An Artist Strives for Connection Through Painting Naked Bodies

Andy Golub, a New York-based body painter, remembered the day when he was painting Fredi Grieshaber nine years ago. Grieshaber, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, was just notified that day she had very little time left to live.

“l just got told that I probably have about six weeks. I know that could be longer, but I’m gonna make it the best goddamn six weeks,” Grieshaber said in the video Golub filmed while he was painting her. With many fluid lines attached to her body, she managed to get naked in front of the artist.

That’s when the connection happened.

“I had the strangest feeling,” Golub said. I was painting. I could feel all my life force going into her.” In the end, when Grieshaber’s naked body was filled with lines and colors, Golub felt that Grieshaber was invigorated. In a video that was recorded two months before she died, Grieshaber said that the experience was “free and liberating.”

“My body is a canvas, and it’s just to show that I am still a beautiful woman,” Grieshaber said at that time.

Golub started body painting about 15 years ago. Body painting has helped him build connections with people through art because it is an active exchange of energy and communication between him and the models. Golub paints in diverse forms. Most of the time, he paints models individually. His models are at different life stages and from a variety of backgrounds – many are people without any modeling experience, artistic or commercial.

Most of the time, Golub meets his models in a private setting such as his studio or wherever the models feel comfortable. Models are notified and well-consented before they are going full-nude. Just like freestyle jazz musicians, Golub creates spontaneous paintings. As soon as he touches the body, the lines naturally flow through the brush. The images are unique for different models because they reflect their personalities.

In 2017, Golub created his non-profit, Human Connection Arts. It’s a platform for him to connect hundreds of people together who share the same values. The non-profit sponsors the annual NYC Bodypainting Day, during which Golub goes out to the streets and parks in New York City, such as Times Square, Union Square Park and Central Park. Golub, at the event, paints people who are willing to get naked in public. The NYC Bodypainting day takes place annually in outdoor areas such as Union Square Park, Times Square and Central Park. Last year, the ninth event featured 60 models who were painted by 40 artists in public at Union Square Park, with music and a crowd of people watching Golub paint the models.

His work, along with other modern body paintings, is at the intersection of the past and current trends, according to an article written by Barry Kostrinsky, a New York artist that has rich experience working in the art field. According to this article published in Broadway World, body painting could be traced to the prehistoric era when early tribes got painted during cultural and religious ceremonies. The paintings were symbolic and were seen as a spiritual bond with the divine, which was similar to the experience Golub had while painting Grieshaber. Kostrinsky writes, “Throughout the history of art there has been a movement to make the work more [relatable], real and alive.” Kostrinsky calls modern body painting a spiritual awakening.

It took a while for the public to accept the kind of art Golub does. In the summer of 2011, Golub painted two women, fully naked, in Times Square. A few minutes after the models took off their underwear, one got arrested by the New York City Police Department(NYPD). Golub was also arrested and forced to spend 25 hours in the New York City jail. Since nudity for artistic purposes is legal in New York City, the model eventually reached a $15,000 settlement with the city with the help of Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer.

The experience of being arrested helped Golub amplify his message that nudity is not disgraceful – it allows people to express themselves and connect with others in a genuine and deep way. Nudity is people exposing who they are, and the social norms do not always provide people with a space to explore that, he said. “Spending a night in jail is nothing for me compared to the opportunity to be able to have a voice,” Golub said. The public spaces allow him to make his body paintings accessible to people that are not aware of his ideas.

Brian Yoder, the co-founder of Art Renewal Center, wrote that nudity is different from sexuality. “There’s a wide gulf between artistic nudes and pornography and it is wrong to impute to one the properties of the other,” he wrote in the article.

The naked body painting is not sexual to models either. “Body painting pictures are not sexual,” Grieshaber said in the video. “I’m a piece of artwork that just keeps evolving.”

Golub also does group painting, in which he selects 10 to 20 models and gathers them together. Under his direction, dozens of models cuddle, sometimes pile, together to form a giant canvas for him to paint on.

David Pumo has worked as a model for Golub’s works since 2015 and said that nudity is a shared feature among human beings.

“The more we strip away, it becomes more obvious – we’re definitely very different people, and that doesn’t matter,” said Pumo who recalls all of the different kinds of people involved in Golub’s work. There were the elderly, the disabled, those with different body shapes, and those from different racial and gender backgrounds. Pumo said Golub’s work is inclusive and inspiring.

These works aren’t a “bunch of twenty-something, slim women who look like they came out of Playboy magazine painted like animals or French waitresses,” Pumo said.

Golub’s indoor Human Canvas project is a different experience for models because it is both private and interactive. Before starting to paint, Golub asks models to lie down and get close to one another until they form a giant canvas, with their body shapes barely recognized. Different from his individual paintings, all his creative ideas are based on the whole piece of canvas. Even though models sometimes only have a drop of orange on their toes, they are all indispensable to the big picture.

It is not an easy job for models because most of the time, they are not familiar with each other. It’s physically challenging for them, too, because they need to hold still for many hours, sometimes for the whole day, models said. The level of intimacy creates a space where they peacefully interact with each other on an extremely exposed level. Models said they had the most gratifying modeling experience as an important part of the art creation.

Frederick Baker, a professional model, has posed for art classes or artists for many years. But being painted by Golub was a different experience, he said. Baker felt a great connection with Golub and his art in particular because, during the Human Canvas project, Golub allowed models to get involved from the very beginning. Baker saw the whole process as an “explosion” that was filled with intense interactions and constant bursts of creative ideas. The incredible part of the painting process, Baker said, is not only witnessing people trickling into a huge image but also seeing it fall apart.

“It’s both a physical as well as a metaphorical metamorphosis,” he said.

Golub said he believed his body painting helps models to find their true selves. Amanda Jane, a part-time model, said that during her earlier modeling experience, she sometimes felt like a product because she could be easily replaced. However, working with Golub, she felt the importance of being herself rather than an objectified model to fulfill artists’ needs. Golub said that she was a well-appreciated, unique piece of art.

Initially, Golub studied finance at college but later chose to pursue art. “I didn’t enjoy being something other than myself,” Golub said.

“I, maybe, have the most blessed life that a person could ever ask for,” Golub said, becoming emotional. “People have reached out to me over 100 times, saying how I changed their lives, so I don’t really know much better you can do.”

About the author(s)

Elena Yin is an M.S. candidate at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in science and climate.

HaRam Lim is a business journalist and an arts and culture lover studying at Columbia Journalism School.