Artist and photographer Alexa Meade’s works of art are nothing short of unique. Using human subjects and everyday objects, she transforms life into 2D fine art.
To create her mesmerizing art, Meade paints directly on living subjects, whether it be a piece of toast or a person. The illusionistic portraits undermine visual cues with perspective and colour.
Her artwork is the opposite of what we imagine. The artists within all of us commonly try to make our 2D work mimic a 3D work — life as we see it everyday. In art class, you might have the task of turning a blank canvas into a person that looks like it could come out of its four corners and begin walking down the street. Perhaps it’s simply a bowl of fruit. You learn how to create angles, edges, and shades that make that bowl of fruit look like you could pick up an orange and eat it.
But in Meade’s work, a piece of toast goes from being real, to seemingly unreal. From eatable to suddenly uneatable as paint smothers the slice until it becomes artwork. Against the background of an equally impressively painted canvas, that toast becomes 2D when photographed.
And so the viewer is suddenly given a slight brain cramp when realizing that what looks like a regular portrait is anything but. It’s a living, breathing person, or a piece of toast, covered in acrylic paint. No matter the angle, the 3D paintings are photographed, and the same illusion of flatness results. And there are no digital effects used.
Meade came across this technique by accident. She had been studying political science in college, when suddenly an idea for an art project popped into her head: what would happen if she covered up shadows in the landscape with black paint?
“I was fascinated with the absence of light, and I wanted to find a way that I could give it materiality and pin it down before it changed. I came up with the idea of painting shadows. I loved that I could hide within this shadow my own painted version, and it would be almost invisible until the light changed, and all of the sudden my shadow would be brought to the light,” Meade said.
This ultimately led her through experiments that resulted in a new style of optical illusion.
“I wanted to think about what else I could put shadows on, and I thought of my friend Bernie. But I didn’t just want to paint the shadows. I also wanted to paint the highlights and create a mapping on his body in greyscale. I had a very specific vision of what this would look like, and as I was painting him, I made sure to follow that very closely. But something kept on flickering before my eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. And then when I took that moment to take a step back, magic. I had turned my friend into a painting. I couldn’t have foreseen that when I wanted to paint a shadow, I would pull out this whole other dimension, that I would collapse it, that I would take a painting and make it my friend and then bring him back to a painting.”
She now travels the world creating live painting performances, art installations, and commissioned portraits, and has received critical acclaim from CNN, Wired, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and more. She has lectured at the CalArts, UC-Berkeley, Apple, Adobe, and National Geographic London.
In her TED Talk, Meade not only describes how her talent and success came to be, but reveals a tangible message we could all learn something from, saying, “I guess it’s also not unforeseeable that you can find the strange in the familiar, as long as you’re willing to look beyond what’s already been brought to light, that you can see what’s below the surface, hiding in the shadows, and recognize that there can be more there than meets the eye.”
Watch and listen to her TED Talk video below and prepare to be amazed and inspired.
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