Artist Alexa Meade at FORM Arcosanti

Painting optical illusions on the human body, using the Arizona desert as backdrop

The words “live painting” invoke a couple of different images for me: a graffiti artist in the middle of the night, or even Bob Ross talking to the camera and patiently explaining a new technique. Alexa Meade, however, has made the term entirely her own. She’s ditched the easel and brought the brush to human skin, transforming breathing, moving bodies into a dimension between 2D and 3D; incorporating photography (she shoots everything herself), video and performance, too. Her unusual technique first caught our eye back in 2010, and we were able to see Meade at work recently in an equally unusual setting: the unreal music festival FORM Arcosanti, which took place in an experimental desert town in Arizona.

Meade was invited to live paint by NeueHouse, one of the festival’s cultural programmers that also set up discussions by Sanford Biggers, Doug Aitken and more. While Christopher Willits‘ experimental guitar strokes floated above the amphitheater and Skrillex DJed poolside, Meade (and her painting) wandered throughout the spaces. Afterward, we sat down with her in the stunning Paolo Soleri-designed café (more structures should have gigantic round windows) to discuss painting in such an unusual setting and what else she’s working on besides her secret project with David Blaine.

Have you been here before?

This is my first time here! The desert just feels like freedom. I was talking to somebody in the van ride over, and they asked if I’ve ever taken an artist residency program where you’re kind of in the middle of nowhere. I’ve done a lot of those before—some in upstate New York, one in Nebraska, Portugal, other places. It’s awesome but there’s something actually about being here in the open desert-ness where I’m just like, “Oh my God. I have to live here, I have to create here” in a way that I’ve never felt from any other space that’s specifically supposed to be inspirational for artists.

I’ve never painted at [a music festival] before. I exhibit my art in galleries, museums and specific art spaces, and so, doing it in a music space, it seemed like a natural fit but it was a very different fit than I’m used to. So this actually worked out amazingly. I would really love to do more collaborations with musicians. I could feel the energy of the people around me, too. And I did a lot of my painting on the edge of this cliff. It was so windy, completely terrifying and great—adding that element of adrenaline to it, like “I might die right now!” was pretty amazing.

Did the live painting involve any set-up or preparation before arriving here?

I did know that I was going to collaborate with Josephine Lee, who did crazy makeup on my model, like put eyelashes on upside down. Then from there, I did all the painting on top of it.

And you didn’t stay in one place: you were moving in and out.

Exactly, we were going through all the different areas, and part of why that happened was a very happy accident. I was supposed to be painting in front of a background and something got messed up with the delivery with the background—a giant eight foot roll of paper that I was going to paint on and hang up. And then when we found out that there was no background, it was like “Oh, shoot! So this is going to be a very different type of painting and it’s going to be a lot more mobile.” So we were trying to find different spots that could be a beautiful setting for the painting.

What kind of reactions were you receiving from the festival attendees?

You know how when somebody who looks like a freak walks down the street, people will stop, stare, have a moment of judgement—and then maybe smile? This was totally different. People stopped, and were like “This is delightful. I’m experiencing something.” It feels really empowering, actually, that people stopped and stared.

What else have you been working on, besides the upcoming secret project with David Blaine that you can’t talk about?

My boyfriend [Chris Hughes] and I are turning our house into a funhouse—just for fun. We’re not making money off of it; we’re just making stuff because we want to make stuff. [For example] our stairs are rainbow, and we have Mylar foil on either side. So as you’re walking up the stairs, you can feel the rainbow moving around you. We have mirrors set up to reflect out of windows in different rooms. It will never be done, it’s our pyramid—always has to be in progress. So it’ll just get progressively crazier and more claustrophobic.

It’s so different from the bare, white walled interiors you always see on Instagram.

I can’t deal with that! Because it feels like you can’t make in those spaces. In my house, you could drop a whole can of paint on the ground and you wouldn’t notice; it’s great. It’s like, permission to create.

Lead image courtesy of Ian Clontz, all other images courtesy of Alexa Meade