By Danika Worthington, November 2016 Issue.
Transcendent, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means “exceeding usual limits” and “universally applicable or significant.”
Which is partially why Phoenix-based artist Brandon McGill chose the name “Transcendent” for his latest body painting project, the objective of which is to give transgender and nonbinary individuals a platform for sharing their stories at a time when opportunities in traditional media remain limited.
According to McGill, who began painting living canvases in 2013, he’s transformed 350 bodies into colorful, dramatic and eccentric pieces of art. His work continues to garner attention as more people seek to sit under his brush, including James Beard award-winning chef Rob Connoley and former Miss Las Vegas Pride Lisa St. Laurent.
“Transcendent” is McGill’s passion project in between his larger, more time-consuming projects, including “Contact,” which explores relationships among subjects; “Heroes and Villains,” which he described as “fan service,” “Zodiac” and “Twisted Fairy Tales.”
A Series of Personal Stories
For this project McGill solicited transgender and nonbinary volunteers via his Facebook fan page – Art By Brandon McGill, which has more than 7,500 likes –and transformed 14 bodies into works of art ahead of Transgender Awareness Month, which is observed in November.
“My goal, really, is to give these individuals a place to feel like they have a voice,” said McGill, who identifies as a gay cisgender male. “From all different types of bodies, from all different types of identification, I want these people to feel like they matter and I appreciate them and I want them to have that voice.”
McGill said he has been wanting to do a project that lends exposure to trans lives and issues for a long time. Although there was no defining moment that kickstarted “Transcendent,” McGill said the final push was a combination of North Carolina’s “Bathroom Bill” that regulates access to bathrooms based on the sex someone was assigned at birth, his large number of trans friends and the high suicide and murder rate among the trans community.
“[This project is] something I wanted to do to help the trans community from a cisgender perspective,” McGill said, later adding, “I’m very much for standing up for the underdog and I kind of feel like that’s the trans community right now.”
As an ally, McGill encourages others who want to be allies to start by showing love and compassion to the trans community. And if gender somehow comes up in conversation, he said, just tactfully ask what someone’s preferred gender pronouns are and move along.
McGill started the “Transcendent” series in August and will finish the project in front of a live audience Oct. 23 as he paints Selene Denlinger, a canvas he’s painted five times prior.
The individuals McGill paints do not have to be professional models, which is fitting, as McGill is self-taught in both painting and photography. Instead, he looks at why people are interested in being painted, what their personal stories are and whether or not they make sense for the role.
Although McGill may have a general idea of where he wants each individual piece to go, he’s very open to interpretation as he uncovers who each canvas is as a person, what they like and what their influences are. Then he gets to work.
The process can take anywhere between three to six hours, sometimes longer. But it’s not tedious; instead McGill chats with the model, cracking jokes and making them comfortable, which can be especially important when the model is either nude or partially nude.
Open To Interpretation
When the clothes, makeup and filters are taken away, someone is at their most vulnerable state, McGill said, adding that it’s a liberating feeling where people tend to show a different side of themselves. And, when his canvases puts their clothes back on, McGill said that he can see more confidence than they exuded before.
“I never thought I would be comfortable taking off my clothes in front of a complete stranger,” said Lydia Leal, adding that she’s always experimenting with artistic ways of expressing herself.
Leal said she’s modeled in nude shoots before but only with people she knows because she doesn’t want to be misgendered. She said McGill remained professional and the two just joked around the whole time. It wasn’t uncomfortable, quite the opposite.
“Your eye isn’t focused on a private part or anything,” Leal said about the final outcome. “It’s more focused on the intricate details of his work.”
Leal, who said she always tries to inspire people, jokes that if she can achieve something new then she’s not living a failed life.
“Some things can be said vocally but I think there’s a lot to be said by telling something in an artistic way,” she said. “The audience can take their own interpretation out of it.”
Just A Normal Guy
Sabre Collins lives a somewhat chaotic life and always gives 100 percent as he juggles working full time with a full load of classes. He’s also very active and loves the outdoors, whether it’s hiking or mountain biking.
So McGill painted a powerful, yet hectic, tree on Collins’ chest with a green and yellow sky punctuated by pink clouds. Collins said he liked being able to express himself that way and he also appreciated that the canvas was his chest, adding that both it and his voice are things he’s worked hard for and is proud of.
For Collins, this project was important because it showed the larger breadth of the trans and nonbinary community, which he said mainstream media tends to depict with a narrow brush, typically showing one radical viewpoint.
“It’s really hard finding positive trans visibility in the media, whether it’s TV or modeling or anything like that,” Collins said. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to be — that positive trans role [model].”
For Collins, being transgender is not a major part of his identity; it’s just, as he puts it, happens to be part of his life.
“The story we painted about has nothing to do with being transgender,” Collins said. “Being transgender doesn’t have to be all of who you are.”
Additionally, Collins said the project gave him the opportunity to show that he’s just a normal guy who gets to share his story.
Transcending the Status Quo
Art acts as a storyteller, McGill said, and tells the stories of trans people like Leal and Collins who have their own experiences throughout their unique journeys in life.
“I think that sort of normalizes it and I think by normalizing it, that leads to acceptance,” McGill said.
According to Selene Denlinger, all of the stories in the “Transcendent” series work together to normalize the trans experience.
The fact that the majority of body painters will mainly work with cisgender female models who fit the mainstream definition of beauty, Denlinger said, sets McGill apart – his nonconformity makes him unique.
McGill is the only body painter Denlinger knows who welcomes working with a wide range of gender identities, gender expressions, ages, sexual orientations, body types and stages in transition. She said this was evident in the “Transcendent” series, which includes multiple gender identities and expressions, noting that the two are different.
Much like Leal and Collins, Denlinger reiterated points about the narrow exposure of trans people in popular culture, which typically extends to just Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono. The issue with that, she explained, is that all of them can afford to look the way they want to, which is not always the case for transgender individuals.
“That contributes to a cis-normative standard of beauty, which is one thing that I’ve really hoped this project will debunk,” Denlinger said. “[Let’s] celebrate that we’re beautiful in our own way rather than the way that cisgender people are.”
To view the complete “Transcendent” series, or for more in formation on Brandon McGill, visit facebook.com/artbybrandonmcgill.