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‘WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD’

by Ogi Overman

(photo by Peggy Bruchter)

Local couple Scott Fray and Madelyn Greco win the World Bodypainting Festival in Austria — and then get bounced by Facebook.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” — Henry David Thoreau

You´ll forgive Scott Fray and Madelyn Greco for feeling a certain kinship with Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. In the past year the Reidsville couple has won the North American Bodypainting Championship, held in Dallas; the World Bodypainting Festival, held over the Fourth of July weekend in Austria; and Fray was the inaugural inductee in the International Fine Art Bodypainting Association. Yet, back home they can’t get kicked off Facebook.

Well… actually they can, but more on that later. The analogy is valid, however, that their form of artistic expression — using the human body as the canvas — is applauded and recognized virtually across the globe. Everywhere but the good ol’ US of A. Even though the North American competition has been held in the US the past two years (they had finished third the previous year, in Las Vegas), the American press contingent is dwarfed by the throngs from the 18 other countries represented.

Yet, if Fray and Greco, whose company is called LivingBrush Bodypainting, are even slightly frustrated at the lack of recognition in their own backyard, they hide it well.

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Kim Leeftink (left) with Greco and Fray at the World Bodypainting Championships in Austria. (photo by George Schmitt)

“This is something that is being appreciated in other parts of the world,” said Fray.

“It’s really exploded all over Europe and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia, and many Asian countries, but it’s just not an American phenomenon. And I’m not sure it’s going to happen in America. I used to think America would catch up, but now I’m not so sure. And that’s okay.”

There Greco picks up the thread of thought. “We are certainly not in it for the recognition from the masses,” she added. “Being recognized by our peers as the best at what we do is all the recognition we need. We have gotten some press in other countries, but it fills me with gratitude just being known as world champions. I still get goosebumps thinking about it sometimes, just because we put so much into it.”

Indeed, the engaged couple immerse themselves in preparation for a full five months for each competition. Once organizers disclose the theme, they begin formulating a concept that best illustrates it. For the worlds the theme was “Haute Couture” and they decided on “The Evolution of Silk” to describe it. The theme for the North American competition was “Tears and Fears” and they used the Carl Sagan book Demon Haunted World as the basis.

Then Fray begins sketching, deciding which of the series of illustrations would fit best on which part of the body. After much trial and error, it is time for them to put paint to body. For the worlds, a dozen practice models were selected, and every weekend for six weeks they did a timed rehearsal — they had six hours to complete their work — fine-tuning and tweaking as they went.

An integral part of the process is selecting just the right model who fits their vision in terms of body type, stage presence, professionalism and compatibility. For the worlds they chose Kim Leeftink, a statuesque model from the Netherlands.

“She’s exactly the one we wanted,” smiled Greco. “We both agreed that she’s the best model in the world, and a huge part of why we won. Not only is she breathtakingly beautiful, she is a pure joy to work with. And since she has to stand still for 12 hours [for the preliminaries and finals], it helps if you get along.”

A month after winning the global competition against more than 300 artists from 48 countries, Fray left for an all-expenses-paid week in South Korea, where he was asked to judge another international event.

“The government of South Korea actually sponsored this event,” he said, “and poured a lot of money into it. A lot of Asian countries, China and Thailand, as well as Korea, take this stuff very seriously. They are really paying attention to it.”

THE FACEBOOK FLAP

Apparently, there are some folks in these parts who are paying attention to it, as well — but for all the wrong reasons. Lately, it seems, there is a moral crusader(s) who has taken it upon himself (or herself) to report images of bodypainted women on Facebook to the social media site’s powers that be. At least four models, including Greco herself, have been reported and banned for varying lengths of time. All had to sign an agreement not to upload images that violated their Terms of Use before they were allowed to log on, and were threatened with permanent banishment if they violated them again.

Unfortunately, their Terms of Use are rather ambiguous, at least their policy toward bodypainted images. There seems to be no differentiation between nudity and what many (but obviously not all) would consider art. Nor is there any clear explanation on their FAQ page. The form e-mail the four received stated: “You uploaded a photo that violates our Terms of Use, and this photo has been removed. Facebook does not allow photos that attack an individual or group, or that contain nudity, drug use, violence, or other violations of the Terms of Use. These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for a users, including the many children who use the site.

