Painting a new picture

The Human Canvas Project explores body love through paint

I open my eyes and I’m looking right at Matti Maclean. He’s my height, with piercing eyes and a black T-shirt that says “I PAINT PEOPLE” in white block letters. The experience of having my skin painted is not something I can easily express with words. Sensual, but not sexual. Intimate. Comfortable.

I first found out about the Human Canvas Project from my friend Courtney Keir, a UTM theatre and drama studies alumni. But it took me two years to work up the courage to go myself.

Bodies are so political. So much, these days, depends on how you look. As an actor, I know this. There are roles I “can’t” play because of my long brown hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. Slowly though, I’m coming to a different kind of conclusion. I look the way I look, and if you don’t like it, I don’t care. I refuse to starve myself, straighten my hair, or slather mascara on my eyelashes.

Today, I am a human canvas. I am joining the ranks of hundreds of others who volunteer their skin to Maclean, who invites me in, puts on some music, and asks me what colours I like. Maclean is a no-fuss kind of guy, and that makes me comfortable. He picks up a cake of purple body paint, rolls his brush in it, and starts laying colour on my neck and chest.

I was never the kind of kid who got dirty a lot. I avoided messy activities, and even as an adult I get a little squeamish about things like digging seeds out of pumpkins at Halloween. But paint is different somehow. It’s cool, kind of refreshing. And covered in shades of blue and purple and silver, I feel like one of those blue people from Avatar. It was like I’d been born that way, and I was already feeling a little sad about having to go home and wash it all off.

Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t normally be caught standing in a bra and a pair of shorts in front of a guy I’d met 10 minutes ago. But in no way did the Human Canvas Project make me feel exposed. In fact, I feel significantly more exposed on a day-to-day basis whenever I try to wear a skirt or a tank top and walk in a public place. The Rose Will studio is a kind of sanctuary filled with half-finished paintings and friendly cats. It’s a good place to have time with my body. I’m not thinking about anything except the feeling of paint as my skin turns into an outward expression of who I am on the inside.

There’s that overused quote about beauty being in the eye of the beholder—this project takes that to a whole new level. Plus, I get a chance to ask the questions that have been piling up. I ask Maclean about the demographic of people who come to the Human Canvas Project. Most participants, he tells me, are young Caucasian women. I wonder about why that is. Why don’t men want to be canvases? Why not people of colour? Is it some kind of heteronormative “ideal” beauty thing? Maclean also paints relationships: he has several couples in his collection, and he tells me he’s trying to get one of his canvases back with his twin. Based on what Maclean tells me, he wants as much diversity as he can get.

Regardless of being a white woman myself, I’m still incredibly happy just to be here. My painting takes less than an hour, covering me from hairline to the V of my bra, and all the way down both my arms. In some places, I shimmer with silver and gold. In others, black rings or speckles overlap the base colour. I feel both covered and exposed, flawless and incredibly vulnerable.

Maclean snaps a few pictures of me against a slat wall a few feet from the studio. When he’s finished, he looks at me and says: “Ready to see yourself?” Maclean has a point—I’ve seen my arms and some of my chest, but I realize I don’t know what I look like anymore. That’s kind of a refreshing thought.

I won’t even try to be modest. I look amazing.

Heading home on the subway, a lot of people stare. For twenty minutes on public transit, I am a walking piece of art. The only thing missing is Maclean’s signature.