Rather than being inspired by other contemporary make up artists, multidisciplinary artist Laurel Charleston is inspired by fine arts. However, the same fine arts institutions they are influenced by have been historically built to favour those in power and further oppress marginalised people, which is why Charleston is turning the tables with their art. They are reflecting their very personal experiences through their art pieces, which in this case are presented on faces instead of an actual canvas. Step into their world and discover what makes this artist tick when it comes to working in the industry.
So, before we get stuck in, I wanted to ask, if you wouldn’t mind telling us, a little bit about how you first got started with makeup. For how long has it been a part of your life?
I started using makeup 6 years ago. I was a sophomore in college at Penn State University when I decided to enter their annual Student Drag Show. Fourteen queens competed but I ended up winning regardless of looking busted and very raw. What I intended to be a once in a lifetime night of fun turned into a life full of adventure, exploration and relentless expression. I kept experimenting with makeup during college but always had an untraditional approach, while my drag colleagues painting to look ‘soft’ and ‘feminine’ I just wanted to put shapes on my face (laughs). 6 years later and here we are.
At the top of your Instagram bio, it clearly states that you are “redefining makeup as fine art.” Can you explain what this means to you? Do you think that makeup and fine art have been traditionally seen as mutually exclusive?
A lot of makeup work is intended to be an accessory or an accent to a larger image. Most, if not all, major runways today rely on a makeup style most commonly referred to as ‘beautiful skin.’ This means that the make up artists in charge use a face and body foundation that is very light and have little to no eye makeup. I want to show the world that makeup can and should be curated to be an extension of the artistic image… Every time I watch a runway show and see little to no makeup on the models I just see blank canvases and missed opportunities.
I miss and yearn for the days of Alexander McQueen shows where the makeup was designed and considered just as heavily as the clothing and hair. The makeup was curated to be an extension of the artistic vision, not an accessory intended to blend into the background. Makeup can be art and it deserves to be the main course not just an unseasoned condiment.
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Naturally then, a lot of the inspiration for your work is taken from painters in the canon of art history. How do you go about selecting which paintings to draw from in your makeup? And when you choose to channel contemporary or non-canonical artists, what draws you to their work?
Whether it is fine art or an organic pattern found in nature, I really love finding inspiration for makeup that is outside of the makeup world. I like using fine art works as a direct and literal way to prove that makeup can be fine art.
A ‘hot take’ I have is that it is lazy and unoriginal to solely take inspiration/do recreations from other living makeup artists. So many Instagram MUAs only take ideas from other creators, do exact recreations of them and pass them off as being ‘inspired by,’ which irks me. If you’re recreating a person’s work a hundred percent then that is a recreation and not an inspiration. That is an important and respectful distinction I hope creators will start making in 2022.
An innovative collaboration that you did recently was the multimedia effort with Gabe Weis, where you took turns recreating each other's art, reconstructing the visuals as you went along. It was interesting to see how you drew from each other’s work to create a new piece at every stage of the process. How did the idea for this collaboration come about?
Gabe was an artist I was inspired by for a long time. I wanted to recreate one of their pieces and reach out to them to collaborate. We came up with the idea for myself to recreate a piece of his, have it printed on canvas and for him to paint on the background. So it’s an art piece, within an art piece, within an art piece, which is pretty wild!
I am also currently collaborating with some of the best 3D artists in the world to create new collaborations that will be taking my makeup work into the metaverse… I am really looking forward to that.
One of your biggest projects so far has been the fashion zine you created titled Masterworks Alive. A limited collection featuring photographs of some of your most intricate works, including the anthropomorphised Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet pieces Cypresses and Water Lilies, respectively. What was the process like for this publication? How did you decide what works to include?
This was my second zine and the goal was to curate a vibrant publication that featured my best and most out-of-this-world looks from the previous year. One part of my style that I really love is taking famous works of art, specifically paintings, and putting them on my face. I thought to take this one step further and actually personify two of these iconic works head to toe and that’s where this cover art came from.
“If you’re recreating a person’s work a hundred percent then that is a recreation and not an inspiration.”
How do you think that the art that you create is perceived as a result of your queerness? Does it present any challenges in the task of introducing makeup into the canon of fine art (when many of its arbiters have been and will be cisgender)? You’ve mentioned too that some of your work exists outside of the boundaries of gender, do you think that certain viewpoints can be limiting?
America’s institutions of fine arts are historically constructed and operated to withhold power, space and money from transgender people. The beauty and fashion industries are no different.
As an artist of an identity I’m discriminated for, my work will always be a reflection of myself and my experience, even if it is not directly intended to be. I believe that an artist’s lived experience will always be reflected in their work and therefore people that are transphobic/discriminatory will be less supportive of those works.
Something that might be accidentally glossed over when looking at your portfolio of work is the fact that, aside from your wide array of makeup skills, you’re also a talented seamstress. Oftentimes you create garments and accessories to accompany your makeup looks, which is a testament to your resourcefulness (an example being your quarantine couture dress and headpiece, made out of picnic fabric). When did you learn to sew? Do you prefer to create your own garments?
I learned to sew out of necessity. When I was doing drag at Penn State I was literally rubbing nickels and dimes together to make anything happen. Being there on full scholarship meant that I only had that money to live off of and it was in very short supply. So I grabbed a sewing machine and threw some looks together! I would grab a joint and sit my ass down for hours watching YouTube tutorials and discovering what a zigzag stitch was so I wouldn’t be naked at Wednesday Drag Bingo. I also do prefer to make my own looks, even today. Being a six foot four tall trans femme it is hard to find feminine clothing that fits me, so I still prefer to sew when time allows.
An important part of your work is the fact that you turn the human body into a canvas, a full immersion into ‘art’ of the living body. A new makeup series that you’ve launched is Galactica, featuring full-body looks. How different is the conceptualisation process for your body makeup? Is it a more difficult canvas than using just the face?
Yes, it is far more difficult to take a piece of face art and conceptualise how that will be extended to encompass the entire human form. There are so many technical issues to consider but it’s also a completely different style of makeup to tackle. It requires a different branch of makeup products and application procedures but at the same time, it is an indescribable feeling to see your work come to life – literally.
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Recently you've collaborated with several publications and other talented artists. A particularly eye-catching one was the shoot you did with Detox, featuring the drag performer in a glittery night-sky/outer space full body look. What is the process like when your own body isn’t your canvas? Especially on highly collaborative projects like this?
It is actually much easier painting someone else than painting myself. I love being able to fully move around a model and paint from different angles and painting Detox again was just a blast. She was visiting New York City and actually had her luggage stolen by Delta Airlines so when she arrived she had no clothes or makeup to do her gig in. I painted her before and saw her tweets of distress, so I texted her and the next thing I know I was painting her again with my MUA bestie, Sterling Tull. Since she had no clothes we thought “why not just wear glitter,” and the rest is history.
Time for an aspirational question! Is there anyone in the industry that you’d like to work with in the future? Or is there perhaps someone you would have liked to have collaborated with in the past (seeing as many of the artists that you draw inspiration from have been from completely different time periods)?
I would absolutely love to work with designers like Christopher John Rogers and Telfar Clemens to create vibrant makeup works that would match and be part of their colorful and iconic designs.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about your plans for the future. Is there anything new you’d like to try that you haven’t done yet? Is there anything you’d like to give a second go?
Yes, there is so much that is coming and some really cool work that will be breaking new ground for makeup art. I am currently in the works of art directing and executing makeup for what will be a massive high tech multi-media project with one of America’s largest corporations. I will be working to bring makeup into the future and into the metaverse and I could not be more excited!
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