Artist Martha Villa makes up her city
From the outside, Martha Villa’s home blends in with the other modest buildings in her quiet Outer Richmond neighborhood.
Inside, however, it’s a shrine to the strange.
Wolfman vampire teeth are stacked on a bookshelf. A plaster face mold stares up from her living room floor.
Today, she’s transforming her longtime friend and frequent model Kristina Orlova, who’s eagerly investigating one of Villa’s new liquid foundation colors.
Villa has been doing tarot card readings for decades, and recently began creating her own card deck. Using her friends as models, she does their makeup and photographs them as the various archetypes. The empress. The devil. The fool. And today, a gypsy.
“All right,” says Villa, clapping her hands. “And the magic begins!”
She pulls a tube of jet-black liquid from a makeup box the size of a small suitcase. She will use it to give Orlova a dramatic look.
“Her eyes have to mesmerize you,” Villa explains. “They have to grab you from across the room.”
Orlova has worked with many different makeup artists in her decades-long modeling career. Villa, she says, has something special.
“Not everyone who’s trying to get the look or the shot they’re trying to get can get you to relax and get you to deliver that image,” says Orlova. “She has a really great sense of humor, so she makes you laugh...so it really becomes fun.”
Villa’s fascination with makeup began during her teenage years in the early ‘80s, with a very teenage obsession: rock stars.
“Watching all these makeup artists doing these great works on all these different singers, from Annie Lennox to Boy George, that was inspiring,” says Villa. “I thought, ‘I think I want to do this.’”
At age 18, she paid her way through beauty school with money she’d saved working at the old Woolworths in downtown San Francisco. Her first gig came from a customer.
“I just had a little art box, made out of wood, that I took all my oil paints out of and put in whatever makeup I had, and I considered myself ready,” says Villa.
She had no idea how big her big break would be.
The show was the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame — an Academy Awards-style gala held in Oakland celebrating African-American achievement in cinema. She was shocked and nervous but impressed the backstage crew.
“They were like, ‘girl, just add more color, just don’t be afraid!’”, says Villa.
She had found her calling.
“To paint on someone’s face was so exciting, because afterwards you ended up with this incredible masterpiece,” says Villa.
She worked behind the scenes for years at local fashion shows, and even made up models at a Versace runway extravaganza. But over time, she tired of the industry’s diva complexes and predictable formulas, and found a world where her creativity could run free: San Francisco’s drag scene.
“I would have a lineup of 15 gay men that would come to me every year to get makeup done for a party,” says Villa. “And I would have to do makeup on each one of them to match their outfit, and then they’d go out to the Castro and just run amok.”
Making men into drag queens was no easy feat - especially when the would-be women were football players.
“I walk in and there’s like this room full of giants,” says Villa. “The shoulders were huge, the muscles were rippling. I was thinking, ‘wow, how am I going to pull off a woman’, you know? I mean, they look like the Incredible Hulk! It was amazing to see them transform.”
While Villa loves the flamboyant fun of the drag scene, her true love is monster makeup. Her face lights up as she explains how to create a “realistic” zombie bite.
“If something were actually to bite you you’d have that raised area, because the body’s reacting off the bite,” says Villa as she points to a picture of Orlova’s zombie wound. “So I have to create a layer of latex over her own skin.”
Her greatest monster muse is her son, Michael Chua, whom she has been transforming into classic horror movie villains since he was old enough to walk.
Chua has fond memories of raising hell at Halloween.
“We made gelatin that had boils coming off of my skin with things oozing out of them,” says Chua, recalling one of his favorite elementary-school costumes. “I remember walking down the street, and all of these kids would flee before me.”
Now Chua is 30 and does his own makeup for costume parties. He and Villa attend events and theme parties together, from zombie proms to steampunk costume balls - like one recently.
“I went to a store and got these fake ram horns and attached them to a headband and I did just all this insane makeup,” says Chua. “And people wanted to take pictures with me the entire ball! It was really a great experience.”
Chua dares anyone skeptical of makeup as an art form to take a closer look.
“It’s really just painting on a living canvas,” says Chua.
The living canvas in Villa’s living room is ready for the great reveal.
“It’s the moment of truth!” says Orlova.
Villa takes photos of Orlova to immortalize the look for her future tarot cards.
Her approach to work is decidedly playful, but she’s guided by an artistic philosophy that’s more than skin deep.
“It’s simply to help people see the beauty I see inside of them and help them express it as a side of themselves they can’t on their own,” says Villa. “This is what brings joy for them. They can see what they’ve always imagined.”
And imagination is the key to true transformation.