The Naked Art
Vancouver Courier News Paper
By Sandra Thomas-Staff writer
The translucent red of the crantinis provides welcome colour in a sea of trendy black at the Sheraton Suites's Le Soleil lounge on Hornby Street. A precursor to the recent M.A.C. Viva Glam Garden Party, the party has a fantasy theme, and in the far back corner of the room, air brush/makeup artist Martin Armand is creating a living fantasy of his own. Seemingly unaware of the crowd surrounding him, Armand works with precise strokes to transform a handsome, nearly-naked male model into an android. Holding an airbrush just above the model's skin, Armand applies gray, white and black to a canvas of back, torso and thighs.
An award-winning artist in the intricate field of airbrush design, Armand is in high demand for his skills, from Vancouver to Los Angeles, Florida, New York and Las Vegas.
On this night, as he's surrounded by a who's who of the Canadian fashion elite, it's hard to imagine that Armand once spent his days painting huge murals of Ayatollah Khomeini. Exiled to Paris for his outspoken opposition to the government of the Shah of Iran, Khomeini had returned home to orchestrate the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which he led until his death in 1989. "You remember in the news you'd see those big paintings of Khomeini on walls? I was in charge of that," said Armand, who headed an Iranian military unit that specialized in propaganda.
"It was called 'advertising.'"
Armand, whose Iranian accent is still noticeable, grew up in his mother's beauty salon in Iran, a natural at hair and makeup. As a young adult, he yearned to go to university to study professional make-up for theatre. At the time, however, to get permission to go to university, young Iranians had to complete at least six months in the military, so he was sent to the front in the war with Iraq to give haircuts to soldiers.
After completing his six months, he applied to university to study fine arts, but was told he'd have to do another six months. This time, his job was to paint huge murals of the Ayatollah as well as the faces of soldiers who died in battle. He would recreate their images on the canvases used in parades honoring the dead, considered martyrs of the war.
"A friend came to me and asked me to paint his face because he said he knew he was going to die. He brought me a picture, but I said, 'No, I'm not painting any more.' I didn't want anyone else to die, especially not him." Not long after, military officials came to see Armand with a photo-of his friend. In the end, Armand painted his friend's picture, then decided to paint his own. Always a perfectionist, he wanted the job done properly if he too died in battle. That canvas still sits in Armand's North Vancouver apartment, a reminder of the life he left behind.
In the end, he suffered only a chemical-bomb attack that left him exhausted and covered in a rash. When he was again refused entrance to university, it became clear the reputations of his political parents, who were publicly critical of the government, were at the root of the problem. The realization his chances of getting into school were slim was key to his eventual decision to leave the country. "I didn't want to get killed and I didn't want to go and shoot people. I was watching friends getting killed right in front of my eyes. I knew it was time to go."
In 1990, he fled Iran and moved to Montreal, where he found employment as a hairdresser and makeup artist doing bridal work. He eventually moved on to film and theatre and more "gory" work, traveling to Vancouver in 1994 where he began freelancing.
In a morbid way, his experience in the war helped Armand, who had spent time working in a hospital at the front, make the switch from regular makeup artist to special effects professional. "None of the other makeup artists I know have actually seen a bullet wound," he said. "I saw a lot of bullet holes and wounds so I know what they really look like."
He flew to L.A. and Vegas to study airbrush techniques and then started purchasing the equipment. Basic compressors start at about $700, but Armand paid $1,200 for his. He's also invested thousands of dollars in liquid makeup. The "brush" consists of a thin pipe, about the size of a paint brush, with a tiny tip at the end. The paint goes into a small bowl on top and the whole contraption is hooked up to a small generator with a thin tube and the paint is blown onto the body in fine, precise strokes.
Dave Bubniw, owner of Art-Topia on West Hastings, which provides many local airbrush artists with supplies, said the art form is growing rapidly in the fashion, movie, theatre and advertising industries, and is now recognized by film and theatre unions as a specific skill. While several air-brush artists work with canvas and other inanimate objects like cars and vans, only a handful in the city use the human body as a canvas. That's changing, however, as schools like Blanche MacDonald and John Casablanca offer courses in airbrush art as makeup.
"There's now a whole generation of people in the industry looking at this field," said Bubniw, who notes shows like the X-Files, which Armand has worked on, and Da Vinci's Inquest, have bolstered Vancouver's reputation for special effects. "It is not a flash in the pan. It is consistently growing."
Armand's work is sometimes considered a special effect, but it's also semi-erotic, Bubniw said. "It's sexy, but in the same way a fashion model walking down a runway is considered sexy. It's erotic but not sexual. He uses the body as a canvas and that is very beautiful."
Standing in the makeshift studio in his home, Armand seems unaware that the beautiful female model standing in front of him is completely naked. When showing in public, female models must wear g-string underwear to cover their privates, while men wear small briefs. But working in his home, they're completely nude. Today, he's using stencils and freehand to turn model Regan D'Andrade's buttocks into a lush, red strawberry. It takes three to four hours to complete a design, which is then photographed and immediately washed off.
"People always say, 'Oh your models are naked,'" says Armand, who notes models can be hard to find because of the patience required to complete the task. "But I don't see them that way at all. They are the canvas that I work on. For the first 30 seconds they are naked and then once I start working they don't feel naked any more. There is nothing sexual about this at all. This is my art."
D'Andrade, who uses meditation to get through what can be strenuous posing sessions, said the first time she undressed in front of Armand, she was "completely uncomfortable," but after about 15 minutes, she forgot she was naked. "Martin's professional attitude allayed all my concerns."
One four-hour session resulted in her back being transformed into the face of a woman with claw marks across it. Of the nine times she's modeled for Armand, that piece is a favorite of D'Andrade, who recently modeled for Armand in a body-art competition during a fashion event called Dominelli's Evening at the Opera at the Waterfront Hotel. Armand won a trophy with his depiction of a sunset on D'Andrade's back, and transformation of her front into that of a Roman soldier from the opera Attila.
D'Andrade was mostly naked and painted for the better part of 11 hours, in which she joined seven other models on stage in front of more than 300 people. "It's the most adventurous thing I've ever done," she said. "That's why I'm doing this."
Flipping through a photo album displaying his work, it's hard to believe the women who appear to be posing in lingerie or cut-offs are wearing nothing but paint. More elaborate designs show an incredibly detailed Spiderman, Wonder Woman and a fruit series, all featuring D'Andrade's buttocks. On occasion, Armand is hired to paint something sexy on a woman that she can wear home as a surprise for a husband or boyfriend.
Armand, who has never been painted himself, recently did some work on the Dark Angel TV series where he had to make an actor look like she was dying in water. In the scene, she was suspended in a glass vat full of water, with a tube attached that's supposed to be draining her of life. Armand made her body three shades lighter than normal, highlighted her muscles and bones to make her look emaciated, then added veins.
On another occasion he painted a 2,500-year-old Persian rug on a body. Armand said he sometimes finds it difficult to spend hours painting an intricate design on a model, only to have it washed off immediately afterwards. "It feels like a sacrifice," he said. "Sometimes the models don't even want to wash it off, but that's what working on a human body is all about. It wouldn't be body painting if I did it on anything else."
Back at the party, Armand's model android is complete and working the room. Like a nervous father he follows the model with his eyes, not relaxing until after he leaves the room. "What do you think?" he asks nervously. "[The room] was a little crowded."
Reassured that the work was top-quality, he says the art form is all about "fooling the eyes." "If I can do that, I know I've done a good job."
To check out more of Armand's designs go to www.martinarmand.com .