I have come to an age when dignity should reign. As an elder, I should be a model of wisdom and restraint — rather than a nude model for a body painter. Whatever possessed me?
Adventure was the main attraction. How would it feel to let my body be a canvas? To be nude before an artist ― a total stranger ― for a couple of hours? To do something entirely new?
Love was also a reason. My husband and I were going to get painted together. The artist, Andy Golub, would incorporate the two of us into one unit. For a couple of hours, Mark and I would be nude against each other in a single position while Golub covered us with paint. This felt like a lovely way to celebrate our closeness. After 22 years of marriage, this would be a first!
I must admit, I was also hoping to impress (perhaps scandalize) my friends and acquaintances. I’m not physically courageous, but I try to be otherwise brave. In the cause of aging boldly, I’m often drawn to things perhaps unseemly for my age, such as the red cowboy boots I’ve taken to wearing.
So when the chance came to model for the man who more or less invented body painting as art (as opposed to body painting as ceremony and ritual), I didn’t think twice. Mark, though more conservative than I, also agreed without hesitation — as a triathlete, he has little body fat! I, older and less athletic, have a little more, but I’m OK with my old body and was pleased at the prospect of its being both the inspiration for and the actual material of art.
On a Sunday afternoon, Andy Golub arrived at our house with his dropcloths and his paints and began setting up in my study, which gets good natural light. Now 55, he’s been an artist since adolescence, but it was only when he began doing body art at 40 that he found his calling. Although he also paints on walls, on canvases, and on automobiles, Andy is best known for his public body-painting events, at which he and his assistants paint hundreds of nude people in venues like New York’s Times Square. He has also held mass events in San Francisco, Zurich and Amsterdam. This year’s New York event will take place on July 24 in Union Square.
I’m not daring enough to get painted in public, but doing it with my husband, at home, with the heat cranked up to 78, was within my physical and mental comfort zones. Mark and I signed releases and then went to our bedroom to take off our clothes. Slowly, shyly, we walked back to the study. Andy didn’t look up ― he was laying out his colors and brushes. He explained that he uses theatrical makeup, which is healthier and comes off more easily than actual paint.
Andy looked around the room and put a dropcloth on the couch. “Why don’t you get on that?” he suggested. I reclined on it like Madame Récamier in the Jacques-Louis David painting, and Mark joined me, leaning backward himself. This was a relaxing and relatively modest pose for both of us. I stopped feeling self-conscious.
Andy peered at us from many angles. He walked around the room. He got on a stool and looked at us from above. Then he got down and began painting a long green stripe up Mark’s left leg. He made a wide pink stripe next to the green one. The pink continued up Mark’s body, up to his neck and onto my belly. He painted a dark green band around Mark’s right thigh. Sometimes Andy would mutter “orange” or “blue” before going to his colors. Sometimes his lids would drop as he surveyed us before making a color decision.
“Are your eyes actually closed?” I asked.
“I’m channeling,” he replied.
He opened his eyes and chose purple, and the brush stroked our bodies. It felt light and smooth. An hour or so passed. He daubed white paint around my mouth and green paint on my forehead. He made little marks on our bodies in gray, “notes” to himself so we would assume the same position after the upcoming break. Then we stood up and stretched. He took some photos of us holding hands, with color patches and stripes all over our bodies, in the classic John and Yoko pose. We look very pleased with ourselves, although, of course, we’d done absolutely nothing.
We got back on the couch, aligned ourselves to each other through the little gray marks, and now the magic began. Using black paint and a thin brush, Andy began painting designs over the splotches and swatches of color that covered our faces and bodies. Mark got two eyes over his pecs and ripples on his shoulders. I got a snail on my abdomen and diamonds on my thighs. Narrow black lines continued from Mark’s arm to my leg, making our bodies merge into one colorful image. It was all very relaxing. After a while, Mark actually fell asleep.
Andy funds his work through contributions to his foundation, Human Connection Arts, but I saw a way he could monetize it more directly.
“Why not offer to paint young people as part of a wedding package?” I asked him. “They’d have a permanent memento of themselves in their prime, connected to each other through your art! It would be so original! I bet they’d pay you thousands.”
“I’m not really interested in that,” he said. “I see my art as more connected to social activism. Performance art like body painting is about bringing people together. I like to connect with my ‘canvas’ and inspire people to think in new ways.”
Andy has painted and photographed people of all ages and types, including those with physical disabilities. All kinds of bodies are beautiful.
He finished painting us and took some more photos. Though still naked, I was at ease: The paint was a layer concealing my skin. It didn’t feel like he was photographing us exactly; rather, it was more like he was documenting an entirely new entity ― an amalgam of me and Mark and color and design. Mark and I gazed at each other in amazement. Our bodies had become something wonderful.
After Andy left, Mark and I scrubbed each other off in the shower. It was sad watching the colors swirl down the drain, but otherwise they would get on our clothes, the furniture, and the sheets. Body painting is a temporary art, recorded by photography.
I selected two photos from those Andy shared with us and did a little judicious cropping. In the days to come, I proudly showed them to my family and friends, who were, I think, relieved that the images were so colorful, so beautiful, and so ... unerotic. This wasn’t nudity to arouse desire: Our bodies were mere background. As for our faces, the color worked like a thick foundation to make us both look younger. No wonder I was showing the photos to almost everyone I encountered!
I was reminded once again that I am more radical than most. I told a friend about getting my body painted, and she actually wrinkled her nose. And there are people I will never tell ― people for whom nudity at any age is abhorrent. Furthermore, the artist wasn’t simply painting us, he was painting on us, his brush against our skin. No, I’ll spare those folks mention of this particular artistic encounter.
My three sons, however, are another matter. They know me well, are past embarrassment about my doings, and are somewhat unconventional themselves. So they weren’t in the least surprised to learn I’d shucked off my clothes to memorialize the moment and be part of a gifted artist’s vision. They just admired the pictures.
Longtime couples are sometimes exhorted to bring some excitement to their marriage by doing something novel and exciting and challenging together. Getting our bodies painted was like that for us: a splendid new experience that felt just a little edgy.
Afterward, we looked at each other with new eyes. For one brief, shining moment, we’d been art.
Catherine Hiller’s sixth novel, “Cybill Unbound,” about the sexual adventures of an older woman, will be published Feb. 14, 2023. She is also the author of a short story collection, “Skin” (“Good, brave, and joyful fiction” — John Updike) and the controversial “Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir.” Short pieces have appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review, AARP Magazine, Ms., the Girlfriend, NextTribe, the Westchester Review and the Antioch Review. She is co-producer of the documentary film “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.”