Drips: Alexa Meade's Living Paintings Break Your Brain and Inspire Innovation

Kat Bein | April 29, 2021 | People culture

"Bold Enough to Wait" by Alexa Meade

Alexa Meade created this piece, titled "Bold Enough to Wait," by painting directly on model Noel Batiste and her surroundings.

For Alexa Meade, a face is a work of art. Sometimes, she'll see a face and think “I have to paint that” – and not in the sense of capturing it on canvas.

“I need to explore the face itself with my paint brush,'” she says. “I need to capture the shadow on the side of the nose, or I just have to spatially understand this three dimensional form and do it through paint.”

Meade is a one-of-a-kind artist breaking the framework of physics by painting directly on her subjects. Whether it's a smiling child, a bowl of fruit or Ariana Grande, Meade famously collapses three-dimensional objects into vibrant, two-dimensional wonders.

A direct inverse of the classical concept of trompe-l'œil, Meade's work is bewildering and delightful to behold. It's also made her a TED speaker, a Google artist in residence and a Tribeca Film Festival Disruptive Innovation Award winner. All this because of a happy accident.

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Growing up in Washington D.C., a career in politics seemed inevitable. She studied political science at Vasser College, spent four summers interning at Capital Hill and even worked press for the Obama campaign. With a few weeks until graduation, Meade made a 180.

“I have all my eggs in this politics basket, and what if that ends up being what I don't want to do?” she remembers thinking. “I decided, 'okay, maybe I'm not going to politics. Maybe I'm going to be a furniture designer.'”

The passion came seemingly out of nowhere, inspired by a trip to Copenhagen while studying the European Union. Scandinavian furniture's clean and minimalist approach disturbed some latent creative urge. In order to have access to her school's workshop, she had to take a studio art elective. She enrolled in a sculpture class, and somewhere in that semester, she got the crazy idea to paint on shadows.

“There was nothing riding on it,” she says. “When I painted my first person, I was really confused at the results of my camera. It didn't make sense. I thought my camera was broken. I had my model take a picture with his cell phone, and I thought his cell phone was broken. It was a cycle of confusion.”

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A post shared by Alexa Meade (@alexameadeart)

The seemingly-flat scene was thrilling, and Meade excitedly showed her photos to her sculptor professor. At first, he thought she just rendered the painting in Photoshop, but when she explained “no, I painted a person,” he hardly looked up from his bowl of chili.

“He was completely dismissive,” Meade remembers, and he wasn't the only one. Another professor with whom she undertook an independent study was “fed up” with her “artistic explorations.”

“He told me I had been wasting my time and more importantly, I had been wasting his time – that he was a real artist, and that was the real tragedy in this situation,” she says. “I sobbed in front of him. It was really brutal.”

Drying her tears, the blossoming artist doubled down on her vision. She lived with her parents after graduation, taking interview after interview and “bombing” them on purpose.

“Whenever I was asked a serious question in an interview, [I'd] say something random like, 'so do you have any pets?'” She still managed to land one job, but she turned it down and never told her parents. “I am very fortunate I had my parents house to live in … It would not have been possible [otherwise]. Even if they didn't see my vision, they provided me with a place to sleep.”

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A post shared by Alexa Meade (@alexameadeart)

Still as her basement paintings of eggs and sausage may have been, there was movement in her career. In 2009, she painted a man head to toe and took pictures of him riding the D.C. Metro. The piece was titled "Transit," and once it caught on to blogs and social media, her work went viral. Her painted people made an even more striking scene when they hit the 3D streets.

By 2013, she was speaking at TEDGlobal in Scotland, and in 2015, she was invited to be the Artist-in-Residence at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario. The duality of her work, seemingly existing in both the two-dimensional and three-dimensional realms, excites quantum physicists as much as it delights museum goers.

“I was collaborating with space time researchers, people researching quantum gravity and black holes,” she says. “I never took a college math or science class … so this was just so far out of my depth, but I think that allowed me to approach it with a curiosity that was conducive to the dialog. A lot of the conversations we had there about quantum or space time did influence the way that I think about paradox in my work.”

Meade painting for Color of Reality with Lil Buck. COLOR OF REALITY PHOTO BY ALEXA MEADE AND LIL BUCK
"Reality Painting;" Meade painting Lil Buck for Color of Reality.

Her strange plane is also the perfect stage for emotional storytelling. In 2016, Meade painted dancers Jon Boogz and Lil Buck for the short film Color of Reality. Their combination of ballet and pop-and-lock street moves help convey the anguish and fear black Americans harbor with every new headline of police brutality. The film was hailed by critics and featured in the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Awards Ceremony.

It was a really powerful film, and I think that the paint complemented the dance really well,” Meade says. “When the men bleed, they bleed red paint. It has this materiality that allows their story to be told in a very visceral way, and I'm really proud that I got to be part of that.”

Two years later, she painted Grande for her famed “God is a Woman” music video. The work was based on a previous project of Meade's called Milk: What Will You Make of Me?, in which Meade painted actress and performance artist Sheila Vand in a tub of milk.

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You can get the full Meade treatment, too. The artist paints people on commission, capturing the moment in a series of photographs that can remain private or be featured in future gallery exhibits, on the clients preference.

Even more exciting is the chance to step into Meade's world. She created her first installation at Art Basel 2016, transforming an empty store on Lincoln Road into a multi-colored universe of play. Her world exploded in 2018 with Immersed in Wonderland, a 4,000-square-foot installation that enveloped 40,000 people in an interactive space, giving them the chance to wear painted clothes, take pictures in mind-boggling environments and generally become part of the art.

“We had the fire marshal come in on opening night to try to shut it down because there were too many people,” she says. “People were just so engaged in and excited to be experiencing art in this very tactile way.”

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A post shared by Alexa Meade (@alexameadeart)

Immersed in Wonderland was planned for an even bigger event in New York City, but COVID-19 restrictions saw the space sadly scrapped. She still has all the props and goodies, though, with hopes to bring the 14,000-square-foot exhibit to life one day in the future. For now, she's content to stay safe in her “fun house.”

It is a magical space that's my test kitchen for trying out new visual concepts, illusions and just weird little experiments,” she says. “When I'm done, I staple them up onto my wall or I make the wall itself into an illusionistic piece. Walking into my house is like walking into an alternate reality. It doesn't feel like a home. It's a living art work.”

The “fun house” is featured prominently in a recent partnership with Lego. The Rebuild the World campaign saw Meade reunite with her friend and model Delijah McAlpin, 13, and his younger sister Kyrie to collaborate on an otherworldly Lego creature. It was a welcome moment of joy amid the pandemic, and it helped spark Meade's creativity in a new dimension.

It has definitely been a period of play,” Meade says, “[There's] this feeling of it [being] a good time to rebuild and build a new.”

To learn more about Meade, commission her work or buy prints of existing pieces, visit AlexaMeade.com.

Photography by: Alexa Meade, Lil Buck