Pregnancy art gives baby bumps an expanding role from henna tattoos to castings

05/10/2014 1:00 PM

05/16/2014 3:39 PM

Behold the baby bump — decorated, celebrated and ready for its Facebook close-up. When Melissa Johnson-Stewart of Liberty was pregnant with her second child, Olivia, she hired a body painter to decorate her swollen tummy. She had it painted like a Christmas ornament for her December baby. She loved it so much she did the same with her third child, whose bump briefly became a big ol’ orange pumpkin before she delivered Jamal in October. “I was basically documenting their arrival and how excited we were,” said Johnson-Stewart, 38, an account executive for CBS Outdoor. “That’s really what it all boils down to. And to have something different that I felt was meaningful to us.” Pregnancy belly art has taken on a life of its own. For starters, belly painting. Mommies like Johnson-Stewart hire body artists to draw anything and everything onto their stomachs. (Our favorite: a bun in an oven.) Hip (and more patient) mamas go with henna, embellishing their bumps with elaborate, tattoo-like designs that last a few weeks. And check out the keepsake belly: a 3-D casting of the bump to hang on the living room wall. “A large, pregnant belly is hard to ignore. For some women, it’s a canvas there’s something about our pregnant bellies and curves that begs to be adorned,” writes one Oregon mom on Pinterest, where she has posted a gallery of bodacious bellies. One has a pregnancy belly ring dangling from the belly button. Yeah, they make those. Belly painting: ‘Like a spa treatment’ Kristi Darby had her tiny pots of vegan body paint mixed by the time she arrived at Wendy Orlando’s home in Lenexa a few weeks ago. Orlando was ready, too. Sitting on a chair at her kitchen table, she wore black leggings and a black sports bra, her belly fully exposed. “I’ve seen this online,” said Orlando, who sells real estate for Reece & Nichols. “It’s just a fun way to have a memory of what I looked like at this moment.” Celebrity moms have fed the belly-painting craze. In March 2011, when singer Mariah Carey was pregnant with twins, she had a blue-and-pink butterfly painted onto her huge bump, calling it her “attempt at festiveness.” Some women like an audience and have their stomachs painted at a baby shower. Darby, a body painter who owns the Pigment Pie company, paints most of her baby bumps in more private settings. Orlando wanted a photo of her painted stomach for the nursery. The baby, a boy due July 6, will be the fourth child in her and Damon Earnshaw’s blended family. Her stomach was so big that she couldn’t see past her belly button as Darby painted. After about 45 minutes, Darby handed her client a mirror to get a good look. “Oh my gosh,” Orlando gushed when she saw the little gray elephant now sitting on her tummy. “Look how cute he is.” Dumbo elephants are conservative on the belly-art spectrum. A quick Google search for “belly art” demonstrates how creative — we mean creepy — some women get. Sweet ladybugs, sporty Jayhawks and seasonal poinsettias are child’s play compared with the unsettling image of a baby trying to rip his way out of Mommy’s tummy. The most eye-catching designs, perhaps obviously, are round. “Pumpkins are easy to do,” said MJ Matthews, owner of Sister Act Face Painting in Overland Park. Orlando was 29 weeks along in her pregnancy, an optimal time because the stomach “is that great basketball shape” by the seventh and eighth month, Matthews said. Some painters don’t like to work on clients beyond the eighth month because mommies are starting “to get miserable and uncomfortable,” Matthews said. Another concern: The baby might come, which happened to Matthews in April when one of her clients went into labor on the day they were supposed to paint. The painting would have been less painful. The strokes of a tiny brush against skin can lull a frazzled mommy. Said one mom who fell asleep in a rocking chair as Matthews painted her: “Oh my gosh, this is like a spa treatment.” Orlando’s baby behaved perfectly, not moving much at all. Squirmy baby? Squirrelly design. “It’s a really weird sensation,” Darby said. “I’ll be painting a flower and the leaf is way down there when I’m finished because the baby moved an elbow.” Henna art: ‘Not for every woman’ When Olathe middle-school teacher Laurie Heisel got pregnant more than three years ago, she knew her second child would be her last. So she wanted to do something special, “kind of a celebration for my last pregnancy.” She called her high school friend Kaci Story, owner of KC Henna in Harrisonville. Story decorated Heisel’s belly with an elaborate, lacy design of butterflies, flowers and scrolls. When baby Eleanor was born two weeks later, the decoration was faint but still visible. “It was kind of nice for me to know that it was there,” said Heisel, 32. “The doctor thought it was really cool.” Like belly paintings, temporary henna art — a prenatal tradition in some cultures — has gotten a bump in popularity because of celebrities. Singer Alanis Morissette tweeted a photo of her baby bump adorned with henna tattoos when she was pregnant with her son four years ago. Story, who has created henna art for the last decade, teaches classes around Kansas City on the science and history of the tropical henna plant, long used to dye hair and skin. “Kansas City is still about 10 years behind, so I do far more education than actual design work,” she said. “But in the last five years it’s gotten way more popular.” Creating henna pregnancy art is much more time-consuming and involved than a typical, one-hour belly-painting session, so Story is straight with potential clients. “I don’t do every bump that comes my way,” she said. “We have a consultation and a lot of moms are go-go-go. They see it and they want want that beauty. But for others, the