For all of their creative thinking, you might want to give these two artists a hand — except they’d probably want to paint it.

Michelle Soltis and Dawn Marie Svanoe are the masterminds behind the Greater Midwest Body Art Fest, setting up shop in Madison this week.

The two are professional body painters who use the human body as a 3D, breathing canvas. They also own the Madison-based company Glitter to Gore, which sells specialty makeup and creates everything from airbrush tattoos and “special FX” to highly elaborate, head-to-toe body paintings.

For their first full-scale body art fest, running Wednesday through Saturday at the Sheraton Hotel, Soltis and Svanoe are bringing together some 100 artists, from seasoned pros to amateurs. Workshops range from creating flamboyant, Mardi Gras-type headdresses to crafting custom teeth (think fangs) for a latex-embellished model.

The fest will include “body art jams” on Thursday and Friday evenings, with artists painting models freestyle, as well as a big-money modeling competition and runway show Saturday night. About 500 members of the public are expected to come witness it all.

“I think it’s a very gutsy move” by Soltis and Svanoe to host such a festival, said Eric Coffman, president of the Madison-based company Graftobian, which manufactures and markets beauty and theatrical makeup for a global market.

“They’re pulling in some of the best face painters on the planet for this,” Coffman said. And while large cities like Orlando, Fla., sometimes host body art festivals, Madison is a much smaller market — making this event all the more unexpected, he said.

“They’re drawing significant talent from all over the world,” Coffman said, “to a town covered with snow.”

The idea grew out of an event that Svanoe and Soltis held at their East Washington Avenue studio last year. Called “My Dark Valentine,” the one-day body-painting showcase sold out. Artists begged for more, so Glitter to Gore decided to take “a scary leap” and launch an entire three-day festival this year, Svanoe said.

The 2014 theme is “Zombillies” — rockabilly meets zombies. A Zombillies Film Fest featuring nonstop horror movies will run alongside the body art fest. Admission to the festival is for 18 years and older — not just because zombies are scary, but because some body painting is, well, very revealing.

Models wear the minimum until their skin is completely covered in artistry. Body painters use specially formulated cosmetics to create their illusions; the cosmetic paint usually lasts only a day, or until the model showers it off.

Seeing body art in a photo is different than seeing it in person, Svanoe said.

“When the person is moving around, the colors move and change, depending on how they position themselves,” she said. “You’re not just seeing this piece of art from one angle as you would see something hanging on a wall.”

The finished creations can range from out-of-this world fantastical to utterly gory, with realistic-looking latex scars and prostheses that mimic protruding bones.

Despite this year’s zombie theme, “I don’t think everyone’s going to show up with the pin-up zombie as their piece,” Soltis said. “A lot of these artists think outside of the box a lot, so there’s going to be a lot of original stuff where you’ll say, ‘I never would have thought of that.’ ”

Unlike most body painting festivals, the Greater Midwest Body Art Fest will feature “special FX” training, too, Soltis said.

“We’re bringing together two industries here,” Soltis said. “There’s usually not much crossover.”

Body painting has been around for a long time — Coffman notes that Goldie Hawn showed it off to America in her bikini on the 1960s TV show “Laugh-In.” But in recent years its popularity has grown, thanks to better cosmetics and application techniques.

And pop-culture exposure has helped, too. Sports Illustrated readers know artist Joanne Gair’s painted-on swimsuits from the magazine’s annual swimsuit issues. TV watchers follow the lives and trials of real-life body painters on the Syfy channel shows “Face Off” and “Naked Vegas.”

Over the past 10 years, the body art market has grown “really strong. It has become an international phenomenon,” said Coffman, whose company is a sponsor of the Midwest Body Art Fest.

The genre has gone from simple one-color applications “to literally anything you can imagine — or more than you can imagine,” he said. For talented makeup artists who make their living glamorizing brides, doing magazine shoots or face-painting children, body art is a chance to “be uber-creative,” he said.

Forty members of the public will be able to attend a free body art workshop at the Greater Midwest Body Art Fest on Saturday morning. And during the “body paint jams” held Thursday and Friday nights, visitors might even get the chance to serve as a model.

“I’ve noticed that when I’ve painted someone, they’re one personality before they’re painted, and they become a totally different personality when they’re painted,” Svanoe said.

“This last year I painted a woman who was very uncomfortable in her own skin. She’d just come out of a divorce and was very self-conscious. We painted her and afterwards she thanked me and said, ‘I feel like a totally different person.’ It freed her.”

Like performance art, body art is all in the moment, Svanoe said.

“I love it because you have to enjoy it now. You can’t say, ‘I’ll look at it later,’ because it’s not going to be there later.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.