Emma Allen is a radiant, charming young artist with an engaging openness and compassion, which infuses both her work and herself in person. Emma’s medium is skin. She does face and body painting, film & theatre makeup and also runs an arts charity in Sri Lanka.
In late 2013 she made a face painting animation called Ruby in the loft of her parents house, which has since had hundreds of thousands of hits, been reposted on the Guardian and Independent websites and shared on blogs around the world. It is this video more than anything else which has brought her to the public eye.
The modern audience expects art to exude an air of effortlessness, allowing the audience to enjoy the art without dwelling too much on the actual work involved.
However with Ruby, while the staggering attention to detail as well as the simple beauty of the images themselves don’t ever detract from the effect, it is hard not to wonder how long it took her to complete the stop motion animation. She had to repaint her face for every frame. It’s an exacting method that has been used to create a very meandering, spiritual, joyful labour of love like a Ray Harryhousen meditation on reincarnation.
Emma and others like her are changing the public perception of face-painting. Face painting is often associated with people in bright clothes painting tigers on children’s faces at the launch of a new IKEA store while the adults get on with the serious business of buying cheap Swedish taps. Anyone who views Emmas' impressive gallery of work will realise how much more can be done with the medium.
The artists’ prerogative has always been to practise their artistry in whichever medium they chose. There can be a pleasure in bringing a new dimension of artistry to an art form, which may be otherwise viewed as trivial. As Grayson Perry is to pottery so Emma Allen maybe to face painting?
We met Emma and asked her a few questions about her work, her charities and life in London;
What was the inspiration for Ruby?
The thought of us or our loved ones with full lives of stories and love, just disappearing after we pass is hard to imagine. I really like the idea of reincarnation and that energy from one incarnation moves on to feed and fuel the next. Looking into it more I came across Einstein's first law of thermodynamics:
“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.
So it is just applying this to us .
I'm half Sri Lankan and spend a lot of time there. The idea of reincarnation is a concept in Buddhism also. There is a leopard and gems in the film so there are lots of references to Sri Lanka in it.
It actually had a different title originally but after i finished it a family member whom I was very close to and had been very sick passed away. So I named it in honour of her.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to become an artist?
“Tell everyone what you're doing. Keep doing it. Keep going. Chase your dreams. I think that people’s reaction to face painting has changed a lot over the last 5/10 years. When I told people that I was a face painter they used to laugh and ask “what’s your real job?” but now I’m employed doing face painting in music videos and fashion shoots, which is great. Five years ago I started doing this because I loved it and now I'm making a living so it can happen. I think that’s important. And show people what you do. That’s something I've had to learn. That’s why I've recently done my first exhibition. Like with Ruby, that just sat on my website in the corner for months and nobody watched it. Then I realised I had just put so much work into it that I had to show people. I sent it to some blogs and then it snowballed in this amazing way. I think that’s a big problem with artists. We're not marketing people. A lot of us just want to stay home and make stuff. “
It is daunting getting peoples reactions to your work? It can be like opening a personal diary to the public.
“Yeah that is very true. Like when Ruby started to do well. At first it was amazing and then after a while it was quite scary, it means that maybe whatever I do next more influential people will look at it, and then I feel this pressure like “oh its got to be good”. Grayson Perry said something similar in his Reith lectures about how to be an artist at his level he has to balance the pressures of trying to make work that the whole world will like, and knowing that there is lots of money going into it. Then he has to forget about all that and try and do the work with the innocence of a child. Obviously his is quite an extreme example but it’s definitely reflective of the artistic process as soon as you get even a bit of success.”
Tell us a bit about your charity work
“The Card Project, I started in 2005. I was working in fashion in London, when the Asian tsunami struck and I decided I wanted to go and do some relief work in Sri Lanka. I planned to go for a few months and ended up staying for 5 years.
I started running arts and activity sessions with the kids in refugee camps. More volunteers joined contributing their skills and the sessions were really popular with the children.
But we soon realised that we needed money to keep the art session running, plus the children needed money for food and supplies.
So as part of the sessions, along with other arts and craft, songs and games the kids would colour in stars, they really loved the colouring in. So we decided that with the money we had, half we would use to decorate the camps and half we would take away and with the group of volunteers turn them into greeting cards.
(Alex Try who edited Ruby and now more of my films I met in 2005 as one of these volunteers in the camps)
We sold the cards to local businesses. The money kept the workshops going and then also raised enough to provide some food and supplies for the kids. Then it just grew from there. We started in more centres and selling internationally
Simply put It's fundraising through art and play
Now its been going for 9 years and I work in children's homes mainly now with it. We provide meals, clothes, school supplies, built a playground, take the kids on outings or have a birthday party for a child that might never otherwise get one, all sorts of stuff. It’s great because in times of crises that sense of play and creativity can be the first thing to suffer. You have to spend all their energy on surviving. But this way they get to do both at the same time. And their creativity is actually helping them to survive.”
The latest project is called the Small Steps series. These are printed any use greeting cards. packs of 6 designs. It's 6 kids drawings from a children's home in Colombo, framed in their own foot print. All the money raised goes to support the 68 children in that centre. They have been selling in Colombo since early this year but i just launched them in london last week
There is an exhibition in london at the moment of Sri Lankan artists at the Brunei gallery. and the new cards are on sale there until December.
What about your other charity project?
My other project is painting the heads of cancer patients, people who've gone through chemo and lost their hair. I have a friend who had chemo and was self conscious about having no hair and covering up with scarves. So I painted her head. She put the photo online and we got a really massive positive response from the photo from her friends and family. She said that it made her feel beautiful at a time when she was feeling rough.
Last year I joined up with Cancer Research UK to do the project with them in support of one of their campaigns. I interviewed patients about their experiences and then developed designs with them to paint on their heads, then their portraits were photographed by Josh Shinner and then turned into prints. It's had a really great response. It has been an amazing and humbling project. Working with such strong inspiring people. It is a project that I would like to continue with, to make a collection of peoples portraits and stories.
What is your opinion of the value of the arts and creativity for young people?
“I think it’s VITAL. I struggled with anything academic at school. But the breadth of what you can do in the art world is amazing. I think everyone is creative and that it’s really sad that art gets treated as less important than academic achievement. Art is so therapeutic. I have a relative who suffers from mental health problems and you can see the change in her when she has been doing her art. She is so much more relaxed and confident. That’s the effect of making something. That’s why we created the charity. To make sure that these kids have got something positive to create at a time when they are going through all these struggles.”
How does living in London affect you?
“London is amazing. There are so many things and people. There is just so much going on. And if you are blocked you can just go for a walk. Because there is so much you can get from here. Living in Sri Lanka just made me appreciate here even more.”
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Director & Producer & Interview: Robbie Lockie | Article: Reuben Williams