The most recent known instance (well, give or take) was some three weeks ago, at an outdoor fundraiser for the non-profit group Backyard Blessings in Sumiton, Ala.
The emcee for the event, in between introducing musicians and dancers taking the stage, reminded audience members, "And don't forget to check out the Face-Painting Fairy!"
Attendees who checked out the Fairy tended to be taken aback, for a few seconds: first there were the translucent wings, then the sparkling tiara, and a classy black polyester fabric ergonometric chair, to hold face-painting subjects at exactly the right height for painting without strain. But, the authenticity factor aside, the most eye-catching aspect of all was the artwork itself.
Rather than the standard smiley-faces and team logos most often found at such events, these painted faces showed influences of old-school — and new-school — artists: a hint of Baroque here, a touch of 1960s Peter Max pyschedelia there, even a pattern resembling a realistic butterfly wing. And many of the images sparkled in the setting sunlight, with small adhesive jewels and a variety of glitters.
While face decoration has been around for far more than a hundred thousand years, the Face-Painting Fairy (a/k/a Jolene Harris Box, of Sumiton) has only been practicing it for two of those years. She recalls seeing face-painting at some festival during her childhood, but it wasn't until her own two children expressed an interest in the process that she gave it a try, by ordering a small kit online.
"I just fell in love with it," Box says. "I've always been artistic, and enjoyed crafts." And with her daytime job as a dental hygienist, she's long grown accustomed to meeting strangers face-to-face with delicate intent.
The results of her initial face-painting experiments, with son Harris and daughter Larken as models, were so promising that friends were soon asking her if she could create the kind of face artwork they had seen while on vacation at Disney World. Not long after that, she got the idea for her business.
But getting cranked up took some time, effort, and research. Finding just the right chair was one hurdle, and navigating the brands of face paints was another. While acrylics are the cheapest and easiest to find, Box bypassed them from the beginning. While her paints are water-soluble like acrylics, they're known instead as "water-based makeup."
"With acrylics you run the risk of an allergic reaction if somebody's allergic to latex," she says. "But the makeup is approved by the FDA, and it's totally different as to how it feels on your skin. It has a smoother consistency, and you can move your face around without feeling like there's anything on it. Whereas, acrylics tend to be on the heavier side."
Box has practiced her craft at a wide range of events over the past couple of years, but she's already settled on a favorite category: birthday parties.
"I like the fact that I have more time to get acquainted with the kids, to laugh with them and love them. And, have more time to spend on the actual painting — to do some elaborate faces, because it gives me more artistic freedom. Whereas at a public event with hundreds of people, my time with each person is limited to maybe five minutes."
The opportunity to get one's face painted, especially while a crowd looks on, would seem to be the ultimate red flag for a shy kid. But Box says she's been pleasantly surprised by how few potential paintees — of all ages — are hesitant to take their turn in the chair:
"Occasionally parents will bring their child for a face painting, and the child says no. That doesn't happen often, though.
"Some children — especially younger ones — like the idea of being painted but are really touchy about anything being done to their face, for some reason. So I'll do a design on their arm, or hand, or leg, and they're fine with that."
One phenomenon she's noticed is the growing number of adults who stop by her chair for a painting: "The grown-ups wait until the end of an event, when I'm almost ready to pack up," she says with a laugh. "I guess it takes them that long to get their courage up. Sometimes I'll paint a small design on my own face for an event, and that kind of helps break the ice with adults. But when they finally overcome their fear of the chair and I'm finished with their painting, they look in the mirror and they really get a kick out of it."
Speaking of adults: With America's tattoo craze going strong--some 45 million of us have at least one tattoo, and roughly 21,000 parlors are currently in business to provide them--it's only natural to look at Box's designs as an impermanent form of tattooing.
"Yeah, I've had several friends with tattoos who tell me I ought to go into the business, because I have a talent for making a design fit a certain space," she says. "But that's something I have absolutely no interest in doing. I don't have any moral objection to it, it's just that I would dread somebody sitting in my chair and me having to tell them, 'Hi, I'm going to be jabbing you with a needle a few million times and causing you a whole lot of pain."
There's a happy medium, though. A couple of people have asked the Face-Painting Fairy to paint a design on them for a tattoo artist to follow as a model. "One girl wants a version of her face as a Sugar Skull, which is a kind of folk art from the Mexican 'Day of the Dead' celebration. It's a mostly white face, with some decorative color around the eyes. And another person wants a cherry tree, with the blossoms falling. So those are both in the planning stages."
Tattoos are not the only pop-culture connection Box is encountering in her work. During the recent "Art in the Park" event in Jasper, she met a portrait photographer who photographs "cosplay" (short for costume-play) enthusiasts. Cosplay participants design and make costumes based on characters from movies and video games, with numerous competitions both online and at in-person conventions. The photographer asked if Box would be interested in creating some paint-on character faces for his photo subjects.
And her busiest season is right around the corner. She's already taking bookings for Halloween. "The good thing about Halloween is that it involves people who wouldn't be interested at any other time of year. Plus, people are willing to take a little more time, which gives me a chance to do some more involved artwork. With arts and crafts over the years," Box says, "I'd find some type of project that I enjoyed, and then practice until I got really good at it, and then I'd immediately get tired of that and move on to something else. But with face painting, it's 'stuck,' and I really enjoy it."
With societal trends and crazes coming and going at a hyperactive rate, why has the phenomenon of face-painting stayed around for more than 160,000 years?
Box doesn't hesitate in answering: "I think it appeals to our need for fantasy," she says. "For the length of time you have that image on your face, you're something or somebody different than who you actually are. You feel prettier, or stronger, or whatever.
"I think it's also because face painting is such a one-on-one experience. When I paint someone, whether it's an adult or a child, and then hand them the mirror afterward, it's instant gratification. I was pleased with the painting itself, when I saw it finished, but seeing THEIR reaction to it makes all the work I've done worthwhile."
Dale Short's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.