Painted ladies

Britney Christen

Model Erin Fong is transformed into a cheetah by artist Britney Christen.

Model Erin Fong is transformed into a cheetah by artist Britney Christen.

Photo By David Robert

As a little girl, Britney Christen loved finger-painting, and, like newly laid paint, the memory of picking up a paintbrush for the first time is still fresh.

“I started really young,” she says. “My mom was really into art. She did a whole bunch of stuff around the community in Gardnerville. That got me interested. I was always coloring or painting. I was definitely [into art] right away. It just came naturally.”

Today, Werner and Jody Christen’s daughter—a senior majoring in art at UNR—is a striking 22-year-old with nine piercings, lush eyelashes and an eye for color, fashion and dramatic statements. Christen’s medium is still paint, but her preferred canvas is now skin.

“My roommate, Erin Fong, was doing a project—her photography class final,” Christen explains over a dish of donatella gelato at Walden’s Coffeehouse on a warm, early autumn afternoon. “She wanted to do a human zoo and asked me if I could do body paint.”

Christen went online, did a lot of research, and ended up going for it. She built the cage for the shoot in about three weeks.

“We painted eight girls,” she said. “We had to set up the cage every time, paint all the girls and work around their schedules.”

Christen’s cast of characters was a zebra, lion, panther, butterfly, peacock, giraffe, panda and a cheetah, the last of which was portrayed by the artist, a four-hour task that could try a saint’s patience. Starting with the face, Christen used women’s makeup, then simple tempera colors, “little kids’ paint.” That way it washed off the body a lot easier.

“I had to mix all the colors,” she says. “We actually only used four: black, orange, yellow and white. For the peacock, we used really nice makeup all over the body. It’s iridescent and shiny.”

Christen’s stunning creatures evoke a DNA-deep response, and the sight of her human zoo borders on theatrical performance art. At the thought of a paying gig as an eclectic element of the ambience at a Reno/Tahoe nightclub, Christen’s blue eyes shine even bluer.

“I think it would be so much fun,” she says, smiling. “Now I know how to do it, where to put a little extra paint. I just think it’s awesome because when you’re wearing the paint, it feels like you are wearing clothes, even though you’re not wearing anything. It does really feel like you’re covered. It’s a really cool experience, and if I could share that with other people, I would be so excited to do something like that.”

Are you in, Bubinga?

Christen’s creature ensemble crowded into a vehicle and cruised downtown Reno, a joyride that left a wake of smiles, laughter and unforgettable memories. As a full-time college student with a full-time job, Christen hopes to create public art for the university and the city, more interior murals, even urban-jungle denizens for Halloween. Her increasing business savvy and artistic commitment shines through as she deflects a collective, critical troll-beast responding less than favorably to online images of her art.

“I’ve had awesome feedback, but there are other people that [insist] it seems pornographic. It’s a little defeating to know that people can’t open their minds—just to art—and think that of it. I am so lucky. I go to school every day, excited about what I do. I get to express myself through a paintbrush.”