Linda Mason is a British born; New York based artist, best known for applying thick, painterly strokes of bright colour to the face and body. Originally from a coastal town in the North East of England, Mason has forged a career in art that has spanned decades and taken her all over the world. In the 60s, she studied with Lancome in Paris and later worked for them in Beirut. On returning to Paris in the 70s, Mason worked as a model and then as a freelance makeup artist. She was a pioneer in turning runway shows and fashion shoots into something more akin to the theatrical performances they are today. After moving to New York in the 80s, Mason launched her own cosmetics company and continued her work as a makeup artist, collaborating with some of the most renowned photographers of that time. She began exhibiting and selling her paintings, mixed media collages, photography and glass art, published numerous books and in the 90s opened a shop meets gallery in Soho.
It was there that I first met the artist in the summer of 2013, shortly before it closed. I wandered in; drawn inside by the soft, cool greys and whites of its industrial-style design juxtaposed with the vibrant colours of the artwork splashed across every wall and surface. It had the sense of being in dialogue with the city, rather than belonging to it – like the space between those four walls was a law unto itself. I was fortunate enough to meet Mason a second time four years later. Again, in the summer, but this time on the bench of a London train station, briefly punctuating her journey back to New York from her hometown of Sunderland. Suitcase in tow, we sat down to chat about the landscape of her life in art: past, present and future.
Growing up, did you want to be an artist? Or do you feel like it chose you?
I would have loved to be a choreographer. I loved the ballet. So that was sort of a dream, but I didn’t go far enough with dance. I guess in a way I would have liked to be an artist but in those days you didn’t look upon art as a job and it wasn’t terribly serious to go to art college. My parents were bakers and confectioners. They had sweet shops, a family business. Nobody had gone to college or university or anything like that so the idea of going – I thought it was attractive, but it wasn’t something I could do.
Did you know you wanted to work with makeup?
I didn’t necessarily want to go into makeup even though I really loved it, because I didn’t know exactly what it entailed. I admired Barbara Daly – I thought she was fantastic. She was a really fabulous makeup artist in London in the 70s who worked with all of the top photographers and did beautiful work. So I admired her a lot but I didn’t realise there was any such thing as a freelance makeup artist. When somebody explained the job to me and booked me then everything started falling into place. Of course, I also had to make things happen.
What has motivated you throughout your career?
I like challenges. That was why the shop had to come to an end, because I needed a new challenge. I had it for 15 years and that was a challenge in itself, keeping a shop open for that amount of time in New York. But I felt like I had done it. I had loved it, I had enjoyed it, and now I have other things I want to move on to.
When you moved to Beirut at such a young age, did that require some courage?
It did, but it was an adventure. I had the opportunity to go to either Germany or Beirut and I followed my instincts. The one in Germany was the sensible choice but I didn’t do it. I went into the unknown and had a fabulous time – made some wonderful friends and great memories.
You’ve lived in a few of the major cities around the world. Are there any of them that you feel are particularly fertile ground for creative energy? Or does that come from within?
I feel different in different places. New York, for example, has a harsh type of energy that you can tap into.
In the 80s in New York there were feminist art movements led by groups like the Guerilla Girls. Were you aware of those as they were going on?
No, I was just getting on with my life. Similarly, when the 60s were happening in London I was in Paris and Beirut. I was always in a different place or on the side when things were happening.
You worked as a model for a few years. From the outside we sometimes see models as the oppressed of the fashion industry, or as having less agency. Was that your experience of modelling?
No, I found it was sort of freeing. Of course, you would see girls – they would get them excited and build them up and in the end they couldn’t care less about them. But many of the models I have known have a steadiness and solidity to them that kept their careers going. They didn’t get burnt out or used. And that’s definitely the case nowadays, those girls have got brains in their heads. In my case, I was lucky because I did a lot of fashion work and learnt a lot about the industry. My mother had always been interested in fashion. If there was a Dior gown on the front of the newspaper, a week later she was wearing it. So there was always this very strong fashion side to me. My childhood with my mother prepared me to work with designers. And modelling, I worked with incredible designers: haute couture designers, ready-to-wear designers who actually made the clothes on me. You saw the way they worked, the materials, all of that.
