Editor's Notebook: Paint me. No, really, paint me

I was not, in fact, a slightly more humanlike version of Gumby when I took the pedestal Wednesday at the Sawdust Art Festival.

But it took a small child to know it.

That morning, I submitted myself as a model to Deborah Paswaters, the Laguna Beach artist who paints live people near the festival's front entrance. As the artist circled the podium and dolloped colors around my body, a father and daughter passed by and stopped to gawk.

"Daddy, it's a real live man," said the girl, who looked about 6.

"No, honey," her father replied patiently. "It's a giant clay figure that just looks like a man."

I couldn't keep a straight face at that — clearly, I have a ways to go before I can volunteer for the Pageant of the Masters — and as I fought to stifle a chuckle, the man declared, "Well, the clay cracked."

Fine if it cracks. When I volunteered to be Paswaters' latest living sculpture, I didn't do it in hopes of technical perfection. I wanted to know what it actually felt like to be a human work of art — an endeavor that has made Paswaters, in her first year at Sawdust, something of a poster child already for the festival.

With this year's Sawdust just two weeks old, Paswaters has already had her photo displayed in the Coastline Pilot and the Laguna Beach Independent. And judging by the number of festival-goers who crowded around Wednesday, it's not just photographers who are noticing her.

More on those passersby in a minute. But first, let me give a full account of how Paswaters works.

Our session Wednesday began at her studio in Laguna, located on a hill a short drive from the festival grounds. In her workspace, which features a piano, a central supply table and canvases propped around, she gave me a shirt and pants smeared with white paint and had me stand in front of a massive wall mirror.

Her first step was a white primer coat over the skin and hair, which brought to mind the black-and-white film stars depicted in this year's pageant. Once that was done, Paswaters sized me up for a moment and then started on a layer of light blue.

Why blue? Paswaters, who explained that she tries not to think too much about the artistic process, picks the base color that each model evokes for her. Perhaps the hue came from my blue eyes, or perhaps I subconsciously reminded her of Derek Zoolander, Ben Stiller's fictional male model whose trademark is a pouty expression called "Blue Steel." Yes, I like that theory best.

Then it was off to Sawdust, where Paswaters set me on her pedestal and streaked me with yellow and red, taking time at one point to lecture a pair of children on the concept of primary colors. A few kids got to borrow the brush and slap paint on me, while at least one adult jokingly asked if I was for sale.

The comments, which also included a little girl's request for Paswaters to paint my teeth, were the most fun part of the experience. So how does it actually feel to be a living sculpture? I hope I don't sound too negative when I say it's an odd sensation — a slow progression from wet to sticky to dry, coupled with a fingers-crossed hope that shampoo really will flush the color out of your hair. (It does, by the way: Paswaters uses powder-based paint, which comes right off in the shower.)

Then again, I'm not a professional model, as Paswaters' subjects often are. A Laguna resident since 1989, she got her start painting living sculptures at the Calvin Charles Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., and once even worked her brush on the runway.

"Each living sculpture is unique," she told me. "I just pick up energy and create as I go."

At Sawdust, she's painted four models so far and devoted her other days to teaching life-drawing classes or sketching people who pass by her booth. Had I more time, I would have stuck around to watch her do that as well. Deadline beckoned, though, and so I returned to her studio, where a shower, a scrub brush and plenty of soap waited.

After all, as Zoolander put it, "There's a lot more to life than being really, really ridiculously good looking." But for an hour or two at Sawdust, that seemed like just about enough.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at michael.miller@latimes.com or (714) 966-4617.

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