The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

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Alexa Meade

  • artist

Alexa Meade is an LA-based artist who is known for her portraits painted on the human body, making people into seemingly 2-D works of art. Her work has been exhibited worldwide and received critical acclaim from CNN, Wired, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and more. She has lectured at the California Institute of the Arts, UC-Berkeley, National Geographic London, Wired, and the TED Global Conference. Her TED talk “Your Body is my Canvas,” has been viewed over 2 million times.

Describe your path to what you’re doing now. I used to be an artsy kid when I was in elementary school, but when I turned 13, I became a vegan, anti-war rioter type of girl, and that was suddenly my identity. I grew up in Washington, DC, and followed this interest in politics, carving out a neat little path for myself. I interned on Capitol Hill and worked for the Obama campaign in 2008. In college, I majored in political science and did everything I could to position myself well to get a job in politics. But when I graduated in 2009, I decided that I actually wanted to be an artist, which was something I hadn’t dreamt about since I was a very little girl.

I came up with an idea for an art project, which changed the course of my life. I wanted to see what would happen if I painted shadows on top of shadows, and I used my friend as a model. Once I painted shadows and highlights on my friend, I realized that I was able to make the three-dimensional space appear two-dimensional—my friend had literally become a painting! I decided that there was more there to explore.

After graduation, I chose, much to the chagrin of my parents, not to get a real job. Instead, I made my job learning to paint in this new style. The last time I had picked up a paintbrush was at summer camp when I was 16, so I was very rusty. Early on, I practiced on things like food because I wasn’t interested in practicing on canvas. That’s never what it was about for me; it was about space and light and shadow. I had a hard time finding models—my younger sister modeled a lot for me, but she was not very enthusiastic.

Were you working other jobs while you were learning to paint? No, I decided to make being a full-time artist my job. Part of that was not only making artwork, but it was also learning what it meant to be a full-time artist. I went around to all of the art galleries in DC and wrote down names of all of the artists who I liked. I sent them emails saying I liked their work, was interested in hearing about how they became an artist, and would like to know any tips they had for someone starting out. Then I got coffee with dozens of people who gave me amazing advice. I quickly learned things that would have taken me years to figure out otherwise.

Then, in March 2010, I got my big break. The blog kottke.org had posted an article on body painting and someone commented, “Hey, if you like that work, you might as well check out Alexa Meade. She does cool stuff.” The next day, the blog ran a post on my artwork, which consisted of one photo and a 30-word caption. All of a sudden, my work went viral.

That was about a year after you had started pursuing art full-time, right? Yeah, it was a little less than a year after I had started pursuing art. I was incredibly lucky to have such a big break that came from somewhere completely unexpected.

Exposure, a self-portrait
Exposure, a self-portrait, which Alexa painted directly onto herself and then photographed

“I grew up in Washington, DC, and followed this interest in politics, carving out a neat little path for myself…But when I graduated in 2009, I decided that I actually wanted to be an artist, which was something I hadn’t dreamt about since I was a very little girl.”

Has art continued to be your full-time job since then? Yes, I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities that have accumulated into something bigger, which I didn’t expect after being an Internet meme for a month. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to sustain this real fine arts career over the past four years. I’m exhibiting in galleries and museums, and I have a solo show coming up in Paris this spring.

Making art is my full-time job. Part of that is what people see, like the paintings on people; another part is experimentation and play. For me, a major part of play is making projects for myself that I don’t ever anticipate people seeing. I spend the majority of my time doing that. One of my major play projects right now is turning my home into a funhouse, which I’m doing with my boyfriend, Chris Hughes. And I’m also designing some toys.

Awesome! You mentioned graduating from college with a degree in political science, but you had this attraction to art. Was there an “Aha!” moment when you decided that you wanted to pursue art? I definitely felt the drive to create. The idea of doing politics seemed so predictable given my path. I had set myself up perfectly, but then I became overwhelmed by it and didn’t know if that was even what I wanted to do anymore. Much of that happened in 2008 when I went to Colorado to help with press for the Obama campaign. While I was there, I felt somewhat disheartened. The idea of working on a presidential campaign felt different, but in reality it was the same, except with the buzzwords hope and change.

Coming off of the campaign, I started becoming more interested in finding something creative to do. However, I thought I should find a job with health insurance because it was too scary to be an artist, so I figured I’d be a furniture designer. During my senior year of college, I took sculpture classes and spent a lot of time in the studio doing an independent study in furniture design. Then I came up with the idea that I should not be applying to furniture design school, but that I should explore art and see where it takes me.

You are certainly intrigued with the three-dimensional. Do you know where that stems from? I think the reason I’m not interested in traditional painting in my personal art practice is that when I used to do it as a kid, I could never get anything to my liking. I was very critical and perfectionistic, and I’d overwork it and get frustrated; it wasn’t a fun experience. I don’t feel positive about making things on a flat surface—there’s this mental block there. But when I create things in 3-D, it’s completely different. It unleashes a different part of my brain altogether and I’m able to create much more fluidly.

Have you had any mentors along the way? Early on, when I started making art and before any sort of recognition, I befriended a man named David Furchgott, who was from the organization International Arts and Artists. He was older and provided so much encouragement to me. I used to meet him at his office where we’d sit and look at art books together, I’d listen to him tell me stories about the art world 20 years ago, and he’d look at my new pictures every week. It meant so much to me that someone was interested in having me participate, and we’ve maintained a friendship over the years. I’m in LA now, so I haven’t seen him in many months, which makes me really sad.

Has there been a point when you’ve decided to take a big risk to move forward? The answer to that is definitely yes. It was when I did my first ever collaboration with Sheila Vand. Before Sheila, whenever anyone asked me to collaborate, my blanket answer was no; I was afraid of it, and I didn’t know how I felt about ownership. I was also worried that I’d be taken advantage of. Then Sheila emailed me to say she had a cool idea and asked if we could Skype about it. I was going to respond with a flat-out no, but because she specifically asked to Skype, I agreed. I thought I would gently tell her no via Skype, but once she told me about her idea, we got into an amazing brainstorming session that lasted for three hours until my laptop battery died. I got on a plane to LA the next day and we started collaborating. We decided that Sheila had a really great bathtub and we had to make use of it, so we put milk in the bathtub and had parts of her emerging from the milk. Then I painted her, she got into the milk, and it created beautiful patterns all around her. It was a big risk for me to be more open to collaboration, but now I make all of my favorite things with my friends.

“I decided to try my hardest at making this art thing happen. If I failed miserably or lost all of my money, then at least I would know that I earnestly tried to pursue my passion and did every single thing I could. I can’t have any regrets about that.”

Mediation, a photo of a painting on the surfaces of a live human subject, found objects, and an architectural space
Mediation, a photo of a painting on the surfaces of a live human subject, found objects, and an architectural space
Mediation installation, Alexa stands next to her artwork, which appears 2-D when photographed
Mediation installation, Alexa stands next to her artwork, which appears 2-D when photographed

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do, and what did they think when you finished college and decided to be an artist? When I finished school and decided to be an artist, nobody took me seriously. All of my friends knew me from our shared interest in politics, so I sounded a little crazy when I said, “Um, no, I’m actually just going to go make art now.” It’s something that’s really easy to roll your eyes at, especially when said by someone who didn’t go to art school.

My parents were very discouraging. They always said that art was a hobby and not a career. It took me a long time to win them over. For my mom, it took until my artwork received worldwide recognition, and even then it was still difficult for her to learn to stop pestering me to get a real job.

Now, I’ve had a couple friends contact me to say that I’ve inspired them to quit their jobs in politics and take up acting or change courses dramatically. They said they saw what I did and how I stuck it out, even though it was a hard process.

What kept you pursuing art so fiercely, even when the people around you weren’t supportive or encouraging or didn’t believe in you because they hadn’t seen it yet? That’s hard when you’re starting out. I hadn’t sold a single piece of artwork; I hadn’t had an art exhibition; I didn’t have a website together. Who’s to say that I am an artist? It was really hard for me to claim ownership of that title. I mostly didn’t tell my friends what I was doing. I told them I was looking for a job and asked them to tell me if they heard of any leads. It felt too vulnerable to say, “I have this dream and it’s kind of crazy, but I’m doing it.”