“If you have any questions or concerns, you can [sic] visit our FAQ page at www.facebook. com/help/?topic=wphotos.”

The FAQ page offers nothing in the way of clarification, particularly on where bodypainting falls in that gray area between nudity and art. And, even more unfortunately, the corporate office in Palo Alto, Calif. is unavailable for comment. No fewer than 20 interview requests via phone calls and e-mails from this reporter went unanswered. Granted, Facebook does not seek out offensive comments or photos, rather it waits for someone to report them.

It seems to make determinations on a case-by-case basis, instead of having a concise, detailed code of conduct. And, ubiquitous though it is, to its credit it seems not to relish the prospect of becoming the arbiter of public morality. Still, given the fact that so many people have come to depend on Facebook for a variety of reasons, a clear delineation of its standards and policies would be helpful.

The flap started innocently enough, when Greco was modeling for a figure-drawing class and met Belews Creek artist Cheryl Ann Lipstreu, who was taking the class. Both are accomplished equestrians, and Lipstreu suggested a novel idea.

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Cheryl Ann Lipstreu. (photo by Richard Phillips)

“I asked her if she would come out and paint me and my horse,” said Lipstreu, “and she loved the idea. She was preparing for the worlds then, but as soon as they got back we set a date. She spent all day with me and Peanut [her 31-year-old stallion] and then the photographer she brought with her, Richard Phillips, spent another couple of hours shooting us. My family was here, and then we all had a cookout and went swimming. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life.”

A few days later, both put some images of their exploits on Facebook, Lipstreu even creating a 134-image album she titled Peanut and the Painted Painter. A flood of positive comments ensued on both their walls, but a couple of weeks later Greco got a notification from Facebook that one of the images was inappropriate and had been taken down. She was banned from posting images of any sort for a month. Then a couple of weeks after that, Lipstreu got the same notice, but was only banned for two weeks. They had been reported for two separate photos.

“The funny thing was that the one they flagged did not have nearly as much blatant nudity as some of the others,” Lipstreu smiled. “Because I post my paintings on Facebook and use it as a marketing and networking tool, naturally I complied with their request.”

During that same span, two other models who’ve worked with LivingBrush, Tona Willet and Heather Meek, got reported. Willet’s offending image was a practice work Fray and Greco had used for the World Championships, the focal point being Kali, the Hindu goddess, while Meek’s was a painting that Fray and another musician plan to use as the cover art for an album they are recording. Willet, in fact, got reported five separate times.

“What was so sad was that, rather than going to the trouble of reporting me and almost getting me kicked off of Facebook, why couldn’t they have just unfriended me?” mused Willet, who is an assistant events coordinator for the Philadelphia Arts Council. “I can respect that; if you’re offended by it, turn the page. Or if you have such an issue with it, send me a message and we can discuss it. I just feel sorry for people who view this as obscenity, because they’ll never see anything beautiful in life.”

Likewise, Meek, whom some will remember in the title role of the 2007 48-Hour Film Festival winner “JoBeth” that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, does not blame Facebook but rather those who see porn and not art.

“It was so uplifting for me to get painted,” said Meek. “I wish people could understand the talent it takes to do that and the good feeling it produces in you. When you look at yourself your whole self-image changes.

“I loved it so much I put it up as my profile picture [on Facebook] and immediately got flooded with positive comments. Bonnie [Stanley, photographer] was so excited; she said it was one of the best she’d ever taken of anyone. But no more than 24 hours passed and it got taken down.”

One model who has never been reported, however, is Fray and Greco’s Dutch beauty, Kim Leeftink, which points more to the difference in cultures than the nature of the material she posts on Facebook, in that she posts an album of fashion shots in which she is completely and unashamedly nude.

“In the Netherlands we are very down-to-earth when it comes to nudity,” she said in perfect English. “We’re not shocked that easily. Nudity is pretty ordinary.”

Leeftink, is studying for her masters in business at the University of Amsterdam, has modeled at bodypainting competitions in the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Canada, and also models for painters, photographers, clothing designers and at numerous promotional events. In comparing the two cultures, she noted, “I think in the Netherlands everybody decides for themselves what they consider normal or obscene. It’s hard for me to compare, because I haven’t been to the US for some years now, but I can tell you that I’ve modeled [in bodypaint] for festivals, parties, conferences, fairs, stores and on TV, and I’m not sure that would go over in the US.”

