canvas. Just like preparing a canvas, the skin must be primed. And this is drag, not your average make up so it's important to use heavy duty stuff. This was a silicone based primer, which takes other make up on top very well and holds it in place.

One of the mantra's from the afternoon was 'Blend, blend and then blend again!' Here Grace blends her primer in.

OK, it's not as bad as it looks, this is actually the contouring that was drawn on before it was blended. As you can see the shadow (a dark concealer for dark skin tones) was painted onto the hollows and dips of the face and around the jaw line. The purpose is to create the illusion of sculpting the face. Just like painting, you 'knock back' the darker areas to create shape.

This is TV stick, a make up used for television, or as Grace pointed out TV=Transvestite, this is a favourite for drag queens as it has such strong coverage. I think this was used for highlighting, which you can see...

...here! Already, a more defined look is coming through. Grace took great care to sculpt her nose, giving it a streamlined and straight look similar to a Rossetti model, and also highlighted the centre of the forehead as she explained a domed forehead is more feminine. Whereas shading pushes areas back, highlighting brings them forward. If you want and area to stand out, highlight it!

Once blended together very carefully with a sponge (which btw is NOT good for day to day make up as it really pushes the product into the skin. It is however wonderful for drag and theatrical make up for that very reason) translucent powder was applied all over, then as can be seen here, MORE shading, this time with powder. This was followed by more highlighting in powder also. The reason was to really create an intensified look.

Next is eyebrows. Remember I said I'd tell you more about the eyebrows? Grace recently shaved hers off, and not for the first time. She explained brows act as a boundary to where make up can be applied and taking them away gives you the opportunity to alter the structure of the face. This is a woman dedicated to her craft (it'd be a cold day in hell I ever waved goodbye to my brows). I could totally see what she meant. By having no brows she had the chance to create whatever shape or line or absence of line she wanted. In order to achieve a Pre-Raphaelite style, Grace drew on a high arched brow in a blonde pencil. Using feathery strokes to create the illusion of hairs. Again, this is very similar to painting brows for portraiture.

Now it's on to the make up most women would be familiar with, the pretty bit, the eyes. After using a windscreen wiper action in the socket with a taupe colour, Grace applied a sheer mineral powder of green and pink on the lids. The colours were chosen to emulate those found on the Pre-Raphaelite women. Colours which helped to give them an ethereal look.

A bit of mascara and the eyes are done. Deceptively natural and simple but still defined. A little tip Grace passed on at this point was that you should always work on the feature you want to be your focal point first. This allows you to work around it and create a balanced look.


For this look Grace decided to just use a dark neutral lip liner and left the centre bare as her own lips are quite dark naturally. Just a touch of balm was added to give them luster.

At this point I asked if Grace was always called upon to do her fellow queens make up when performing, but interestingly she answered that most drag queens prefer to get ready alone without disturbances (just like me and my friend Olivia). She called this process of transformation 'coaxing the lady out'. I think that is a gorgeous and provocative way of describing the process.

After a soft peachy blusher was added to the cheek bones, dots of glimmery pigment powder were added to the highest points of the face and then softly blended in to give luminosity.

The look was completed by a cascade of raven curls. This isn't the wig we will use for the portrait but it does give an idea of how the finished look will be. Words we used to describe the Pre-Raphaelite paintings we visited at Manchester Art Gallery certainly spring to mind here: Sensual, strong, luminous and soft.

Make up used to create this look included high quality brands such as Illamasqua and MAC right through to Rimmel, Sleek and theatrical make up. It just goes to show top names do not always have to be used exclusively to create a high quality finish, although years of training and practice do help. It might be worth sliding back to the before photo here, just so you can see how utterly powerful artifice can be. Grace has totally created a different persona inspired by the iconic beauties of Pre-Raphaelite art.

As she applied the many stages of make up Grace's whole demeanour changed. She became more fabulous, more energised and more expressive. This was truly an example of someone who uses make up as an extension of their personality, and it was mesmerizing to witness.

I never did get around to sketching her as we ran out of time, so join us next time as we take the next step along our Pre-Raphaelite adventure, challenging conventional ideas about beauty and femininity...

Tuesday 30 April 2013

Work included in Nyx!

I got invited to include some of my work in the next issue of Nyx journal, a publication of critical theory, politics and art, funded by Goldsmiths and available online and in print from bookshops around London.

