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Amber Michael’s Art of Darkness

by Ian McDowell

Amber Michael, voted the Triad’s Best Artist in the 2016 Yes! Weekly poll, has won acclaim for her special make-up effects and bodypainting. She’s also a stone Monster Kid. That label, which she shares with her idol Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak), is used by pop culture historians to denote those old school horror movie fans who grew up watching Shock Theater and reading Famous Monsters of Filmland. The original Monster Kid Era ended in the 70s, killed off by Star Wars and slasher movies. But monsters don’t stay dead, and in the 80s and 90s, Elvira, TNT’s Monster Vision and home video brought forth a new generation of kids who loved them.

For Amber, the gateway drugs were Elvira’s Movie Macabre (“I absolutely loved her growing up”) and her favorite classic horror star, Vincent Price. “I also love Valli Kemp, who played his mysterious assistant Vulnavia in Doctor Phibes Rises Again. I still plan to dress up like her someday.” Another formative experience came in middle school, when her teacher showed the class the original Clash of the Titans, which led to her obsession with the stop-motion special effects of the late great Ray Harryhausen. “I was hooked instantly.” To her astonished young eyes, Harryhausen’s slithering Medusa “felt real because it was a tangible practical effect.”

I ask her about her other heroes and inspirations. “Ha, where to begin? Guillermo Del Toro is a huge inspiration to me; I would die to work with him. I just got back from his fantastic ‘At Home with Monsters’ exhibit in Los Angeles. Ve Neill, who won Oscars for her makeup effects for Beetlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire and Ed Wood. In a male dominated world and industry, she’s a trail-blazer. She never let the naysayers keep her back and now she is a legend. Steve Wang is who I look up to as far as Special Effects painting goes. He is brilliant. I’m always studying the way he layers colors and his attention to detail. And of course [The Exorcist’s] Dick Smith, the godfather of make-up effects. Without him, so much of what we do wouldn’t exist. He is the inventor of so many techniques still used to this day by special effects artists. Speaking of the Del Toro exhibit, there was an amazing hyper realistic sculpture of Mr. Smith there and it made me cry. Tim Burton, Baz Lurman, H.R. Geiger, the list goes on and on!” Amber was born in High Point, where in the late sixties and early 70s, Dr. Paul Bearer had hosted Shock Theater on WGHP, although by the time of her birth in 1986, “Bearer” (Dick Bennick Sr.) had moved on to hosting Creature Feature out of WTOG in Florida. When she was nine, her family moved to Beaufort, which she considers her real home town. She went to East Carolina for Theater, Interior Design and Art History, but left before graduating, which she considers one of the best decisions of her life. “It allowed me to open up my time and start creating art again.”

Amber was the Art Director for Kersey Valley Spookywoods from 2012-2015, where she first got into bodypainting while working on a promotional photo shoot for Kersey Valley’s Dark Circus. Amber has done special make-up effects for the indy feature films In the Devil’s Courthouse, Bombshell Bloodbath and The Malevolent, the TV show GeoPirates, and the web series The Horribly Horrible Horror Show. She was the Art Director, Bodypainter and Special Makeup Effects Artist for Black Label Society’s “My Dying Time” music video, and has worked on videos for Dream Catcher, Nonpoint, Alesana and Taking Back Sunday.

I ask Amber if she separates what she does as a bodypainter or a special makeup effects technician from her work as a “fine” artist. “I think it all flows together. My thought processes can be different for each of my disciplines. I’m starting to learn to organize myself in the same way for my fine art pieces as I do to prep for a competition body painting. Competitive bodypainting has really helped me to tighten up my preproduction process. Which has been beneficial across the board.”

Amber believes that special makeup effects still have a place in this age of cinema and TV CGI. “The human eye is quick and there is just no substitute for practical, real-world effects. That does not mean that digital effects do not have a place. I think paired together in the right way digital and practical are a match made in heaven! I really love Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger’s KNB Effects Group, who do The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead for AMC. They are a HUGE inspiration to me. Everything they touch is going to have amazing, original special makeup effects. I think it’s more about effects groups now a days, rather than just the individual artist. But perhaps there is still a chance for legends to be made!” Does she differentiate between the beautiful and the grotesque? “Hmmm, good question. I tend to find beauty in places that most people wouldn’t. Imperfect beauty, broken and dark beauty. In a world where there is so much darkness, you can find hidden light and art in unexpected places. I’m always seeing beauty, always seeing art. So, I guess I don’t differentiate too much. I maybe even romanticize the grotesque sometimes.”

The future looks quite busy for Amber, with work on an independent horror film, and freelancing for photo shoots, commercials, and music videos. “And now, competition season begins. I just attended a huge body art show in Concord and another amazing Living Art America event, which featured fire performers with body paint by several artists, including myself. By the time this appears, I will have done live bodypainting for Castle McCulloch’s Mardi Gras of the Carolinas.

Then I’ll have a week break to prep and plan before heading back down to Atlanta for DragonCon, where I have a client hiring me for a few of her Cosplay bodypaints and make-ups, I’ll be working a PRIDE event in Atlanta as well. Then I begin preparation for the North American Bodypainting Championships held locally in Greensboro and Winston Salem. After that, I will turn 30! and hopefully not die.”

More of Amber’s bodypainting, special effects makeup and fine art can be seen at www.ambermichaelart.com. !

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