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Human canvas project tackles body image, sexuality issues

Artist Matti McLean transformed Kira's body (pictured above) into a work of art to show the beauty of the human form. Courtesy of Matti McLean

Matti McLean once hated his body so much that he stopped eating in his last year of high school.

Now he’s advertising the beauty of the human form by transforming it into a work of art.

Through the Human Canvas Project, established last year, McLean uses his paint brushes to capture both his subjects’ figures and personalities.

Using music, discussion and individual colour choices, McLean tries to tap into each person’s individual character and use the body as the canvas it’s painted on.

McLean, also an author and actor, says his art shouldn’t be confused with ordinary body painting.

“One of the biggest things that body painting tries to do is disguise the body, while I’m trying to show who the person is behind the paint,” McLean said.

McLean’s subjects begin the creative process by picking out a playlist of ten songs along with up to five colours they like. McLean then gets to work bonding with his subject before applying his trademark swirls, strokes, and dabs showcasing what he calls the subject’s inner beauty.

Subjects are sometimes hesitant to display their bodies, McLean said, adding he understands their reticence all too well.

The artist struggled with his image and sexuality in high school, ultimately leading him to abuse his body and drop 45 pounds in six months.

“A lot of gay men struggle with eating disorders, I didn’t like who I was and took it out on my body,” he said.

McLean overcame his self-esteem issues and began the Human Canvas Project as a way to document his close friends and the way that he saw them on the inside.

The project was initially supposed to be private and consist of only ten portraits, but high demand and positive feedback quickly altered McLean’s plans.

McLean held his first exhibit last November, where he displayed his first 100 canvases and launched his first published book.

His output has jumped to 145 canvases since then, he said, adding his work is reaching an audience ranging from Australia to Peru.

David Liss, Artistic Director and Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, said McLean’s work portrays the connection that develops between an artist and his subject.

“What I find interesting is the interaction between the subject and McLean and what it brings out,” Liss said. “(The project) is a link to the human body itself and you can’t look at it as a painting, that’s not what the artist is trying to get at.”

Liss said McLean’s project showcases elements of contemporary art and portraiture, but also draws heavily on art therapy traditions.

“I find it maybe to be more of a psychological analysis because it draws on body representation, which is a very primal aspect of humanity,” he said.

Rebecca Perry, 23, has been painted three times and said the process helped her understand her own personality better.

It puts you in a zen spot,” says Perry.

“The only sense I could use was touch and there was something calming and soothing about having the paintbrush touch my face.”

Her third experience was something new altogether.

Instead of being painted using McLean’s abstract style, the two chose to do a structured piece and recreate Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” by painting it onto Perry’s back.

Structured or abstract, Perry says that she feels her personality was on display each time.

“I’ve never seen so many colours on myself and I felt that’s what my personality is really like,” says Perry. “It made another layer that isn’t represented physically come out.”