Arts + Design

Meet the artist who submerged Ariana Grande in a pool of paint

Nov 7, 2018 /

Painter Alexa Meade opens up about creativity, hair and what she learned from working on Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman.”

Fifteen seconds into the video for Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman”, viewers are presented with a sight that stands out, even in the anything-goes world of music video. Grande sings and floats on her side while immersed in a swirling sea of white, purple and pink liquid, wearing not much more than a few tastefully placed streaks of paint. Lasting about 15 seconds — but recurring several times in the video — the mesmerizing imagery is the work of artist Alexa Meade (TED talk: Your Body Is My Canvas).

Meade, a Washington, DC, native, is best known for painting people. OK, let’s be more precise: She paints on people. What’s more, she often covers everything else in the scene in the same lusciously thick paint strokes, resulting in a multi-textured, familiar-yet-strange image where objects exist in a space between 2D and 3D. Meade’s art has appeared in the form of pop-up installations at venues ranging from shopping malls to the UN, wall art and videos, including “Color of Reality” with dancers Jon Boogz and Lil Buck (watch them perform at TED in 2017).

Meade’s work is also a curious blend of the intensely intimate — she is painting on people’s skin, after all — and the fleeting. “The day I’m painting them is often the day I first meet them,” she says, and these partnerships, as with the Grande video, tend to last just hours. Here, Meade takes us behind the scenes of her part in “God Is a Woman” and shares her biggest takeaways from this unique collaboration.

Making a strong image requires hours and hours of experimentation — but also years of experience.

Video director Dave Meyer approached Meade just two weeks before the shoot. Fortunately, she didn’t need to start from scratch in dreaming up a concept. Meyer, inspired by her 2012 collaboration with actor Sheila Vand on a series of milk-bath portraits and what Meade calls its “powerfully feminist imagery,” knew he wanted a twist on that person-in-pool-of-color approach for “God Is a Woman.”

Now, when people picture Grande, one of the first things that comes to mind is her long, long hair. But it was during the milk-bath project that Meade learned this hard and oddly specific truth: “Real hair in milk doesn’t look appealing; it looks like hair in your soup.” Finding an attractive yet convincing substitute took hours of trial and error for Meade and her assistant, much of it spent on applying large amounts of hairspray to many wigs to see if they could hold up in liquid and still look good. The solution? Painting and braiding a piece of rope, which she attached to Grande’s real hair.

Another problem: the paint. Meade had already decided the pool would be filled with a vegan special-effects fluid (she didn’t want to use actual milk this time, and she needed something that her paints would float on top of, so plain old water was out). She knew she needed to find a paint that would not degrade but was also safe for humans. “I went through a million different types of waterproof paint; it also couldn’t stain the skin and the process of removing it couldn’t involve weird chemicals.” Who did she find to experiment on — who could possibly not mind being covered in paint and dunked in liquid over and over again? Meade’s old friend Sheila Vand.

Collaboration can bring out things you never knew were inside you.

“Ariana had a lot of artistic input and frankly amusing ideas,” says Meade. While Meade typically covers all or most of her subjects’ exposed bodies with paint, the singer had a brainstorm at the video shoot. “Since Ariana’s skin tone played off the purple and gold well, she had the idea to let her skin show in between the brushstrokes, creating that contrast between her body and the paint,” says Meade. “That was something improvised in the moment, and it turned out beautifully.”

Grande had other surprisingly detailed suggestions. “She had all sorts of ideas for where brushstrokes could go — like she thought it would be interesting if the paint was thicker at her knees but then there were more sparse brushstroke going down to her ankles so you saw more of her skin,” Meade recalls. “She also had this vision for the color of her lips, so she blended together blue, pink and yellow and painted her own mouth.”

Rather than objecting to another person introducing their ideas into her art, Meade has grown to embrace it. “Some of my favorite work comes out of collaboration, in part because ways of looking at the world are introduced that are counter to what your brain is preloaded with,” she explains. “It allows you to step outside of what your instincts would have told you to do.”

After all the preparation, planning and setup, at a certain point you just need to give up control.

While Meade had a plan for how and where the paint should be poured into the pool of liquid, it was impossible for her — or anyone else — to make sure it stayed where it was supposed to. “Every time Ariana moved, the colors around her would dissipate or shift,” she says. “We were constantly nudging the colors to be in place on the surface of the liquid. You can control where you put the paint, but it will flow where it wants to flow.”

Meade had only a faint idea what the final outcome would look like, but over the years she’s learned to relax, wait and see. She says, “Oftentimes when I’ve had a specific vision and something comes out that matches that, it always seems to lack that magic or sparkle or ineffable quality that really has potency.”

The bigger the project, the more important it is to stick to your routine.

One of Meade’s main takeaways from the video was not to skimp on the basics. “Usually when I’m going into a project, the best way I can prepare is to get a good night’s sleep,” she says. “For this, I was really nervous about the possibility that something wouldn’t work out, so I spent hours trying to make sure that everything was covered. I probably would’ve been more effective in the moment if I had just gotten some sleep and showed up with confidence, knowing in my gut that I could pull off this thing.”

Art is not only what you make; it’s also what you inspire.

Since the video, Grande (and Meade) fans have posted their own versions of the pool image, from painting themselves and their dolls to creating their own paintings. Meade is thrilled. “It’s awesome to see how inspiration gets sparked and passed along,” she says. “And it’s really humbling to see the creativity of these fans who are making works. In some cases, I felt like, ‘Man, I wish I could do that!’”

All images courtesy of Ariana Grande.

Watch Alexa Meade’s TED talk here: