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Douglass event connects artists to fresh-faced, living canvases

Last Thursday night, the Gender and Arts program hosted an event called “Be the Canvas” in the Kathleen W. Ludwig Global Village Living Learning Center. There is an organization within the Gender and Arts program called the Douglass Arts Advisory Board that coordinates different art activities for students, said Darah Bagby-Prosser, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior.

“We are trying to bring more creativity and arts to Douglass students, because there doesn’t seem to be enough of that within the Douglass community. So, we try to bring more art events to try and bring the creativity out of people,” she said.

The setting of the event was small and intimate. There were only two rows of four long white tables covered in little tubes of paint, boxes of paintbrushes, rolls of paper towels and styrofoam plates that held different splotches of colors, ready to be mixed or wrapped around the brush hairs. 

Despite the music in the background, the participants’ attention was focused on their work, carefully observing the effects of their hand movements, each creating a line or drop of color on their work surface. 

This scene reminded me strongly of my own experiences creating art and volunteering in an art studio, but there was one big difference: Artists were staring at another person’s face, not a canvas. 

I was simply observing the scene until out of the blue, a staff organizer asked me if I wanted to paint on someone’s face. Without hesitation, I replied “sure.” I hadn’t painted on anything for a long time, and this was a chance for me to polish up my skills after a month and a half of continuous schoolwork.

I was guided to my “canvas” and we sat down on opposite sides of the table. She made a request on the design she wanted to be: a night sky with a moon. 

Although I had a lot of experience with a paintbrush, I was quite nervous. I didn’t want to mess up and make a weird, discolored blotch on her cheek. Out of practice, my unsupported right hand grasping the brush wanted to tremble in the air desperately, but I somehow willed it to stay still. 

When my brush traced a small streak of dark blue on the surface of her face, the sensation felt out of place for an activity I’ve done for years. The previous canvases I worked with never socialized, nor did they react to being painted on.

I blended the colors directly on the surface of the skin — the blacks with blues and reds with yellows to represent the sky at dawn and at night. I soon forgot that it was a face I was painting on, and I became immersed in my own work. Her right cheek was the sunset, while the left was a night sky with the moon and stars. 

The moon was the most difficult part, by far. Paint doesn’t dry fast, so I couldn’t layer the dark patches of the moon on top of the white as I wanted. The methods I learned in the past to make the paint dry faster, such as using a blowdryer and waving the canvas around, were not applicable in this situation. 

So, I resorted to gently placing the brush on the skin as discreetly as possible, careful not to let the white and black colors interact.

After finishing my painting and taking pictures, I noticed the variety of designs on the participants. One girl had rainbow stripes around her eyes. Another had leafy vines stretched across her cheek and forehead. Each “canvas” wore distinctive handiwork shaped by the artist’s expression and skill.

After the entire experience, Bagby-Prosser, who helped set up this event, described how this activity was meaningful for the women in the Douglass program. “Here, at least, Douglass women can connect more, get to know each other and then together find something creative to make,” she said.

Alongside the connections formed between the artist and the canvas, there was another kind that was fixed. While painting, I reconnected with my artistic abilities that were dormant after a period of inactivity. 

Painting and mixing colors again — although in a unique circumstance — brought back pleasant memories of a hobby I sorely missed.

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