Trina Merry is a fine arts painter. But rather than painting on a canvas or wood or any other inanimate material most artists turn to, she prefers something a little more… shall we say lifelike? As in — the human body.
The New York-by-way-of-the Bay Area artist has emerged as one of the leading body painting artists, known for her skill at camouflaging her models into their respective backgrounds.
“I love that my canvas is alive and has heartbeat and a twinkle in their eye,” Merry said during a painting excursion in the vineyards of Healdsburg’s Jordan Winery, where she painted model Kerstin Tuning to disappear into a row of grapevines. “It’s a really special experience between myself and the model and the environment.”
Merry has painted models into Egyptian pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Golden Gate Bridge. Her slight of hand is all in the body paints which she uses to blend her models into each setting. Afterward she photographs model and scene, creating a lasting art work of colorful optical illusion.
“I hope through a lot of my artwork people are able to accept their bodies a bit more,” Merry said, “and are maybe willing to think about the human body in a different way.”
Nestled into a row of grapevines, Merry brushed swaths of green paint onto the body and face of Tuning whom she’s worked with numerous times over the last nine years. She imitated the sprawling tentacles of the vines and the deep purple of cabernet grapes on Tuning’s torso — checking the shifting shadows for accuracy. Tuning stood stoically as the layers of paint formed a colorful second skin.
“It never stops getting exciting,” Tuning said. “You always know it’s going to turn out good especially working with Trina, but you don’t really understand her full vision until you see that final product.”
The final product is the photograph Merry snaps at the end of each session — gently manipulated by computer — but mostly a true capture of the final scene. A body is covered partially in the bricks of the Great Wall of China, or the stones of Egypt’s great pyramids or the beams of the Brooklyn Bridge.
“From my perspective of my camera where I’m standing at the exact perspective point,” Merry explained gesturing toward her model, “she will disappear.”
Merry’s foray into the world of body art painting began with a bolt of lighting. Actual lightning. She said she was driving her car in Los Angeles when she was struck by a lightning bolt. It seemed to alter her trajectory. Afterward she was sensitive to electricity so she moved to Yosemite.
While there she chanced upon a concert in which the band Red Paintings invited her on stage to be body painted. She ended-up on tour with the band and dove into the art. She attended art school in the Bay Area where she received some valuable wisdom.
“I went back home to California and took some art history classes,” Merry said, “and one of my professors said do you just want to make popular art or do you want to make great art?”
Merry rates some of her art as bad — some of it great. She said her drive for experimentation rips away the safety net beneath her artistic tightrope — leaving her to fail or succeed, but neither without extensive effort.
In the vineyard Tuning resembled a human grapevine; her stomach covered in grapes, a trunk climbing her leg and her torso mirroring even the white agricultural sunscreen sprayed onto the grapevines to protect the crop. Merry sat on a bench checking her phone and attending to her yipping dog as she patiently waited for the sun to turn a glowing orange before picking up her camera and clicking off several last shots.
“Actually that’s great,” she said reviewing the image.