Modelling also influenced my work as a makeup artist. It was the late 70s, I was working with people like Jean-Paul Gaultier who were just beginning, and being incredibly creative and I felt the makeup was lagging behind the fashion, it just needed a total overhaul. So, even for art, that was all a great background. You’re training your eye and seeing the whole thing coming together.
Some women have a disempowering relationship with makeup because they feel it’s meant to cover their flaws or enhance features they don’t have, but your work turns that on its head as it’s more creative and subversive…
Makeup is about expressing yourself. Ultimately, the fun of it is being able to have knowledge of colour and knowledge of the texture of the products so you can play with it.
When you’re applying a style of makeup that’s quintessentially Linda Mason-esque: meaning more like war paint, mystical, tribal – do you feel a shift in the energy of the woman you’re working with?
I do. I think they’re sort of hidden behind it, so they can let go. I mean, not always. But usually they can sort of let go. They can relax, they can move more. As far as makeup’s concerned, putting bold colours across the face – why not? Look at all these tattoos people have, those are permanent. Even colouring your hair, you can’t undo that either for a while. I’m surprised that people don’t do more with their makeup.
You’ve talked about helping people to discover a part of themselves through makeup, especially in moments where they may be a little lost. Is that something you started to do intuitively or did it come from personal experience?
It’s taken from personal experience. I find that, as far as I’m concerned, if I’m not feeling good and I take a little bit of extra time doing my makeup and being good to myself, I feel much better.
The Wall Street Journal once wrote that you took face painting out of punk and into high fashion. Do you identify with the rebellious spirit that’s synonymous with punk?
I saw my mother being told she couldn’t do things. She was this little woman in the 50s who was saying ‘Why can’t I do this? Why not?’ And I think, watching her do that, I learnt to be contradictory, to go against the grain.
You have a strong, independent streak that comes through in your art and in your career. Does that come naturally to you or did you have to cultivate it within yourself?
I think it’s always been in me. It’s not that I haven’t worried at times and gone through hesitating periods, not wanting to do things on my own. But then I realise that I can. You need that survival quality. I’m a survivor. But equally, I’ve just recently come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have to always be my way. I can work with other people and accept their ideas.
When you were working with designers, some of them gave you carte blanche and others gave you more input in terms of what you were doing with the makeup. Did you have a preference for either style of working?
No, I liked both. It depended on how talented they were. If somebody had a handle on their designs, if somebody really had their act together as far as being a designer was concerned, then the makeup just flowed. If somebody was hesitating, and not decisive about the direction, then it was an awful lot harder.
As your career developed did you have a clear picture in your mind of what you wanted your life to look like or did things progress organically?
I think it’s the timing. Everything fell into place at the right time. I really believe that if you keep working hard at whatever’s in front of you – whatever you’re doing – and learning from that, then that prepares you for the opportunities that can come along. And you don’t know what’s going to come along. I didn’t actively pursue a career in makeup but it happened when I was ready for it. Also things might not come from the directions you think they’re going to. But they do happen when you’re ready for them.
Were there any points in your career when you wondered: ‘What comes next?’
There were. That’s why I went to the States; I thought I wanted to become a film director. It was an awakening I had. I loved doing makeup so much and when you’ve found something you’re so crazy about, you do think: ‘ Well, is there anything else?’ But I had a job working with a Japanese photographer. He was doing a film and he didn’t speak French, didn’t speak English, so I had to understand what he wanted without any language. I understood what he was looking for without being able to talk about it through what he was asking for makeup and hair wise. So I actually took a summer course in film at NYU, which was a lot of fun. And then I got into the makeup again. I thought I’d be working a lot more because I’d been working so much in Paris but I wasn’t, so it was good, I had down time to start drawing and to work on some projects. I started painting. I had an apartment where I had beautiful high ceilings and wonderful light and one day I was so mad about something I went out and got some canvases and brushes and just started throwing stuff at the canvases. Then I started to work with some really incredible photographers who were up-and-coming, like Steven Meisel. It was such a different world and so exciting. So it all sort of flowed.
Working as an artist have you felt the need over the years to balance creative pursuits with practical concerns or have they gone hand in hand?