The theme for Nyx Issue 8 is 'Skin', quite apt don't you think? I have seen the final proof and it looks fabulous! The launch is 10th May.

Saturday 27 April 2013

New art project part 2: Something about Grace...

Last week myself and Grace Oni Smith, visited Manchester Art Gallery to view some of the Pre-Raphaelite works there in preparation for the new art piece based on her. (find out about this spectacular lady in my last post: New art project: A date with Grace)

More specifically, we went to perv at the lovely Pre-Raphaelite models who take pride of place in many of the paintings. These lovely gals are to be the inspiration for my portrait of Grace, a stunning transgender woman who put me in mind of the Victorian pin ups; Something about Grace was niggling me for ages after I first met her. Then weeks later while waiting for the bus it hit me. Not the bus....a thought! Grace reminds me of Jane Morris. She is tall and willowy with strong features and dark hair. Was it the shape of her nose, the placement of her lips? I'm not sure but that similarity fueled my ideas and now here we are staring dreamily at Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Bower Meadow.

'Look at her nose!' Grace said running a well manicured finger down her own work of art, her newly refurbished schnoz (not long tweaked by a nose job). 'It's me!'. It's true, looking at any of the Pre-Raphaelite girls especially Rossetti's, it's easy to find elements that ring true with Grace's features.

Pre nose job, Grace is still reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite stunner!

The Victorian models were painted as ideals of femininity. Yet it's interesting to note many of the women who found acclaim through their modelling were originally a bit, how can I put it, odd looking for the fashions of the time. It was the artists' vision and ideas which helped to open society's mind and soon had the art crowd knocking down the doors to celebrate these unique women.

Far from claiming that vision as my own I want to use the Pre-Raphaelite ideal as a platform to air Grace's story and challenge our society's views on femininity. Using two of my favourite things artifice and theatrics I want to stage a Pre-Raphaelite style scene with Grace as the icon and muse.

Lots of things need to be taken into consideration for this piece: Story, styling, symbolism, pose and paint technique to name but a few. But during our visit to the gallery, Grace and I were most involved in looking at the details in the paintings; the beautiful way hands and shoulders were showcased; the models never really revealing much but still oozing sensuality and fierce femininity.

Joli Coeur by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is one of the paintings we went to see at Manchester Art Gallery. This small and intimate picture has pin up girl written all over it! Looking like she just threw her jacket on to open the front door to the milkman this minx embodies the Pre-Raphaelite style. Her decolletage hands and wrists are the only flesh on show heightening the eroticism of her pose and expression.

Words which Grace and I used to describe the feel and look of these paintings included:

Lit from within...

Certainly when looking at works such as Vivien by Frederick Sandys you get a feeling this lady is lit from within. Grace and I spent a good while studying this work. Not only did we like the way she dominated the viewers attention, we were intrigued by the items placed in the painting with her. What did they tell us about her, and what did they symbolize?

In case you're wondering, Vivien here is not a very nice piece of work. She is an evil enchantress from Arthurian legend and this can be backed up by reading the symbols around her. The apple for instance, represents man's fall, the flowers she toys with are poisonous Daphne and the all obliterating Opium Poppy. Teamed with her aloo look, I think she's best kept at arms length
We discussed possible items to be placed within Grace's portrait and played around with the ideas of the Star of David and menorah to symbolize her Jewish faith and upbringing and butterfly motifs as used to reference transformation and transgender. But I feel the items need to be cohesive so maybe placing Grace as a mythical/historical character who shares similar cross references of transformation and strength might work too. This needs to be looked into further. One thing I really want to do is create something that references Pre-Raphaelites but is still contemporary, so I definitely want to put modern items and references in with the classic styling.

Grace was inspired by the clothes and faces we saw and has already begun to plan her look. Being a professional make up artist I know she will come up with something striking and spot on. I've asked her to keep me posted with any experiments she does and I will post them up here to share with you. You can see an example of Grace's fabulous work in this video for Tranarchy. She certainly isn't afraid of a little lipstick put it that way:

I think the next step in this project will be to get some drawings of Grace done, so I can get used to representing her face, and start to experiment with poses and ideas, kind of like brainstorming with pictures. This will be a good chance gather our ideas and work with what we have already thought about. I'll let you know how we get on next time...

Saturday 20 April 2013

New art project: A date with Grace

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!