We speak to the artist and activist about the evolution of their naked paint parties and the performative nature of gender presentation
From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.
The first time photographer and artist Landyn Pan fully understood the importance of their Naked Paint Party shoots was when a trans teen messaged them to say how affirming and refreshing it was to see so many non-binary stories being told. An intimate, joyful series, the naked paint parties document celebratory gatherings where trans and gender nonconforming people get naked and paint each other. It’s a process that sees the attendees open up emotionally, as well as physically, sharing vulnerable conversations with each other around identity and their relationships to their bodies.
Trans masculine, non-binary, and queer themselves, Pan started the parties initially as a way to confront their own discomfort with their body, before deciding to continue to give other trans people the same uplifting, affirming feelings they experienced from the shoot. As with much of their work, however, it also stemmed from feelings of frustration with trans representation in the mainstream media which is so unreflective of the variation of identity and gender presentation they see around them.
“The most visible trans influencers tend to be white, cis-passing, and gender conforming,” Pan says. “There are so many more narratives and experiences out there and, unfortunately, stories from trans people of colour or from people who may have transitioned in a non-linear way or chose not to medically transition are not easy to find.”
Taking matters into their own hands, Pan set out to make the change themselves. From the naked paint parties to a series that queerifies iconic masculine heartthrob archetypes, Pan’s photography captures and celebrates trans, non-binary, and queer people in all their glory. Full of fun and unapologetic joy, the work is colourful, campy and free, allowing space for a freedom of experience and variation of self that we rarely get to see depicted in the media and showcasing and honouring people and their bodies for exactly what they are.
We speak to Pan about collecting Coke bottle caps as a teenager, the evolution of their naked paint parties, and the performative nature of gender presentation.
Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Landyn Pan: I’ve always been conscious of my appearance, but I think I thought about it more in fourth grade when I enrolled in a new school and my mom had just cut off all of my super long hair. A lot of students and school staff read me as a boy and that was what really awakened my awareness of how I was perceived and how different gender presentations would mean different treatment.
Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Landyn Pan: I don’t think much of the media I loved had an impact on how I presented myself visually because while I’ve always been drawn to feminine aesthetics, I was never a girly person. My friends wanted to buy heels to wear them, I wanted to own heels to just look at them on a shelf because they were pretty. America’s Next Top Model was definitely the most influential TV show on me as a young creative, followed by Project Runway and during that entire time, I probably wore a big hoodie, jeans and sneakers every single day.
I also had all the major fashion and beauty magazines. In middle school, I noticed that if you collected bottle caps from Coke products, you could redeem My Coke Rewards points for tons of different prizes including magazines, so I would collect all my friends bottle caps and sometimes I’d even stand by the trash cans for a few minutes at the end of lunch and collect like 50 bottle caps. I got Allure, Elle, Vogue, Teen Vogue, Seventeen, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, W magazine, so many different publications that way and I would rip out spreads and ads and plastered my bedroom walls from floor to ceiling. I knew I wasn’t like my friends who related to or aspired to look like the girls in these magazines. I really was just drawn to the photography.
Why are you a photographer? What made you want to become one?
Landyn Pan: I like to say that photography is the love of my life because as someone with lots of sporadic and fleeting interests, I have tried and done so many different activities, but photography is one that has stayed persistent. I think it’s stuck around so long because I’ve allowed the meaning of the practice to evolve and be something different to me at different parts of my life.
I started photography in 8th grade as just a way to play around with my friends and mimic what we saw on Top Model. Then, I started to deepened my connection with photography when I started taking more meaningful portraits of other queer youth around Seattle. At 15, I was out as queer and really wanted to connect with literally as many other queer youth as possible. I would just find mutual friends on Facebook, add them and chat them up and if they were creative as well, we’d collaborate on some project. Then as I became more politicized later in high school, I started doing staged, conceptual photography in my home garage studio as a way to process my feelings about current events, news, and the societal injustices I learned about.
Now I am into portraiture again, this time with a more playful, theatrical tone as a way to play with presentation or tap into fantasy or hidden aspects of identity rather than the documentary type of portraiture I used to do.
Can you tell us a bit about your creative process, from initial idea to final image?
Landyn Pan: Usually I may start out with a vague idea – if I want to work with a specific person or on a specific theme – then I let that vague image in my head simmer and take the time to look for inspiration, create mood boards, listen to music to see if a specific song conjures up any visuals, and reflect on what specific imagery or details could mean. For my own personal work, I always wait for an ‘aha moment’ since I want to feel really genuinely passionate about creating something. It should come up organically so I really value quality over quantity.
Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject? What is your relationship to ‘beauty’ (whatever that word means to you)?
Landyn Pan: I do tend to capture a lot of beauty in my work, but it’s not always the focus or the intention. Take Naked Paint Party for example. The intention is not to capture beauty in the subjects or make viewers think the subjects of the photos are beautiful. I’m catching whatever they are bringing to the moment and sometimes people want to be weird, sometimes people are uncomfortable. Some people may see these photos and interpret them as beautiful, others might not. Either is fine. But, the experience of the photoshoot itself is something I find beautiful because we are in community with each other, letting our guard down and having a good time.
We like to call everything and everyone beautiful these days because that’s how much we as a society value the word ‘beauty’ and to me it can make the word a little empty. Not everyone wants to be beautiful or seen that way and I respect that. Something or someone doesn’t have to be beautiful to be worthy of admiration and respect.
What are the projects that you’re most proud of?
Landyn Pan: My first trans couples series with the hanging flowers and my masculine heartthrobs series just because it’s aesthetically going in the direction I want with my photos where there are built sets that look dramatic. The power that a little funding can have on the final product of images!
Your Naked Paint Party series is so full of both joy and intimacy. How did that project start?
Landyn Pan: I’m of the idea that you should face your fears front on and I was uncomfortable in my body a few years ago. A great fear of mine was being seen naked in front of other people. So, going by the logic I mentioned, that meant it was exactly the type of thing I should do. This is how the first naked paint party came about – just seven people and I in someone’s apartment painting on each other naked while another photographer and I documented the process. Surprisingly, it was easy to be naked with others and I felt so much joy and freedom throughout.
In the three or four years in between that event and turning the idea into a more intentional photo series, I thought about that day quite often. I restarted the project again because I wanted other trans people to have the opportunity to feel those same warm, uplifting and affirming feelings I felt on that first day, too.
Are you hoping to continue the series when it is once again safe to do so?
Landyn Pan: I would like to, but this is a very difficult project emotionally. Nudity is a highly, highly sensitive subject and I feel a lot of pressure to create a space without any mistakes. I have had massive anxiety during the week before every naked paint shoot and it takes all of my energy to push myself through that.
I am no longer sure if I’m the right person to continue this series. When I started the project, I was very critical of the way trans masculine individuals are portrayed in publications. When trans masc folk are present in the media, there is an over-celebration of muscular builds and gender-conformity. I want to be clear that I’m not criticising individuals who are just being themselves: I’m criticising the publications and the masses of people who seem to view a trans person looking cis as more valid.
I recently got into weightlifting and have become more muscular myself. I’ve fallen in love with fitness aside from aesthetics and it makes me feel very good in my body. Regardless of my intentions and my own narrative around fitness, I have become a part of the aesthetic that I have criticised for so long. I wonder if this changes the way I relate to the project or how others relate to the project with me as the creator. This project has always been about me helping others tell their stories, but ultimately, many participants become interested in the project through relating to me.
So… the truth is, I’m not sure if I will continue. But body-positivity, body-acceptance are very important values to me personally and they will continue to show up in my life and in my work in other ways.
What is it about bodies that fascinates you? What are you trying to convey about the body through your work?
Landyn Pan: Unlike fashion and hair style which can be curated and changed on a whim to your liking, you can’t really change your body that much. We are in our bodies forever and it’s supposed to be our home, a safe haven, but it’s hard to find that peace and agency when trans bodies are policed so heavily by everyone else.
The idea that looking cis is the gold standard and that hating your body is a requirement to be trans is forced on the trans community a lot, even from within the community itself. But there’s a massive variety in the way trans people view their own bodies and I wanted to explore to explore this while giving trans people themselves the power to share their own story. People in the shoots will speak on how they deal with their dysphoria, how they feel at peace in their bodies, the process they take to accepting themself, the struggles they have. It really ranges.
As well, the body is so expressive and emotive and I wanted to photograph that in an uninhibited way. I feel like we are all very used to posing certain ways for photos, but at the naked paint shoots, we’ve all been very encouraging of each other to be playful and to try different ways of moving and posing. It can definitely help you connect with yourself and feel good in your body.
Your masc heartthrob series takes traditional masculine archetypes and recasts them to be more diverse and queer. What did you want to say with that series? What impact do stereotypes like those in the series have on our collective consciousness?
Landyn Pan: I wanted to highlight the highly performative nature of gender presentation and I wanted to have a space to play with over-the-top, super externally masculine aesthetics, to cast masculinity in all its glorious sex appeal in the queer way that I want to see it. I believe that playing characters or taking on an alter ego of sorts for a day is a great way to open yourself up to a different side of your identity that you may find it hard to do otherwise.
When I conceptualised this project, it could’ve been a self-portrait series. I’m non-binary, but I walk through the world being seen as a man. I’m masculine presenting and that comes with a lot of expectations for how I should behave. Even other queer people have a preconceived notion of what I, as a masculine person, am. These expectations that don’t match my internal reality can make me dysphoric. I do not want to change the way I present in order to change people’s perception of who I am.
If I were to be in the shoot, it would’ve been a way to reclaim myself. I’m subverting the societal pressures of gender conformity by performing these masculine stereotypes on my own terms. Presenting these stereotypes in a photoshoot setting just drives home that it’s play, it’s dress-up, it doesn’t really show what a person is on the inside.
That’s what the shoot means to me as the creator. I know through private conversations that it means something different to the different subjects involved and it can mean something different to the viewers. I’m not tied to a specific perception of this shoot, it is what you want it to be.
What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Landyn Pan: Know your worth. Don’t be afraid to shoot your shot anywhere and everywhere. You never know what opportunities can come out of asking for what you want and the worst that can happen is you get a ‘no’.
Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?
Landyn Pan: @ggggrimes is an illustrator who draws portraits of queer and trans POC love, relationships, and sex. It’s some of the most stylistically cool, sexiest queer erotic art you and I will ever see. I’m getting hot just thinking about it!