During her pregnancy, Amber Blose had been touching her belly whenever the baby moved, counting the weeks to his arrival. But her son, Cameron, was in her arms a lot sooner than anticipated. Born prematurely, he died at 9 days old in April 2011.
Blose's elation turned to depression, then anger. She wanted to come to terms with this unexpected blow, but didn't know how — until she met artist Christalene Karaiskakis, who helped her begin the healing process.
Karaiskakis painted Blose from head to toe. At the body mural's center was a turtle that covered the C-section scar on her belly. It was surrounded by a calming mass of blue water that softly lit her face, chest and most of the rest of her.
"I sat there all those hours that I was having this art done, and I reflected," said Blose, a Glen Burnie resident. "I thought of the loss of my son, the anger, why it happened. And I talked about it."
At some point, she found herself at peace.
"I was able to let go — not let go of him, but of the pain. And the art was something beautiful that embraced what I had been through," she said.
Blose is one of many who've come to Karaiskakis' Annapolis studio to be painted. A self-taught artist, Karaiskakis paints her subjects' skin, sometimes performing Reiki, an ancient Japanese healing practice, in combination with the art. Sometimes her subjects are painted to celebrate a happy life event; other times, they're hoping to find peace after a difficult experience, like an illness or a loss.
Blose has returned to Karaiskakis two other times since.
After she was diagnosed with cancer, and bald from chemotherapy, she had her bare crown decorated to soften the blow of losing the hair. She came back to Karaiskakis not a year later, in remission now, this time with a happy story to illustrate: She was about to give birth to another son.
"As Christalene painted me two months before Jace was born, I felt like I had made it. It was like a full-circle reflection period," said Blose.
Karaiskakis says body painting is a spiritually transforming experience. And even though the paintings are intricate and take about two hours to complete, they wash off in the shower.
"It's like creating a sand mandala," Karaiskakis said. "Mandalas take hours to make, then are released into the river. I see body art the same way. It's not about the painting itself; it's about the process of creating it. It's about becoming enlightened [through expression], then letting go."
Karaiskakis rarely starts with a specific design in mind for her subjects. She begins only with the intention to help them tell their stories.
"I clear my mind of anything going on in my life so I can focus on the person. The ideas flow from their words and visions and feelings I receive," said Karaiskakis, who was born in South Africa and raised in Australia.
Karaiskakis started years ago, as a teacher's assistant doing face painting on kindergarteners.
She immigrated to the U.S. in 2006, then launched Crystalooneys Creative Arts in 2011, borrowing from the nickname gifted to her by the children. (The "Looney" is from Looney Tunes cartoons.) She and her six-women staff do body painting and face painting at festivals, showers, princess parties, birthday parties and corporate functions. They use nontoxic paints, applying them with a sponge or brush. Or they apply henna with a tip or cone.
In between celebratory events, Karaiskakis does art workshops and paints on fabric canvases. Her intricate, abstract work has been displayed at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the Anne Arundel Arts Council and bistros near her Annapolis home.
But the human body is the canvas that most intrigues Karaiskakis, who hangs her sign at festivals, where she charges for face paintings but paints pregnant bellies and bald heads for free.
"When I paint a pregnant belly, especially, it's amazing. I can feel the baby move. I visualize him or her, relaxed, flowing in the womb, just as my paintbrush glides on their mummy's tummy," said Karaiskakis, who does baby showers and baby blessings for a fee through her business.
Jeff Knowles met Karaiskakis at a festival where she was doing body and face painting. He had just finished a grueling round of treatments for lymphoma, and she painted him as a gift. She ended up performing Reiki on him, too.
Like body painting, Reiki is intended to promote wellbeing. It's based on the premise that practitioners can channel energy into a person's body using their hands. Karaiskakis sometimes performs this technique on her subjects as she paints them.
"During Reiki, I am already working with their energy and mine, just as when I do body art. And with both forms of healing, people have a chance to feel recharged and empowered," said Karaiskakis.
Knowles said the two practices fit well. During Reiki, Karaiskakis ran her hands over his head and shoulders.
"I felt like I could visualize static electricity or energy in those places. I felt like I could see light through my eyes, even though they were closed, as her hand passed by," he said. He described the experience as invigorating. "Yet Reiki was also calming and centering, as was the time that I reflected as an art subject."
Alternative therapies like Reiki can have beneficial effects, according to Dr. Fouad M. Abbas, director of obstetrics-gynecology oncology at the LifeBridge Health Alvin & Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute, which offers Reiki.
"They can engage patients in something other than [the negatives] of cancer," said Abbas. "Reiki can help individuals concentrate on what they can tangibly improve, such as decreasing their stress. If stress is brought down, patients often tolerate chemotherapy and cope with side effects in better ways."
These therapies can also provide a welcome distraction to patients with chronic illnesses. Karaiskakis has brought her art supplies into Hospice of the Chesapeake, where she has decorated sick children as fairy princesses, peacocks and superheroes for no charge.
"There's so much energy that goes into maintaining their lives, but face painting gives them a break," said Heather Silver, a licensed clinical social worker at the Pasadena facility. "They can ... express feelings and emotions they can't otherwise put into words."
Painting children, sick or healthy, brings instant gratification, even if it's just for a day, said Karaiskakis. "They sit in a chair and in minutes are transformed to who they want to be."
For adults, it's more about self-reflection.
"It's almost like a snake shedding skin, and they let go of each layer of emotion. But no matter a person's age, who they are or their circumstances," said Karaiskakis, "I've seen something positive come from healing art for everyone."
To learn more about Christalene Karaiskakis and body art, visit crystalooneys.com.