Even though bodypainting is still outside the mainstream in America, and probably more so in the South, at least one local pillar of the community is unafraid to defend it. Dale Metz was the principal at the Gateway Education Center, a Greensboro school for multi-disabled children, for 21 years. He is a well loved figure in community and professional theatre circles, having also appeared on several TV commercials, and currently serves on several boards and as a “loaned executive” to the United Way of Greater High Point.

As to the charge that bodypainting, as practiced on the level of LivingBrush, is lewd or obscene, Metz responded, “I would say it’s no more obscene than looking at a Peter Paul Rubens painting or anything else that displays the human body.This is so unique because it is so temporal, like the Navaho sand sculptures; one moment it takes your breath away, and the next moment it’s gone.

“I have to laugh if somebody says that, because bodypainting is as old as civilization. There’s no culture you can name that hasn’t done bodypainting at one time or another as an adornment or way of expression. Scott and Madelyn have found the penultimate in this art. Scott is so clever putting background designs from everything from Incan art to African textiles, plus these incredible drawings on top of it. You may not appreciate it, but please don’t call it obscene if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Intimate Lens

Even as Fray and Greco work in a rather esoteric medium, there seems to have developed a community of kindred spirits around them. Long before they had achieved some notoriety, a number of like-minded folk had been drawn into the LivingBrush orbit. Greco, by virtue of her other vocations as burlesque performer, cabaret singer, artist’s model, art critic and columnist — yes, she is indeed the flaming redhead who won the YES! Weekly Reader’s Choice Best Burlesque Dancer Award two years ago, penned an art column for the same publication for several years and whose stage name is Foxy Moxy — attracts a crowd just by walking in a room. Likewise, partly because the multi-talented Fray has composed, written, directed and produced three theatre productions (more on that later), he too is constantly surrounded by musicians, actors, dancers, writers and other creative types.

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Madelyn Greco, AKA Foxy Moxy. (photo by Bonnie Stanley Photography)

Naturally, there is a symbiosis among all members of the creative class, but one profession stands out. Because of the very nature of an art form that is completely transitory and ephemeral, there needs to exist a parallel craft that can give it permanence and enduring life. Of course, that craft is photography, and the photographer who has emerged as the primary chronicler of all that is LivingBrush is Bonnie Stanley.

Stanley had formed her Greensboro-based company, Intimate Lens Photography, before meeting the dynamic duo. Her areas of expertise are fashion, artistic nudes and live performance, not just music and theater but more arcane performing arts such as burlesque, bellydancing and fire dancing, so it was hardly a surprise that she would be drawn to bodypainting.

“I did my first shoot with them the summer of 2009,” she said, “and since then, I counted it up, I’ve collaborated with them on 42 different projects. When they were getting ready for the worlds and North Americans they were at my house every weekend, practicing, so I got to shoot all those models from beginning to end. What’s so amazing, though, is when they’re not doing a planned piece for a competition, watching it evolve. The model comes in and Scott will do some sketches and Madelyn will know exactly how and where to complement it. And just when you think it’s done, they’ll add some swirls or dots or swishes and a whole new layer, and then you’ve got a masterpiece. I feel so lucky and honored to be able to photograph their work.”

As the worlds approached, Stanley realized that she had amassed a large and impressive body of work and approached Fray about putting the best of the best in book form. And when he and Greco returned from Austria, they set about winnowing down the images, writing the copy and making arrangements with the on-demand publisher, blurb.com. She debuted the coffee table book, titled Living Art: Expressions in Painted Skin, in mid-July.

“What you see here is the best of the best of the best,” said Stanley. “Scott and I went over the photos and decided which ones were the best, I designed the cover and layout and sequence. I was sleep deprived, but we got it done.” (It is available at blurb.com.)

Stanley is already at work on two more projects. She is working on a similar book, a journal that tells a story but instead of illustrations has pictures of people who’ve been bodypainted. And just last weekend she launched a blog called “MISSION: Beautiful.”

“I want to start a conversation about what real beauty is,” she said, “to empower women through photography to be who they are, to love who they are right now. Not after they’ve lost 10 pounds, not when the divorce becomes final, but right this minute. All women are beautiful in their own unique way, so let’s celebrate that uniqueness.”