I decided to try my hardest at making this art thing happen. If I failed miserably or lost all of my money, then at least I would know that I earnestly tried to pursue my passion and did every single thing I could. I can’t have any regrets about that. Had I not tried as hard as I could, I might have gone through life thinking I blew my opportunity and questioning what I could have done differently. I didn’t want that. It was a big motivator for me to make sure I really was pursuing my dream as if I was pursuing my dream, and not just hanging out.

Natura Morta, a photo of a painting on the surfaces of a live human subject, found objects, and an architectural space
Natura Morta, a photo of a painting on the surfaces of a live human subject, found objects, and an architectural space
Natura Morta installation, an onlooker views Alexa’s artwork, which appears 2-D when photographed
Natura Morta installation, an onlooker views Alexa’s artwork, which appears 2-D when photographed

It’s easy to get on a path and, before you know it, you’ve invested so much into a career that’s it’s hard to give it up. Kudos to you for jumping in on the front side. Yeah, I’m so happy that I jumped in when I did. At that point, I had amassed so much field-specific experience that there was an opportunity-cost to step away. I could’ve been poised to get a real job, but had I done that, I knew it would be a lot harder to walk away. I felt like if I had the comfort of a job, a steady paycheck, and health insurance, then it’d be a whole lot crazier to quit and pursue a dream rather than starting from zero and deciding which way to go.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? I think that everyone feels a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than themselves, but I find that my best artwork comes when I’m making for myself. Whenever I make something with a broader audience in mind—Will people like this? Will it pack a powerful message?—it lacks a lot of the magic that comes when I’m not being critical while creating, when I allow it to flow. I could say that about the piece of the man on the Metro, which many people have said emotionally grips them and speaks to them in a broader way. I did that because I wanted to see something come into the world rather than feeling an obligation to do it.

Are you creatively satisfied? I am so creatively satisfied. I probably spend 70% of my time playing and making little experiments. I have all sorts of outlets for creative energy.

That said, where do you see yourself in the next few years? Are there any projects you want to explore? That’s a funny question to ask because, in the moment before I wanted to be an artist, I thought that I’d later be running for Congress or something. All of that changed in an instant and turned into something completely different. When I first started as an artist, I thought I’d be exhibiting in five years, but I’ve already done that. Now, I really want to have a line of my toys come out; that’s a current dream. I’m turning my house into a funhouse, and I want to find some way to take that passion and share it with the world without inviting the world into my personal home. I have no idea where I’ll be in five years or what my dreams will be tomorrow. I’m just working on all of my dreams today as best as I can.

Metro, a live installation in Washington, DC
Metro, a live installation in Washington, DC

“…when I am initially struck with the seed of inspiration for something, I have to do that thing right then. I honor that impulse in the moment because if I give myself time to think about whether or not I want to do it, I’ll talk myself out of it.”

What advice would you give to someone starting out? I find that when I am initially struck with the seed of inspiration for something, I have to do that thing right then. I honor that impulse in the moment because if I give myself time to think about whether or not I want to do it, I’ll talk myself out of it. When I have an idea for a project, I’m never going to be as passionate and excited about starting it as I am in that moment—that is the moment I need to do it. It’s impulsive, but I credit a lot of my productivity to that, and it also keeps me creatively limber.

Working on these little projects and playing is so important. It helps me work out problem-solving for the bigger projects, even though I have no idea that that’s what I’m doing. But I oftentimes feed the skills that I’m learning in other areas directly into my main body of work in one way or another.

That’s a great point. Are you mostly focusing on personal work right now or are you also doing commissions and work for galleries? I’ve been really lucky because most of the work I get is from people approaching me. For example, I’m currently working on a collaboration with magician David Blaine—I probably can’t talk about that, though. And for the exhibit in Paris in March, I’m going to create live installations in the gallery. I’ll be painting all day for multiple days, and it’ll be a crazy art binge. I have the most fun with those things. I love getting into it and not taking a moment to catch my breath.

You’re in LA. How long have you been there? I grew up in DC and went back there after college. When my art went viral, I got so many offers to do things around the world. I actually spent three years traveling, going from exhibits to artist residencies to commissions to speaking gigs. I did all sorts of really cool things. I kept my parents’ address as my mailing address, but I was only there for the holidays. After that, I got that email from Sheila Vand about collaborating. She lives in LA, so I flew out and stayed there for six weeks. Our collaboration went really well, and I fell in love with LA. I’ve been here for two years now.

Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people? Yes, it’s extremely important for me to be around a community of people who are creatively flexible. For example, one of my friends here is really into tin can telephones and made the world’s longest tin can telephone line. I’d say that 5% of my friends have a 9-to–5 job, which is great because I really like having people over on a Wednesday morning to make weird art stuff with. My friends totally inspire me and I’m really in awe of the things that they do creatively and the risks that they take.

Did you have a good community before you moved out there? Well, something I missed when I was traveling was that there wasn’t one consistent sense of community. Everywhere I’d go, I’d meet people and keep in touch with them, and sometimes we would travel to see each other. But living somewhere, growing roots, and seeing how others grow and how I grow in response has been really incredible.

Does your boyfriend also do creative work? Yeah, Chris is incredibly creative and really good with tools. That’s kind of how I first fell for him—he knew how to use a drill. By trade, he’s actually a software engineer and he does all sorts of weird, mischievous things.

You two are collaborating and you’re in a relationship. What is that like? He totally courted me while we were working on a project together. Initially, I wasn’t interested in him, but I had a project that I wanted to work on in my house—a periscope mirror system—and this guy, Chris, said that he could help me. He came over to do it, and I thought it was going to be an afternoon-long project, but it turned into him coming over every day for two months to build new things around the house. That was very much the foundation of our love. It’s really nice to be creating this space together; every time I look at it, I think of him. It’s beautiful to see love in this artwork all around me.

“When I have an idea for a project, I’m never going to be as passionate and excited about starting it as I am in that moment—that is the moment I need to do it. It’s impulsive, but I credit a lot of my productivity to that, and it also keeps me creatively limber.”

Deviate from Milk: what will you make of me?
Deviate, from Milk: what will you make of me?, Alexa’s collaboration with Sheila Vand that explores the fluidity of form and the depth of perception; learn more
Sight from Milk: what will you make of me?
Sight, from Milk: what will you make of me?, Alexa’s collaboration with Sheila Vand that explores the fluidity of form and the depth of perception; learn more

What are your days like? There isn’t a typical day, which I’m sure everyone says. But there are times when, at the end of the day, I have to laugh about the bizarre things that have happened.

I do try to restrict my travel as much as possible. When I have a gig that’s out of town, I fly in the night before and fly out the morning after instead of tacking on an extra day to hang out in the city. Even so, I’m still out of town 30–60% of the time, which is incredibly disruptive to my structure, schedule, and relationships. My friends never know when they can get in touch with me and I sometimes feel like an absent friend, which is frustrating because my heart is here, even though my body isn’t physically present.

Do you listen to music while you’re working? I listen to tons of music and have gotten really into KCRW, the local NPR station, which plays great music—I’ve been stalking all the DJs. Sometimes I try to listen to the same album over and over while working on a project and then never listen to it again, so that if I do hear it, it will take me back to that particular project. It works pretty nicely.

Any favorite movies or TV shows? I really like Charles and Ray Eames a lot, and I have a DVD box set of all of their stuff, so I like to watch that.

Do you have a favorite book? Oh, I’m a huge reader. I finished Letters to A Young Poet last week. The advice that the poet gives to his fan is so unbelievably beautiful and touching. After I read it, I read it aloud to my boyfriend because it was so good.

Do you have a favorite food? I’m trying hard to think of a favorite. There’s a vegan restaurant nearby that I like, although I’m no longer vegan—I do eat meat.

Okay, I have one last question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave? I’m incredibly inspired by Charles and Ray Eames and the broad range of things that they worked on. They made iconic furniture, but they also designed toys, did science presentations, made medical equipment, and produced video art before it was a thing. I love their playfulness and openness to making anything an art form. I think of myself as a fine artist, but I don’t want that to limit me from exploring all of the other interests I have. Charles and Ray serve as a continual inspiration for that.interview close

“I’m incredibly inspired by Charles and Ray Eames and the broad range of things that they worked on…I love their playfulness and openness to making anything an art form. I think of myself as a fine artist, but I don’t want that to limit me from exploring all of the other interests I have.”

Self-satisfied, a self-portrait
Self-satisfied, a self-portrait, which Alexa painted directly onto her face and body and then photographed