Meet Ashleigh Alexandria, the artist and body painter whose work under the psudanem Virgin Arte, includes photographs of her body painting work, which often explore beauty and sisterhood among black and brown women. We chatted with Ashleigh about her artistic process and the things that inspire her.
How did you first get into making art?
Art has always been second nature to me. Once my mother saw this she enrolled me in a few art programs as a young child, so I was pretty much integrated into the art community early on. I developed a knack for drawing portraits on my own and have been building off of that ever since. My mother cultivated the gift she already saw in me so I am always extremely appreciative of that.
Describe your artwork to us. What is your main goal as an artist?
My art centers on New York City nostalgia and the Black and Brown beauty that it hosts. I like incorporating themes from the imagery and cinema I have seen growing up. My main goal is to create positive but raw and truthful visuals of my people. I believe representation makes a powerful impact for generations now and generations to come. I strive to make art that is timeless.
At what point did you start incorporating body paint into your artistic practice? What drew you to start using body paint?
The idea to begin this journey of using human canvases to paint on came from a close friend of mine who suggested I try it out. This was maybe a little over a year ago, so I would say body painting is still a new medium for me. Since I am also a portrait painter I used acrylic paints that I had already laying around when first starting out. Most of my muses are my friends and they have been gracious enough to let me paint them over and over again, even just for practice. I saw body painting as a challenge and a new outlet for me to combine my love for photography/film and my love for painting.
Talk about your project 'Virgin Skin.' How did the concept come about and what is the message of the whole series?
Virgin Skin is an expansion of my company “Virgin Arte” which I began while in high school. “Skin” is used to separate my body art work from my paintings.
“Virgin” to me means purity, not necessarily in a sexual status sense but in a creative way where you put your all into what you do letting it flow out of you unapologetically, as a child would do. I see my art as a pure portrayal of my vision. Virgin Skin houses a plethora of body paint series showcasing mostly women of color. I find that the media of today and reality tv depicts women who look like me almost in an unpleasing way. I want to combat that negative image within my series with grace and edge.
Your work with body paint makes a point of removing any overt sexualization of your subjects, how do you establish a liberated, rather than a prurient, tone when your canvas is the naked body?
In a society that is fixated on lust to an extent, I knew that if I was going to commit to practicing body painting I would need to take it in a totally different direction. My body paintings are made to compliment the model I am painting on. Most of the time, my muses are involved in the process. I alter my paintings as we go to coincide with their personality. I also create scenes based around who and what I may want to paint. I like the idea of “normalizing” nudity by accompanying it with fine art.
How has your art changed over the years? You mentioned that you felt like you were finally hitting your stride in your work, how do you feel like you’ve evolved?
My art has gone through many stages. I began by drawing people from magazines and photos from my flip phone at the time. I also would often draw self portraits by looking in the mirror. In high school I took a painting class which was a turning point for me artistically. However after graduating with a fine arts degree at Hampton University in 2012 I had broadened my knowledge on perspective, lines and color theory enabling me to create more original work of my own. I did a number of group shows and even sold my works on the streets New York City following school but it is only now that I am able to feel I am finding my voice as a artist. Generally everything I have learned so far has been preparing me for the themes I am currently establishing today. I am learning to take the tools I have been taught and use them effectively to tell my own stories through any medium I choose.
What has been your favorite project so far?
My favorite project would have to be my most recent project with photographer Delphine Diallo and muse Magdaline Davis. We collaborated where I painted Davis’s face like a twilight zone for the “Art by a Woman” campaign curated by Diallo for LifeWtr company. She blew our image up to 18ft by 20ft on wheat paste paper. We, along with her team, pasted the image using a forklift on the side of Bizarre Bar in Bushwick Brooklyn. Her vision to turn this image into a mural has been inspiring to me personally because it has taught me that its worth it to just go with your instincts. Whatever you put your mind to you can accomplish.
Which artists have been most influential to own your practice?
I am influenced by a mixture of artists ranging from Edgar Degas, and Paul Gauguin, to Basquiat and Kerry James Marshal. Degas's use of lighting and color has recently influenced my canvas paintings where as Marshals themes of painting Black life in everyday situations has motivated me to show my culture in the same way but with body painting and photography. My works are not only documented for the sake of showcasing the art, they are visuals stories that come to life.
You’re expecting your first child in November, have you found that being a soon-to-be-mother has changed anything in your creative outlook or focus?
My creative focus has become more intense now that I am a soon to be mother. I am more proactive to complete as many projects as I can, for me there is no time to waste. I have a need to set an example for my child to show them that whatever it is they become passionate about, they can achieve it.
What’s next for you, what are you working on right now?
To be honest I never know what is next I guess that is the beauty about being an artist. I work as ideas come to me. I also improvise a lot of my scenes. However I am planning to incorporate more moving stills and video into my works.
Check out Ashleigh Alexandria's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Allie Sarachene - @alliesarachene