I walked up to the house on the last gorgeous day of September, with the fall leaves blowing across the road and the sun kissing the pavement. Emily Svec, this week’s feature for the Interview Series, was sitting on her porch swing with friend and photographer, Billy Porter.
We started with some chatting and then Svec and I went into the house and she started to paint my legs. I’d sent her a photo the night before of the shoes I was going to wear in the photo shoot. She instantly had a vision and worked to create the look she wanted. And did it quite perfectly.
As music played in the background and she sat on the hardwood floors painting my legs, we chatted. And I shoved my face with kettle corn chips.
KHENRI: Give us a little bio/description of yourself.
EMILY SVEC: I’m a Des Moines based artist. I grew up here. I’ve been doing body art for about seven years. I started in college and I have been progressively working and expanding my creativity and art to new levels. Every time I do paint, I try to do something new and different. I’ve worked with a lot of great artists in town and traveled quite a bit. I just did a show in Portland this spring and I’ve done shows in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Ames, Cedar Rapids.
The artists in town are generally some of my favorite to work with because Des Moines has a really interesting base of artists who really do it for the love of the art as opposed to the money of the art. I’ve painted over 200 some people, possibly more, I lost track after my hundred mark. I’ve done events and photo work and video work and I try to keep everything new and different. I’ve been published in a lot of magazines around town, Juice, Core, 515, ALT magazine.
KHENRI: Initially, how did you get started painting? Why did you want to start doing this?
EMILY: I wanted to be painted myself and I found that there was no one in Des Moines that offered that exclusively. At the time I was modeling, I was probably 19, and couldn’t find anyone to do it. I feel that in a certain way I was predestined to do this. I was always the girl with the gel pens all over her arms and I was always doodling on pants and jeans and people’s shirts.
KHENRI: Do you have any tattoos?
EMILY: I don’t actually.
I have this book from the 70s and this lady was painted throughout this entire book so one night I ended up painting one of my friends and a couple more girls came in and they wanted to be painted and so by the end of it I had four or five girls painted. This was back when MySpace was all the rage. I posted the photos and people went crazy over it. I had no idea how much I was getting into and how much I would really adore it in the end. It was the first taste of doing it.
KHENRI: What motivates or inspires you to continue to do this?
EMILY: It’s not about me and it’s not about the art or the event, it’s really about how people feel at the end of it. Especially the women and men how they feel about themselves after they’ve been painted. We say painted lady and painted gent with a sense of pride. You are a piece of art. You’re not a piece of ass. You’re a piece of art. And to treat yourself as such. And when you start holding yourself to that higher regard, it transforms you. You don’t even have to be painted to have that attitude.
KHENRI: You gave me goosebumps!
EMILY: it’s not about me. It’s not about what I’m painting on you. And the end result. And at the end of the day if you walk away feeling better about yourself or a certain part of your body that you weren’t too sure about earlier, then my mission is accomplished. I feel that people love themselves differently once they view themselves as a piece of art. Oh, you did get goosebumps.
KHENRI: Of all the events you’ve done, what stands out the most?
EMILY: There’s so many. Every show is completely different. The ones out of town are always a complete wildcard. You have no idea what you’re walking into. My travel models are very specially picked for this reason, so they can just go with it. 80/35 is always a phenomenal event. We sometimes get the opportunity to meet bands and dance on stage. I will never forget the first 80/35 with The Flaming Lips..
KHENRI: I was there! I remember that!
EMILY: Getting asked on stage by The Flaming Lips… they saw us in the crowd and got the organizers to come and get us and get us on stage. There were the clouds parting. It was awesome. Last year the models got to dance on stage with GirlTalk. They loved it. Photoshoots are a lot more calm. I painted the America’s Next Top Model twins in Ames. They were very sweet, we went out for beers afterwards.
Emily is also very talented at organizing and managing events and her people. I found this incredibly fascinating as she is not just an artist in the sole sense of artistry. She chooses her models specifically based on the events. She works with photographers, hair and make up stylists, choreographers, costume designers and models to create something incredible. And not only that she has assistants to help make sure everything is running smoothly at her events, to feed her a sandwich while she paints or supplement her handwork with a Redbull. As soon as she is booked she starts to plan everything in great detail. She has a great team that she works with and adores her assistants. The assistants make sure the models are taken care of as well as Emily. This especially comes in handy when she has been working for ten hours straight. “You aren’t just painting a canvas that doesn’t talk; you’re painting a human being that has needs. You have to be able to balance human need versus the need to get something done for an event.”
KHENRI: What are your go-to items when you go grocery shopping?
EMILY: I always go to the fruit section and the beer aisle. I always like to have fruit around. Grapes, cherry tomatoes and strawberries. Along with essentials like milk and bread.
KHENRI: What is your spirit animal?
EMILY: I have a lot of animals that I relate to. I really adore owls, which I know is trendy. I had one of my old neighbors, which was like a mom character to me, who told me once they represent deception. So the way I understood that was to be wary of people who bring you owls. But the way I looked at it was that they were protecting me from deception because owls can turn their heads all the way around so it’s kind of a two-faced thing. But when I wear them I feel that they are protecting my from deception. I like foxes. They are so sly and cunning and smart. They’re scavengers. I feel like in this day and age, you have to be cunning and kind of a scavenger. Overall, the feline in general has been my totem. I understand cats. They calm me. Owl protect me, cats are what I most bond with and foxes are where I’m at in my life right now.
KHENRI: What is some advice you have for young people pursuing a dream, whether artistically or not?
EMILY: There’s this Talking Heads quote that says, ‘Never for money, always for love.’ If money happens to come with it, then awesome. But you should never do it for money. Always do it for love. And if you’re not doing it for love, then you’re doing something wrong.
After Emily had painted me and I’d shoved enough chips in my face, her hairstylist, Joy Faith Daley started on my hair. While photographer, Billy played Angry Birds.
Joy was awesome and utilized the design Emily had painted on me into my hair. Which her and Emily referred to as lion hair. And I do love lion hair.
After my hair was in place I slipped on the Khenris that I had done specifically for the shoot and stepped into the “studio” that Billy had set up, a beautiful blue backdrop. We began to work on poses and Emily’s team of stylists were fabulous in making sure all the details were properly working. The pose, I must admit, was pretty difficult. But as Emily stated in her interview – she really does care about her models and held my legs in place when I needed a rest. After a fabulous shoot, I literally walked off her front porch to my car feeling like a million bucks. She had accomplished everything that she sought to. In making me view my body as a work of art and that is an incredible experience and feeling I won’t soon forget.
Emily Svec, Body by Svec, and Billy Porter are both running in the RAWards. i would so love you all forever if you would take a minute to go and vote for them. You can vote once a day until the 15th. Help these thoughtful and compassionate artists continue to make their dreams come true as you can obviously see that they have talent, heart and soul.
Wesley Cook (donate to his kickstarter project) – musician, Atlanta, Georgia
Brolester Records, Jeremiah Tuhn, record label – Des Moines, Iowa
Atom St. George – artist, Riverside, California
John Eric Booth – vocalist, West Virginia
Brent Houzenga – artist, New Orleans
Adrienne Gross of justADG – photographer, Des Moines, Iowa
Harley May – writer and comic, The South