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;
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’s like showing someone your diary. What happens if they don’t like it? Or maybe if they do like it that can be even scarier?
“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.”
Would you like to tell us a bit about your charity work?
“The Sri Lanka card project, I started because I was working in fashion, and after the tsunami I decided I wanted to go and do some relief work. I went for 5 months and ended up staying for 5 years. I started running arts workshops with the kids in the affected areas. And they were really popular. But we realised that we needed money to keep the art workshops running, plus they (the kids) needed money for food and supplies etc. So we got the kids to make cards, out of all these stars. They just cut out millions of stars and they love colouring in. So they made all these cards and we sold them to local businesses. The money kept the workshops going and then brought some food and supplies for the kids. It has just grown and grown. It’s great because in times of crises that sense of play and creativity can be the first thing to suffer. You know kids 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.”
That’s great. So why did you set up the charity?
“While I was over there I encountered a lot of organisations that were set up to help but it seemed like people on the ground weren’t sure exactly where the money was going. I met a lot of people who had paid money to a development charity so they could go help build a school or something. But they got to the school and it didn’t seem like all the money was going to the project. So because I had all these doubts and wasn’t sure who to trust I suppose I set up this charity myself so I could be sure where the money was going.”
There has been a lot of stuff in the press about that (third sector corruption) recently. About the generosity of the English public who give a lot of money to charity. Where does that money go? Are these organisations accountable?
“I think the tsunami brought that issue to peoples awareness, so much money was given. Yet two years later there are still people living in camps 50 metres away from the areas which got the aid money. So we are very transparent. We don’t take any money ourselves. The only thing we take money for is the materials and the rest goes directly to the kids. Now obviously that does affect the project. It means it’s not sustainable in some ways because I can’t afford to do it full time and neither can the other people who are out there. So it might not be the perfect long-term solution. But at least it’s transparent.”
What about your other charity project?
“The other project is painting the heads of cancer patients, people who’ve gone through chemo. I have a friend who had chemo and she was always conscious about having to wear scarves and wigs. So I painted her head. She put the photo online and 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 shit about herself.
After that I was contacted by lots of other people who knew someone who might like their head painted and it just grew. Last year Cancer Research heard about the project and got in touch. So I’ve just been up to their headquarters to do 4 heads for Cancer research. They are going to be turned into prints. Which is amazing, and hopefully will help them raise money for their projects. So it is a project that I would like to continue. Its been getting a really great response.”
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.”
Finally what was the inspiration for Ruby?
“Well my amazing great aunt Ruby. She was a huge figure in my life. When she was over 90 she had a bad fall and struggled to recover. The family got together and spent as much time with her as possible thinking that she was dying. She struggled on for a while but it was hard for her. I saw her physically shrinking and she became a child again. And I kind of wanted her to die in a way for her sake but in another way the thought of her dying was so horrible and we didn't want to lose her.
My aunt Ruby was an amazing lady and she had touched the lives of so many people. I just thought that when she dies where does that all go? It can’t just end.
A blogger reposted it with just one line at the start of the link. It just said “Ruby is reincarnated” And when I saw that my eyes just filled with tears. Because that was what its all about."