This week I have been speaking to Isamaya Ffrench, who has just been appointed as Beauty Editor at i-D magazine. As well as the role at i-D, she also works as a make-up artist, body painter and illustrator, occasionally finds time to dance for the Theo Adams Company, and also designs window displays for shops and art galleries. She is based in London but works all over the world, particularly in Paris, New York and Tokyo.
Phew, a lot going on and enough to put me to shame. Luckily, despite her busy schedule she has found some time to talk to Shlur. Here it is:
When did you start doing makeup and body painting, and who/what were your early influences?
I practised classical ballet from the age of 4, and took up contemporary and street dance later on, so performance has always influenced my work. I think being on stage and having to regularly project a ‘character’ or a ‘dance style’ as part of an exercise or show naturally encourages you to reflect and explore your own identity. I have only realised more recently that it was this subjection to performing that probably sparked my internal and external exploration into the world of makeup and identity, characters and cultures.
I remember early makeup influences coming from a book I picked up by a makeup artist called Kevyn Aucoin. I was captured by the way he transformed iconic women such as Barbara Streisand and Demi Moore into famous heroines using only makeup. There was something about this totally achievable transformation process that really captured me, and I can still sit with his book for hours just looking at the images he created.
The real makeup part came much later, fuelled by a stint as a kids’ face painter, a weekend job that got me through university. One day a photographer called Viktor Vauthier asked me to face paint his sexy model girlfriend, and something clicked.
Tell me how you would classify your artistic style.
I think my work is quite 3D, as I often build masks and work on mannequins, but I don’t think have a style, it’s quite random. I feel like my artistic references and methods are constantly changing to satisfy a need of exploration and progression (of self). There are so many makeup artists, artists and designers now, so it’s really important to be able to remain versatile in your approach, to be able to make new work and inspire yourself. I studied product design at university, which taught me how to understand a brand’s vision but also apply your own creative style and input alongside it.
It’s interesting to see that you’re constantly pushing yourself to adapt and improve. In what ways do you feel your work has developed or changed over time?
I think (hope!) that it has matured in some way. I’m definitely a lot more comfortable and understanding in my methods of working and how I tackle a project. I’m very open to all sorts of inspiration, and I also think you need to give your creative brain a rest just like everything else, so I maintain that doing completely unrelated to art – like sport, foraging, instruments etc. – is vital in assisting your work’s development.
When I started, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was a totally instinctive thing to pick up a paintbrush and put it on a face. I was face painting so much and really enjoyed it, so I just kept doing it and people kept asking me to do it! Eventually that developed into makeup and the pursuit of creating and developing ‘characters’.
In the last few years I have also ventured into visual merchandising – designing mannequins and window displays for stores like Selfridges, Liberty’s, and Galeries Lafayette in Paris. This method of working satisfies my artistic needs as it is like an artist’s residence – working solidly on a project for a few weeks, before displaying it to the public for a season.
The main development really came last year when Josh Wilks joined me as a full-time collaborator. He has an MA in visual communication and print design, and his skills for spacial placement, colour balance and concept generation are extremely complimentary to my process of working. In our artistic pursuits we have become a partnership and it’s such a wonderful experience to work so closely with someone who shares the same vision. We are even dressing the same!
You also work as a dancer for the Theo Adams Company, a collective of singers, dancers and actors – do you feel that influences the rest of your work?
Definitely. Theo has such an undiluted, strong vision for his work and his company, it is totally inspiring. We are going to Tasmania to perform at MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) together and I can’t wait! We’ve been on some amazing trips: last year we flew to New York to do an artist’s residency at the Watermill Centre on Long Island and the year before we flew to Japan to perform for Louis Vuitton’s flagship store opening ceremony. It’s a constant source of happiness for me. They are like family.
It must be rewarding to work with people from so many different cultures and artistic backgrounds, and it also must shape your artistic style.
Yes, I feel so lucky to meet so many people and it has been hugely influential in my work. I love working in teams, so much more so than working alone, which is why I’m enjoying working with someone like Josh. It’s the best method of progression, and criticism is vital. If something’s shit, someone needs to tell you! Success is about interdependence. I’m not interested in living and working alone – our work represents our current generation and having so many different opinions is the key to creating good work. I always encourage my assistants and friends to be honest and critical about what I’m doing, otherwise you don’t learn.
Do you prefer to work on male or female models?
Both really… males if I’m lucky! I generally work more with girls but creatively I find boys’ faces much more inspiring. Humanistically and instinctively, girls faces are much more loaded – sexually, emotionally etc. – a bit like a pre-painted canvas, and therefore it’s much easier to work on boys, especially as it’s rarer to find ‘male beauty’, and it is often more surprising. Historically and ritualistically, both men and women are subject to body adornment, such as tribal face and body painting, piercing, scarification, and its usually to adhere to a social status or projection of one’s identity.
When we go to America, everything feels kind of nostalgic and really familiar, because we have been subjected to Hollywood films and American branding throughout our lives, and it’s the same principle for makeup and face painting. We have all explored changing our faces in some way, even if it’s shaving or putting lipstick on, and playing with someone’s identity really evokes an emotional response. In faces we seek truth and understanding, so when you challenge that by painting it, or putting on a mask, it disturbs our normal interaction and sense of understanding of who someone is. I love to challenge that!
I imagine that painting on a model’s face must be quite different to painting on their body, how do you approach this?
Yes, you have to be sensitive, but also confident. I’ve had to paint tits, bollocks, I’ve painted it all! I had to paint a porn star’s willy glittery gold once! But it is an intimate exchange and you have to be respectful and earn the model’s trust. Especially when you’re pouring latex over someone’s eyes…
Who would you most like to work with?
Ooooh… Jack Nicholson.
The piece of work you are most proud of:
i-D Magazine 2013 with William Selden. He’s one of my favourite photographers, and he’s amazing at roller blading!
What are your plans for the rest of 2014?
I have just joined i-D Magazine as Beauty Editor, so am extremely excited to be working with such an awesome team (they are all great!) and I’ve got another window commission lined up in Paris. I’d also really like to explore my work in 3D, so have been developing some video content for Dazed Digital and will be working with my lovely mate and brilliant photographer Tyrone Lebon! Stay tuned!