Local Artists Design Masterpieces with the Human Body as Their Canvas
How Anne Shackelford, Ashley Swarts and Meredith Johns celebrate the human form through their work
By Darcie Duttweiler
Lead photo by Kim Francois
Makeup and visual effects artist Meredith Johns describes her work as “transforming people into works of art.” Through custom prosthetics, wigs and intricately applied makeup, she is able to use the human body as her canvas, whether it’s creating zombies or spooky monsters or pretty much anything in between.
Meet body artist Anne Shackelford, who will create an entire photo shoot designed around the painted body. And handpoke tattoo artist Ashley Swarts permanently applies her artwork one needle prick at a time.
These three artists prove that your body of work can be just that.
Johns’ creations can be seen in a wide array of movies and television shows, from her Emmy Award-nominated work in “Temple Grandin” to “Machete Kills.” After growing up in a family of artists, Johns originally set out to become a graphic designer. However, she volunteered for a zombie movie, and, as they say, the rest is history.
“I was transfixed on the magic of special effects makeup and how you could change somebody into almost anything your heart could desire,” she explains.
It was that zombie movie where she met now-business partner Carolyn O’Hara, and the two of them started Hawgfly Productions, a special effects, makeup, prosthetic and costuming company that has worked steadily ever since on local TV shows and movies, like “Stoker,” “The Leftovers,” “The Long Road Home” and “The Son,” where Johns taught Pierce Brosnan how to scalp someone.
In addition to their cinematic creations, Hawgfly also offers a wide range of services to help bring ideas and visions to life. They create custom designs for bodypainting and makeup for events, photoshoots and private clients, as well as craft custom prosthetics and wigs to enhance those designs. In addition, they fabricate costumes and props for cosplayers, productions, events and private clients. Johns has competed three times in the World Bodypainting Festival Competition, where she placed second in the word in 2021 for SFX Makeup and fourth in the world for both SFX Makeup and SFX Bodypainting in 2022.
“I really love that the whole piece is only alive (except in pictures) for a short amount of time and then it’s gone,” Johns explains. “It teaches you to live life in that moment and then start creating the next. There’s something oddly beautiful about the impermanence of a makeup or bodypainting look.”
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While Johns’ body of art is fleeting, handpoke tattoo artist Swarts’ work is decidedly more permanent.
Although she now owns Slowpoke Austin, Swarts did not set out to become a tattoo artist. While living in Marfa, she was hosting tattoo artists in a shop attached to her partner’s restaurant, Al Campo. She determined she could better manage the business if she had more personal knowledge of the craft, and fell in love with handpoked tattoos.
“I had no idea tattoos could even look the way these did – they’re delicate and so reflective of the individual artist’s style,” Swarts says.
For those not well-versed on tattoos, the “normal” method of getting a tattoo is done by a machine connected to a needle that’s then dipped in ink. A handpoked tattoo is made in a similar fashion to stippling. Dot by dot, the artist builds up lines and shading, and tattoos can typically take hours to complete by using a single needle.
While Swarts has been tattooing since 2019, she still considers herself a mixed media artist. After graduating with a Bachelors of Fine Art in printmaking, she had a studio in downtown Las Vegas where she sold her prints, paintings, collages, and also did graphic design work for local bars and restaurants. But, she says, learning to handpoke tattoos opened up a whole other artform to her.
“I’m interested in the unique challenge of a 3-D and irregularly shaped canvas that is the human body,” Swarts says. “I also believe tattooing in general is an intimate act, and I enjoy the way that holding a needle in your hand and poking directly into someone’s skin reflects how personal it is.”
Much like Johns, Shackelford paints her creations on the body.
As long as she can remember, she’s been “painting bodies in [her] dreams.” She sought out to make body art by recreating those dreams. As she likes to put it, she “tells stories with an image.” Shackelford is typically approached by clients who have their own unique visions for a photoshoot, whether it’s a superhero motif, a celebration of their body, or paying tribute to their cultural heritage. She will meticulously spend hours hand-painting the body and direct a photo shoot to bring both her and her client’s greatest fantasies to life. These sessions produce artistic and striking images that, while the paint is fleeting, can live on well after.
“At the ‘end’ of the creation, there is a transformation, for the whole of us,” Shackelford explains. “This beautiful experience — that we can never capture, never recreate — we can share. It is like visiting an epic mountain scene, then trying to take a photograph to show what you see. It cannot be done – experience alone is what brings you liberation.”
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In addition to her gorgeous body painting, Shackelford is using “elemental bodies” in her mixed multimedia work. She uses sound, prayer, smudging, essential oils, sacred geometry, mandalas and natural elements to “infuse [her] art with positive vibes.” With her pieces of art, she invites the buyer into Chrysalis Studio to help them resonate with the work through oracle cards readings and EFT (emotional freedom technique) tapping to assist their personal journey.
“As a creative, I hold sacred space so you may meet and resonate with your higher self,” she says. “My heart wants so much to unite us with the beauty and joy inside each and every one of us. I pray my artwork can raise our vibrations, uplift our hearts and bring us harmony.”
Check out Shackelford’s work during this month’s West Austin Studio Tour at Chrysalis Studio.