Well, I do portraits. You could look upon that as practical but it’s wonderful because it’s the same contact with people and process of discovering people that you have as a makeup artist, which I really love. When you’re doing makeup you discover the person through talking with them. And then doing portraits, you also connect with them. Even if it’s just over an hour, even half an hour, you get the idea… you get an understanding of this beautiful personality and this beautiful inner thing that you want to put on canvas. And I really believe as far as my company is concerned, my products and my cosmetic ideas, that I have something that is totally original and different from everybody else.
What does your work life look like today?
I have a couple of big projects I’d like to do and some smaller art projects. I have a close friend from Sunderland who lives in Los Angeles and we’ve got a show next spring in the desert, I’m very excited about that. I’m so used to doing things on my own, so that’s sort of interesting. After the shop closed, I wanted to do installations, so that was how I ended up doing the exhibition at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland in 2015. It wasn’t the original proposal I had made to them but I was very happy to do it because I worked with incredible people. Only after I’d done that show did I start to figure out the type of thing I wanted to do next, which is on a much bigger scale. I started to have more confidence. I mean, now is when I should have confidence. For some people it comes too early. I always say slow and steady wins the race. There’s a time for everything.
How have your experiences up until now shaped you?
Everybody has, by my age, hopefully met some incredible people in their lives. The last year I had the shop I met a crazy young guy in his twenties. He was very much ahead of his time and unfortunately he’s no longer with us. But he was incredibly encouraging to me and to other friends of his. He had this vision and an attitude, which, unfortunately for him, he was too young to be able to… he felt like he didn’t have much time, and he didn’t. So he wasn’t able to do all of the things he wanted to do.
In any case, meeting certain people, like him, and breaking down certain barriers inside of myself, I’ve now got to the point where I know what I want to do. They’re very big projects, but I now feel able to do them while also having more balance in my life. I used to be this workaholic. I started my cosmetic company in the late 80s and became frantic about it. I realised my daughter didn’t have an easy childhood because of that. I was always preoccupied. Now I feel like I’m just at a different stage in my life.
Now I know people. You can never do things on your own, it really is about the team. And I have that team because of the way that I’ve lived and because of the shop and the relationships I’ve developed. I’ve realised every piece of life is part of that big picture. I feel like I’m on track. It’s been a long journey but I do think everything is for a reason and whatever’s supposed to happen will happen.
You mentioned your daughter… in the sense that art is a filter through which we see the world and a mother is the filter through which a child sees the world, do you feel that a relationship exists between those two roles?
I do. I guess I try to see the beauty in everything, so I want other people to see that. And in terms of art, there are so many horrific films these days. I don’t go to watch movies like that. I feel like there is so much in the world that’s absolutely horrific. So, to go to see a movie showing a disaster… I don’t know why people do it. I mean I’d rather have something that made me laugh.
You have a quote about a person’s life being the most important piece of artwork they will ever paint. A problem that younger generations come up against in an age of unlimited travel, unlimited communication and unlimited options is that they don’t know where to start. They get blinded by the whiteness of the canvas. Do you have any advice on how to overcome that?
I wish I did, I would have given it to my daughter. It’s true; it’s a lot more difficult now. I think it’s that thing of, whatever you choose to do, do it one hundred per cent. There were times in Paris when I was working as a nanny… then I sold ties. But I knew I was only doing it for a certain amount of time and I loved every minute of it. I made it so that it was fun. It wasn’t even really an effort; it’s more a way of life. If you can’t manage to do that then you’ve just got to change. You’ve got to be able to look at the people you’re working with, look around you, look at what you’re doing, look at what you’re learning and be able to enjoy it. Even doing summer jobs, I learnt so much. I didn’t earn very much but I managed to survive.
I think if you go into something, you just have to give it everything. Give it everything, because you learn from everything. No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s working at McDonald’s or wherever. If you do that then you’ll come across that thing that you’re passionate about. I’ve also come to the realisation that you don’t have to go millions of miles across the water to find happiness. You can find it where you are. It is good to go places but you have to know that you’re always giving something up too. Things usually work out.
Images courtesy of Linda Mason Gallery
Written by Sabrina Ceol.
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