Stepping into Stephen E. Morton’s Greenburgh home on a recent morning, you quickly realize the typical suburban-family living room has blurred into the background of a makeshift art studio.
The transformation has been completed with professional lights, a selection of cameras, a pitch-perfect backdrop and most dramatically, a model clothed in body paint and perched on a pedestal.
It’s not the everyday occurrence here, but instead the professional photographer’s demonstration of his latest creative outlet, combining body painting and photography to create stunning visual works.
“You work at something 30 years and you have a whole new avenue,” he says.
Morton, also a lifelong art lover, draws on both interests for this new work he eloquently describes in his artist’s statement.
“I use the natural body as my dimensional canvas, which allows me the freedom of expression, color and design. I then use my lighting and photographic skills to transform my canvases into unique works of art. I take pride in my ability to mix two artistic skills and create pieces that cross over the traditional mediums of art.”
Indeed, those finished works – interspersed with more traditional Morton shots (think orchids at the New York Botanical Garden) – are scattered throughout the main floor, turning the home into a gallery of sorts.
At first glance, many of the body-paint creations appear to be abstracts in, perhaps, oils, but a closer look yields their true medium – and subjects.
The scenes are discrete and anonymous though the subjects’ universal – and artistically powerful – imagery is one any viewer will recognize.
“Most of my work has no faces on it,” Morton says. “I’ve always wanted to keep it anonymous for a reason. They can dream on if they’d like.”
A NEW AVENUE
By his usual workday, Morton specializes in fine art, public relations, corporate events, stock and campaign work.
“I’m a traveling photographer,” he says. “I do most of my work on location. I do a lot of executive portraiture for a lot of corporations … politics.”
He’s known for capturing a subject’s personality, whether for a personal commission or a magazine shoot.
Born in White Plains, Morton graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in photography and cinema. From there, he returned to New York and started out in fashion photography.
Over the years, Morton has earned awards and exhibited his fine-art images across the country.
This new venture has found him connecting many of his talents in this new “passion” that he’s been developing the past few years.
“For the first couple of years I practiced with a lot of friends,” he says. “A lot of friends volunteered for me.”
Once he “got up the confidence” and felt his work was moving in the right direction, “I went for the Rebeccas” or professional models.
Rebecca Lawrence, a full-time professional model from Brooklyn, is in Westchester for another session with Morton on this particular day.
“I don’t do body paint as often,” Lawrence says, before adding with a laugh: “He’s one of my favorites, because he keeps it warm.”
And that means both the room temperature and the paint itself.
Over the next hour or so, their banter will keep things moving, Morton painting and creating patterns and colors.
“One of my favorite things to do is talk,” Morton says. “I’m a gabber. I love talking to the models.”
A typical session, Morton says, will take about three hours for painting and photography, “give or take how much I talk.”
“Everybody has a spot and when you hit that spot ‘Ay!’” he says with a laugh, having just set Lawrence off.
Morton relies on Mehron body paint, a professional product he first encountered being on movie sets in his earlier days.
“When I started painting myself, I remembered all this,” he says. “It’s basically what they use in Hollywood for movies. It’s what they use in theater.”
Over time, he says, he has developed a style that simply works for him.
“It makes me feel good. I think it’s different than a lot of the other body painters.”
Morton thinks a lot about a project before he starts.
“I initially have a whole idea of what I want to do with the colors. Will it end up that way? It’s a whole different thing.”
It often evolves as the work is done.
“It’s the model, the emotions when I’m working.”
And the discovery process is the best part.
“I can start painting with an idea of how I’m going to light,” he says. “What I think fascinates me is this is a 3-D canvas.”
Morton is always open to change.
“When you create something I didn’t start out with, I love it,” he says.
Once the painting is done, it’s time for the photographs.
The images capture designs and colors, moods and textures as models strike classic poses that reflect Morton’s vision of the human body.
Even then, Morton can also make a quick adjustment as he does here, putting down the camera and picking a paintbrush up again.
“The bonus about being the photographer and the painter. You see a spot and …”
Morton takes pride in his ability to blend the paints with light to create abstract art on what he calls “the ultimate canvas.”
And as every body is unique, so too is the art. The finished work is all that remains of the experience.
A quick shower and it’s gone.
“That’s my favorite part,” Lawrence, the model, says. “It’s beautiful to see it washing down the drain.”
Morton doesn’t like to manipulate his images.
“I try to get as much in the camera as possible. With lights and camera techniques, I can get the feel and the mood I want to.”
THE PAINTINGS LIVE ON
Some works are commissions but others are done for exhibition and ideally, purchase by collectors. Morton has already begun exhibiting his body-paint photographs working with the See.Me Gallery and Lambert Fine Arts in Manhattan.
“I’ve sold a few pieces to art investors, which makes me feel good that they’ve invested in my work.”
Over time, his models have ranged from ages 18 to 55, primarily women.
Morton says he has painted and photographed men, but says we’re still in a “period of time” where works featuring the male body aren’t as sought after.
The reactions of his subjects really buoy Morton, he says, mentioning one particular woman who shared a story with him.
“Her daughter was like ‘Mom, you’ve got a piece of art that goes on forever,’” he says.
Morton’s artistry – and art in general – is a big part of life in the Morton family. His wife, Donna, is in marketing so lends a hand on the business side of this endeavor.
The couple, parents of boys ages 5 and 8, also take frequent family trips to museums, and their boys are already budding artists developing a savvy eye.
Morton talks proudly of his older son examining a painting.
“He’ll come back to me and say ‘Daddy, why is the shadow on one side?’”
Morton clearly delights in sharing the impact art has had on him.
“I’ve had a lot of painters who I’d say have influenced me with my photography,” he says. And now, he’s drawing on that knowledge in this new work.
“There were times when I was running around here throwing paint like Jackson Pollock. Other times I would think about how I’d light it and think about Rembrandt and van Gogh.”
THE TRULY PERSONAL
Getting into this newest direction has raised at least a few eyebrows, Morton admits. Everyone wants to know if he gets in trouble at home.
“The number one question. We laugh… Everyone says ‘What did your wife say?’”
Donna, on hand for the morning demonstration, clearly is at ease with her husband’s work, noting she has seen him “more inspired” here as he has both complete artistic freedom and serves as his own boss.
Such support, Morton says, is invaluable.
“It’s wonderful having a wife who’s so behind you. It means the world.”
And for the art itself? Some people will appreciate the artistry of it and others just never will.
“It’s always beauty in the eye of the beholder,” Donna adds.
But Morton is confident his work is finding an audience.
“Here in Westchester we have a lot of people who are really into the arts. They favor the arts. They take their sculpture seriously, what they put on their walls.”
So the question must be asked – has Donna ever posed for her husband?
Accompanied by a hearty laugh, Morton says: “She’s on the top of my bucket list.”
But true to form, even if she does pose, the anonymous image that might result will never give up its secret.
That’s the beauty of his work, Morton says.
“You can stretch the imagination, and I like the idea of letting people stretch the imagination.”
For more details, visit stephenEmorton.com or email Morton at email@example.com.