Trina Merry creates unique body art for projects that range from avant-garde performance works in museums to commercial advertising campaigns. “Painting on the body creates a special connection to a person that other visual art forms have trouble accomplishing; it’s a distinctly human experience,” Merry explains. “I am a conceptual artist and often I am inspired by the bodies themselves—by what they can and can’t do.” By matching the painted body to and incorporating it into a physical landscape, she blurs the line of reality for both the viewer and the subject.
Merry lives in New York City’s East Village and creates art at her studio in Chelsea.
How did you first become interested in painting?
I began to study art and make music in Seattle as a child. My first art school experience was at around 11-years-old and I grew up visiting the large, inspiring museums of Southern California. I grew up in Seattle during the grunge movement and moved to the Silicon Valley right at the beginning of the Silicon Valley boom in 1992. I was actively influenced by and involved in the environments surrounding me that were driven by some of the defining elements of these two periods: rebellion, pioneering innovation and take-it-all attitudes. I am fortunate because my parents supported me and placed me in several art classes at San Jose Museum of Art in high school. At that time I began to study landscape painting and portraiture drawing, which still heavily influences my camouflage work. Once I began college I was became interested in what was then called “New Media” in the film department. I took some postgraduate experimental video, sculpture and art history courses in Los Angeles. I balanced working in the art department on major films and television shows with my personal experimental video and paint projects.
In 2006 I was introduced to bodypaint by Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls and posed as a human canvas at one of her shows. Shortly after that experience I saw Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present at the New York Museum of Modern Art and set myself on a different course. During the Great Recession I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and lost my job, as did 90% of the Bay’s population. While I searched for a job weekly, I mainly focused on building my portfolio and was regularly getting hired for small commissions. After about a year and a half on unemployment I took the plunge as a full-time professional artist. It was a purifying time in my life and really allowed me to focus my thoughts on what inspired my art; consumer materialism.
While you still cannot study body art in art school, I was then fortunate enough to apprentice in New Orleans at the first bodypaint gallery in the world, the Craig Tracy Fine Art Bodypainting Gallery. During this time I was able to hone in on the technical aspects of bodypaint and begin to focus on single pose paintings. As I was studying at the gallery I also received education on the history of bodypaint. I found that these lessons in bodypaint history made me acutely aware of a disconnect existing between the contemporary fine art world and the modern bodypaint community, which features largely illustrative art and is focused on events and competitions.
I was later selected as a summer participant at the Watermill Center in 2013. In addition to studying with Robert Wilson and creating some work alongside him, I was pleased to meet Robert Athey and hear lectures by him, as well as take a workshop with Marina Abramović. My work became more focused on intimacy, the balance of space and force between bodies, connection to sound installation and silence and more site-specific installations. I continued exploring themes of consumer behavior, body image issues, the temporal and the ancient and indigenous influences on minimalistic art. I also paid particular interest to Robert Wilson’s amazing sculpture collection.
Why include bodypaint in your work? Why not continue to work in traditional painting and sculpture?
Bodypaint is an ancient art form and the use of ochre on the skin dates back 425,000 years and has a deeper part in all of our cultures than people tend to realize. Painting on the body is a distinctly human experience; it creates a special connection to a person that other visual art forms have trouble accomplishing. This work has a heartbeat and a breath— it is dynamically alive. The ephemeral nature of bodypaint forces focus and reflects on the reality of existence, which is an incredible thought that I find myself reflecting on frequently while working. I also love the freedom of working in multiple mediums to express myself.
How do you select your locations?
I select my locations by seeking particularly iconic sites that could be included on a bucket list. Many of the reasons why I choose certain sites have to do with a level of curiosity, but also to resonate with their broader, global, political importance.
How do you find your models?
I get about 3-15 model requests per day— so many that I have a massive waiting list that features models from all over the world. In fact, plenty of my private commissions come from people who want to make sure that I can paint them.
For my human sculpture series I look for people with a strong athleticism, such as circus performers, dancers and yogis that share the Humanistic attitude of the Renaissance artists of days past.
However, my body positive camouflage series are more inclusive. You will find a much large range of bodies and abilities in those paintings.
What typically inspires a painting?
I am continually inspired by my own experiences with the world as I experience it as human. When I set to create new work I find myself in the middle of an exploration of a question or a challenge to myself: What is our relationship with our material possessions? How can I make a temple out of 17 people? Where do I fit in as a woman in New York City? How does my astrological sign define me? As I move through my thoughts I choose to collect and express them through bodypaint. Each painting and following photograph captures a moment of my thoughts in the moment of that subject, no more or less. Each series that I make continues to catalog my journey of my relationship with the world as I know it. I am continually learning more about myself, my medium and the world that I inhabit, so it only makes sense to me to continue to search, answer and create.
Is this a sexual experience?
By no means is my work a sexual experience. I do not look at Michaelangelo’s David and have a sexual experience simply because it is a fine art nude. None of my work is poignantly erotic, so I find sexual experiences to be an interesting response to my work. The sexual experience ultimately becomes indicative of the viewers projecting their own fantasies, fears or issues onto the fine art nude figure.
Are you a nudist?
No, I am not a nudist. In fact, I am fairly modest in my personal life, as are many of my models. However, we do want to express a raw, vulnerable human experience in our work, which happens to involve nudity. Moreover, while I may touch on various conceptual issues, my work is not based in activism, but it is simply art.
What is the biggest challenge with your work?
My work is ephemeral by nature and thusly is not meant to last. That fleeting nature can cause both technical challenges, like running or cracking paint to some less tangible challenges like not feeling ready to let go of a painting, but having to. It is also technically very difficult to paint on a person since it is three-dimensional. I often make this work additionally challenging by sculpting together multiple bodies, camouflaging hard lined architecture onto curvy, soft fleshed bodies or creating work from a single perspective point.