Art vs. Obscenity

If Fray and Greco are nonplussed by their seeming lack of acclaim stateside, they are even more unaffected by the age-old question of where art crosses the line into obscenity. No doubt they are aware that a large chunk of society would brand their work as patently obscene and morally offensive. But just as Facebook refuses to get dragged onto a morality play, so do they.

“I don’t think that’s a question for us,” said Greco, adding with a sly smile, “I guess you’d ask the cop at what point he would arrest us.”

Fray elucidated thusly: “It has to do with intent. What we do is not about sexuality; it’s about the expansion of everything in means to be human, taken to yet another level with color and line and vibrancy and as a fuller expression of how to hold our humanness. There is a certain sense of arousal that you have when you see a naked form, but you don’t have that when you see our work. We or the models or anybody viewing the work does not engage it on that level. This is not something you see at a Key West Fantasy Fest or a biker bar in Ft. Lauderdale. By context alone, those type of events are given the notion of being adult, racy, naughty or sexual, and that’s not what we are trying to promote. We approach this from the fine-art angle.”

Chimes in Greco, “There are people doing galleries here and promoting it as fine art. There is one in Philadelphia that’s dedicated purely to bodypainting, and another in New Orleans devoted entirely to one artist’s bodypainting. It’s photographic fine art, and we are trying to be on the leading edge of that in America.”

If folks are laboring under the notion that bodypainting originated in the ’60s with hippies painting peace symbols and flowers on each other, they might want to pull up a chair and listen to what Prof. Fray has to say.

“Throughout the history of art you’re going to find depictions of the human form nude as its primary subject. We’ve just done a subject switch; instead of doing art of the human nude, we do art on the human nude. The body is the canvas, and it’s been done by every culture in every age in every part of the world since the dawn of man. It’s part of what we are and part of celebrating what it means to be human.”

More important than the ability to create a living, breathing work of art that can electrify an audience (“You can’t do that with a watercolor of an old barn.”), Fray insists that there is also a transformative, empowering, healing element to their work. He gives several examples, but one stands out.

“We painted a young lady at an outdoor festival near Asheville,” he recalled, “and had a good exchange but weren’t aware of anything special happening. The next day she came back with her partner and tears were running down her face. She hugged us like she was never going to let us go. Turns out she’d had a debilitating accident as a teenager that she felt had truncated her youth and stole away her possibilities. She had a scar, but we didn’t even notice it and neither did anybody else.

“She was restored to a kind of original, pristine state and beyond that was a colorful work of art. It was a giant moment for her to have hundreds of people gushing over her saying she’s gorgeous. It broke through that longstanding wall and was a signature day in her life, an emotionally cleansing moment. There’s some extraordinarily powerful, healing magic in that, and we are humbled and grateful to be a part of it.”

New Horizons

How do you top yourself once you’ve reached the pinnacle? The answer for this ‘ber talented couple is: You don’t.

“I think we’re going to retire on top,” said Fray. “We could compete in another category [theirs is brush and sponge, the other is airbrush], but the truth is we’re good at it now, and competing is such a specific and demanding thing.”

That is not to say that they are retiring.

Anything but. Fray has staged three musicals featuring bodypainted performers — Awake the White and Wintry Queen, Opening the Eye of Light and Song of the Sirens and is currently mounting a reprisal of Awake the White and Wintry Queen. It will take place Dec. 23 at the Carolina Theatre.

“It’s for one show only,” he said, “a 90-minute musical, with 25 musicians, five singers, a harpist and flautist, a cast of dancers and a giant projection screen with motion graphics behind it. As far as I know, I’m the only bodypainter who does full-scale musical theatre events.”

But their long-range focus continues to be bringing their chosen art form into the accepted realm of fine art.

“We are part of a collective effort that’s attempting to promote this as fine art,” said Fray. “What we’d like to do is essentially further the qualities of our original, existing, unique, idiosyncratic vision and do it at the highest level and highest degree of excellence, and present it as art that would be appropriate to be hung in a gallery or museum.”

Added Greco, “There are some opportunities for breaking into the museum and gallery scene. There’s one in Paris and another in Santiago, Chile that’s very successful. We see it as photographic fine art.”

Meanwhile, she and Lipstreu are planning another project but this time are bringing Fray into the mix.

“Scott’s going to paint both of us this time, and I’ll paint the horses,” smiled Greco. “We’re going to do the Lady Godiva thing.”

But you won’t see it on Facebook.

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