thought of sitting for eight hours is terrifying.” Heisel relaxed in a comfy chair in her living room as Story decorated her belly. “It’s amazing to watch her work because all of her designs have so much detail,” she said. She felt pampered to have something so beautiful on her body at a time when she was feeling, well, “huge.” It also kinda made her feel like a cake being frosted. Story puts the henna paste inside tiny cones with tips, like a baker’s icing bag, and squeezes the henna onto the skin, drawing every design freehand. The drawing took an hour and a half, but that was just the first part. Once the henna dries, moms have to wait carefully to let the dye soak into the skin; that’s the “sitting for eight hours” part. Then they scrape or flake off the dried paste, revealing the design underneath. It takes a day or two for the color to darken. Designs last from one to two weeks. “It seems part of it is therapy,” said Story, a mother of two. “It takes the right person to do baby bellies. It’s a really human, connecting experience.” Belly castings: ‘A real litmus test’ Jennifer Edwards sees her formerly pregnant belly every time she walks up and down the stairs of her Northland home. “When you walk in my front door and turn to the left you can see this crazy belly hanging on the wall,” she said, laughing. “My grandma is appalled she thinks it’s the most repulsive thing.” But little Peter, her first-born who is now 2, loves seeing it there. “My son and I often stop and talk about ‘the belly’ and how he was in Mommy’s tummy when the cast was made,” said Edwards, 29, the local manager for a St. Louis-based wireless company. “He loves to be lifted up so he can kiss the belly.” The piece was created by husband-and-wife artists Andy and Jackie Resch, owners of Divine Designs Lifecasting in Independence. Parents themselves, they’ve been creating pregnancy castings for about six years. “Personally, I think there’s nothing more beautiful than a pregnant lady,” said Andy Resch, an artist of 30 years who belongs to the Association of Lifecasters International. “It’s funny because it’s a real litmus test for people. They either think this is the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen and or it’s ‘Why would anyone want this hanging in their house?’ ” A pregnancy casting can take many shapes: neck to knees, belly only, belly and breasts, belly and hands cradling the bump. “The most popular one is the full-on, high-definition everything neck to the waistline,” Resch said. “It depends on how she feels in her skin and how well she’s doing with her pregnancy.” Edwards, fascinated by the big “basketball tummy” she grew, went full-on and had the couple create a cast from her neck down to the top of her pelvic bone. The finished product shows everything: voluminous pregnancy breasts, big pregnancy nipples. The process is messy and gooey and, yes, Mommy is mostly naked the whole time. “Every once in a while you get someone for whom the whole nudity thing is a big thing,” Resch said. “But people tend to forget that they’re not wearing much.” That’s how it was for Edwards when the Resches went to her house and set up a workspace in her kitchen. Edwards’ mom was there to watch. “They were very professional and never made me feel uncomfortable or awkward despite the fact that I was 8 1/2 months pregnant, naked from the waist up and being covered with goo and small strips of plaster,” Edwards said. Resch likens the casting process to “getting an impression done of your teeth at the dentist.” In fact, the product he uses to create the mold, a compound called alginate that contains seaweed, is basically the same substance used to make dental impressions. They smooth it onto the woman’s body with their hands, working quickly because it sets up quickly. Before it hardens, they press strips of cotton gauze into it to give the next layer something to stick to. Over that they build up five or six layers of plaster gauze strips. After about 20 minutes, it’s time to pull the mold from the belly, carefully. Before they tell the mom to hit the showers they check to make sure “there are no catastrophic failures that would cause us to redo it,” Resch said. While Mom is getting cleaned up, he mixes the casting product to pour into the mold, again working quickly because the alginate compound shrinks as it’s exposed to air. The casting must sit untouched for at least a week before Resch finishes it. “This isn’t just pull it out of the mold, slap a coat of paint on it and have a nice day,” he said. If a woman has an imperfection she doesn’t want to show, he will fix it. He sands off scars, patches holes left from piercings. Some moms want their casts decorated. He has applied seashells, silk roses and appliques to castings. Painted, gold-leafed, bronzed and otherwise gilded, belly castings can take on museum-quality life. From start to finish, a casting takes three to four weeks to create. When Edwards saw hers, plain and white at her request, she was speechless. It still gives her goose bumps. “We make another human being inside of us. That’s Earth-shattering,” she said. “It’s crazy to think about. And that is the constant reminder that my body is amazing and so blessed.” So sorry, Grandma. The belly stays on the wall.

How much does it cost?

• Belly painting: Pigment Pie charges $30. pigmentpie.com. Sister Act Face Painting’s prices depend on design, location and time of year. Sisteractfacepainting.com.

• Henna art: KC Henna charges $80 for the first hour, then $70 an hour after that. A session can last 20 minutes to an hour or two depending on how detailed the design. kchenna.com.

• Belly casting: Divine Designs Lifecasting charges $85 to $100 for the most basic castings and as much as $800 or more for larger ones. bluberrybuddy.wix.com/ddlcs.

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