Artist Alexa Meade blurs the line between 2D and 3D art through brilliant body painting. Throughout the years, her practice has perfected a type of delightful illusion that makes this oscillation possible. When you look at Meade’s work in still images, you assume that you’re viewing a conventional painting, but to see her art in person—or in the process of creation—is a whole different story. The artist’s subjects are people who have been painted to look like they’re figments of a 2D picture—clad in vibrant hues and energetic brush strokes—but move in a three-dimensional space.
Meade’s work is a mesmerizing sight, and it’s no surprise that her unique approach has gained her worldwide acclaim. Now, she can add another feather in her cap. She has most recently completed a music video with pop superstar Ariana Grande for her single called God is a Woman. Her body painting is the centerpiece of the video with a striking visual of Grande partially submerged in a vegan, milk-like substance.
The video is steeped in artistry as well as a bit of Meade’s past work. The concept was inspired by a 2012 collaboration with artist Sheila Vand (who worked with Meade on God is a Woman), in which Vand was painted by Meade and then bathed in milk; the result created a striking, quasi-psychedelic appeal.
For the music video, Meade achieved a similar aesthetic. “They [Ariana’s creative team] approached me with the concept of doing something in liquid,” Meade tells My Modern Met, “and essentially having Ariana in the center of a flower.” The collaboration yielded imagery influenced by the artist Georgia O'Keeffe and was aided by technology. “The pool was not the full size in the video and there was CG to extend the size of the pool. I was working on a very large liquid surface, but the CG also played a role in making it as epic as it was—so I can’t take full credit for that whole scale.”
Learn more about Meade’s creative process—including how she prepared for this very visual project—in our interview below.
How did this opportunity come about?
The music video director Dave Meyers encountered my collaboration [with artist Shiela Vand] back in 2012, where I painted her in a bathtub filled with milk, and he thought it was a really stunning visual and that it could be something great for God is a Woman.
What was the inspiration for bathing Ariana in this milk-like substance?
A big inspiration for the piece was Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings and we thought it would be cool to have Ariana coming out from the center of O'Keeffe's flowers, in a loosely interpreted sense.
In my normal work, I usually paint on three-dimensional spaces, but in this, for the concept, it seemed to make the most sense to have the background surface be something flat and 2D in liquid so that the paint could appear to swirl and animate and move around her.
What other materials did you use for this project, aside from the milk-like substance?
I used some special types of paints because normally when I paint on people, I use a special non-toxic acrylic that washes off really easily. That is what I had done in the Alexa/Sheila collaboration in 2012, where part of the patterns in the milk was part of paint coming off of the body. But in [the music video], this very much had to stay in place on the body, so I used a special waterproof body paint that Ariana wore in the bath. And then I used a different type of paint to tint the surface of the liquid. It was really important, too, that the colors that I used in the liquid, that when they splashed against her body they didn't stain her body or tint the paint on her body. It took a lot [of research and development] to figure out the right mixture of things.
How long did the project take, from the research to completion in the music video?
I was told about the music video about two weeks before the shoot day, and I was traveling during a lot of that time, so it was only the week before the shoot that I was able to be in the studio and get to work on that. My collaborator Sheila Vand now lives in New York, so she flew into LA to work on that, and I set up five or six swimming pools in my studio to test different combinations of mixtures and it was literally a test kitchen.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
The research was really challenging. There were many long nights trying to pull it off. [I had to] pick the right paints for the body because normally I don't work with official body paint, especially not waterproof body paint. So I had to find something that would also be easy to remove so that it wouldn't cause any irritation on her skin. There were some products—waterproof body products—that I tested on my own body that stained or that, to take them off, you really had to rub hard, and I wanted to make this as comfortable as possible for Ariana.
Did you ever imagine that you would be doing something like this when you started your artistic practice?
This is definitely one of the more ambitious projects I've ever done. I'm not necessarily surprised, but I am delighted. [A music video] is a really fun medium to explore my art in because it's not painting something static that you hang on a wall. It's something real that involves humans, it's breathing, and it lends itself really well to movement.
The creativity of @arianagrande’s fans in reinterpreting her body painting blows me away! My idea for painting her on a liquid canvas grew out of my collaboration with @dontworryitssheila So cool to see how the seed of inspiration grows, evolves, and passes on! Check out this amazing fan art for #godisawoman #giaw
What kind of response have you gotten to this whole project?
It's really cool, especially if you search the #godisawoman hashtag on Instagram. You see so many people reinterpreting it and creating makeup tutorials to do it. It's definitely sparked the imagination of people who were inspired by the aesthetic, and I think that that's the greatest mission of an artist, in some way to spark the imagination and inspire more to action, whether that's the act of creating artwork or just finding something within themselves that they want to express.
Do you have any advice for artists who would like to pursue work on a music video?
The big thing in this video that would've been challenging, if I didn't have as much experience, was just how fast everything is because there are so many moving parts. You really have to show up fully, ready to have a plan, but also ready to throw away the plan when need be and just be really agile and fast on your feet. [You also need to] know that going into it, you've done everything you can do to prepare, so to at least relieve some of the anxiety of the unknown, because there will be a lot that's unknown. As long as you know you're prepared as possible for the unknown that anything that surprises you will be a welcome surprise.