The use of tattooing and piercing has long been a means for cultures to represent both their individual and group identity outwardly to others. These markings and body modifications serve to tell the story of an individual in a way that is meaningful to them. Local artist Gil Croy has taken his own spin on this concept and is creating an art movement within the community which serves to tell the story of the LGBT community. What started out as a fundraising event for the 2011 AIDS Walk has blossomed into a three-year initiative called The Human Canvas Project which will include a host of artists, models and ideas as Croy turns the human form into the ultimate canvas.

Croy, a native of Montgomery Ala., studied interior design and stage design in Mississippi and Georgia before moving to Charlotte. He began a career in visual design working for Ivey’s department store in Charlotte and later moving to New York to work with Macy’s and Dillard’s designing large scale windows.

While in New York, Croy began working with paint and entered several art shows. It was at this time that he discovered his passion for the medium and continued to paint when he moved back to Charlotte. Croy has dedicated much of his artistic energy working within the LGBT community and using his talents to support organizations and fundraising events.

In March 2011, Croy was working on an art project for the AIDS Walk. He painted plus signs along his body and modified the images into colorful graphic photographs. Croy began to consider doing more with the body painting following this project and continued with the concept for a photo shoot surrounding the 2011 Pride Charlotte event. Croy created a “pride tribe,” a mix of people from all backgrounds in the LGBT community painted head to toe in bright vibrant colors with tribal designs. During Pride Charlotte, he also had several of his pride tribe walking around the event fully painted.

Since the start, The Human Canvas Project has grown both in size, as well as in its vision. One major shift has been that Croy is drawing upon the individual stories of the models to help guide his hand in painting them and deciding on the locations for photo shoots.

“I send all of my models a questionnaire to learn more about them and what they are inspired by before designing the shoot,” Croy explains. “For example, I have a guy that I am using in my next photo shoot and the concept is based on his experiences. He was in an abusive relationship 10 years ago and he took some severe physical damage and was hospitalized. It was because of this relationship that he had developed problems with his self-esteem and you have to see where he is now, it is just amazing. He has such a great personality, always smiling. After hearing his story, I designed this tribal phoenix design for his photo shoot. It is more about him coming back from something that was very traumatic and rebuilding himself to greatness. He is 50-years-old and you would think he is 30 because of the way he takes care of himself and his pride.”

Croy says that he has learned a lot about the LGBT community and people in general through his work with this project. “It has been fascinating to discover that we all have the same issues” says Croy. “No matter who we are, what we look like, where we came from, our socio-economic status, we all face the same human issues. A lot of LGBT people have the same issues, especially in my generation and older, especially when looking at the fact that we had to wait so much longer before we could come out. Today’s youth are breaking down the barrier and coming out and being who they are at a younger age and I believe they are carrying this movement forward.”

Being a part of the project has had an impact on the models and artists involved, as well. “I can take a group of people that have never met one another, paint them and witness the comradery that happens between them. Black, White, Asian, Latino, we are taking any nationality and there is a reason for that” explains Croy. “Once you put that paint on and you make the human form into a sculpture of these bright colors, they really come alive. There is this thing that clicks into people’s mind and it is so much fun to see, it is like watching them become a kid again. But, at the same time, it is eliminating any barriers because you have eliminated anything physically that normally we would relate to.”

“People look at themselves in the mirror after I paint them and say ‘this is so cool’ and I tell them ‘it’s you.’ It is coming from within and now even more since I am interviewing and learning more about the models and interpreting their story” says Croy.

Croy believes that the vision of the project will evolve even more as it moves closer to the halfway point of its three-year time-span. He explains that “the last year and a half of the project will be the point where I can say ‘this is why I am doing this for the community.’”

When asked about his goal for the culmination of the project, Croy states that he would love to see all of the participants in the individual shoots come back together for one large photo shoot to possibly serve as a fundraiser for the community; the entire human canvas tribe together as one.

Croy is also currently designing a mural that will wrap around the White Rabbit building once approved by the city. Given the location of the LGBT store, the mural would be seen by all as they enter into Plaza Midwood, an area of Charlotte known for its LGBT friendly businesses and nightlife. “I believe the moment we start working on this mural it will help to pull the community together” states Croy. “We, as a community, have nothing here that really pulls us together. I am hoping that this mural will help to break down the barriers within our own community and help build unity amongst LGBT people here in Charlotte. We need something that is uniquely ours and I think this mural will bring attention to our community in a positive light.”

For more information about Gil Croy and The Human Canvas Project,
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All photography by Gil Croy.

O'Neale Atkinson

O'Neale Atkinson is a former editor of QNotes, serving in the position from Jan. 23, 2012 to June 15, 2012. His first issue as editor was published on Feb. 4, 2012. His last issue was published June 23,...