The Face Tainter

I survived sleep training and potty training mostly unscathed. I've gone through the terrible twos, and the more terrible threes. Twice.  But I am not sure I have yet experienced anything as daunting, in my short years of parenthood, as working the school carnival.

As the face painter.

For the record, it is even more stressful than Bouncy Castle Duty, although on the upside, you do not have to smell any feet.

I balked at the assignment--I have no artistic skills at all, you know. Not all creative people are all kinds of creative. Couldn't you have me sell cupcakes or something?

No, cupcakes was full. Next time I'm signing up earlier.

I liked Amy Flannagan's line on Twitter best: "They say I'm creative. I tell them I'll write tag lines on the kids' faces."

Kids. The other white meat.

And so there I was, promptly at at 12:30 on Saturday, trying to figure out how to combine some unraveling Q-tips, a set of paint brushes, a palate of paints, and a complete lack of talent into something resembling "face painting." It was like being handed some popsicle sticks, three staples and a jar of peanut butter and told to build a go-kart.

The first girls to arrive up at my station were mercifully easy on me--they wanted the backs of their hands painted, like tattoos. "A heart!" I suggested way too enthusiastically to one kindergartener. "Don't you want a pretty red heart on your hand?" Why yes, yes she did want a heart! A pretty red heart! And maybe a smaller, equally pretty red heart next to it? A "very cute baby heart?" as I put it.

I started to sweat less. I could totally do this job. Who needs talent when you have amazing sales skills? I could sell every kid on this playground a heart. Done!

Until I got to the kid who wanted a butterfly.

"Did you say a daisy? I bet you want a daisy on your cheek! It will be so pretty! Let's do a daisy!"

No, a butterfly. Or wait, make it two butterflies. One yellow with red and one red with yellow. This kid was not buying a daisy from me, not today and not ever. I gave in. A few shaky brush strokes later, the critters were complete: the world's first anorexic butterflies.

There's your creativity for you.

I held the small hand mirror to her face and she looked delighted. "You're a good artist!" she said.  I don't think her mother was thinking the same.

Over the next long (long) hour, my best customers were the ones who came to me on their own, parents nowhere in sight. In fact I avoided making eye contact with any person over about 4 feet tall, for fear they'd demand their three tickets back. (Hey Marjorie, I think we just paid $3 for a pink blob on my kid's cheek. Good thing this is a write-off.)

Children, as it turns out, are not discerning at all. Mostly, they are just happy to have someone draw something--anything--on their bodies. I got through a couple of fish with black smudges for eyes, a few more scrawny butterflies, and remarkably, one small panda for a third-grader. She called it cute. I beamed.

The entire time, I was having vivid flashbacks of my first job in high school: Hally and I were hired as cake decorators at Carvel. Mostly it was a matter of piping icing into cake borders or tracing lopsided turkeys or ballerinas onto sheet cakes with gel pens. For $3.16 an hour, the manager didn't seem too concerned with the highly mediocre quality of our work; until the one afternoon we spent a whole shift absorbed in giggles, painting punk rock faces on Deluxe Sundae Dinners with frosting and marascino cherry halves. We were scolded not for our ridiculous designs, but for using too many ingredients on a single cheap cake. (What? The almonds were the mohawk.) Pastry artistry is definitely not my calling. Although it was fun to dive into the giant vat of chocolate crunchies with a spoon.

Now, 25 years since, artistic skills haven't improved much, but at least the orders were easy to fill. Not one kid asking for a Spiderman face or a werewolf. Not one zebra or cheetah. Butterflies on cheeks ruled the day. I was feeling like I could actually get through this, dignity somewhat intact.

Then my worst fear materialized--the parents with the toddler.

Worse, they were parents with a toddler and a camera.

"Are you the artist?" the mother asked, eagerly handing me three pink tickets.

"Well, when you put it that way..." I said sheepishly, my voice trailing off. "Can we stick with something simple?"

I tried to convince the little boy to get a big star on his cheek. Or a lightning bolt. He was having none of it. I was about to suggest a vampire. How hard would it be to make two fangs? Or maybe he'd be okay with a bunch of red dots. He could have measles! Ack, maybe I should have prepped for this better?

"How about a cat?" the mother suggested, bless her. "I bet we can draw some whiskers. Or a bunny?  Do you want to be a bunny, sweetie?" The boy nodded enthusiastically.

One black nose and six thin, white, nearly straight lines later, he almost could pass for a bunny. Or you know, an otter. Either way.

I held up the mirror and watched his gorgeous eyes open even wider as a giant smile spread across his face. The father snapped more photos and I realized I would end up in some family's baby book, my artistry forever preserved in time.

Fortunately, the Dunk the Principal booth opened for business, drawing a big crowd and keeping my station light. My final customers were my own kids. Sage had the entire scenario mapped out all week; I was to say, what's your name little girl? and she would respond, I'M YOUR DAUGHTER! and we would all laugh. It went exactly as she had planned.

She even thought the pink heart on her cheek with the blue arrow through it was perfect. So perfect, Thalia asked for the very same one.


Blogger toyfoto said...

Love. This.

6/4/11, 8:23 PM  
Blogger Amber Page Writes said...

But can you imagine having to come up with a tag line for every single kid? Actually, I can imagine that. It would be fun...

6/4/11, 8:32 PM  
Anonymous Elise said...

Seriously great memory. Your kids will forever remember this one.

6/4/11, 8:34 PM  
Blogger C (Kid Things) said...

I thought they all had stencils these days. Not that that would necessarily go much better.

6/4/11, 8:48 PM  
Anonymous Korinthia Klein said...

I'm so impressed that you gave it a try!

I love face painting. I've done it at a couple of events and the neighborhood block party.

My son and his friend stood in line at our school fair for a long time to get their faces painted a couple of years ago. Then the friend asked for a red dragon and the guy on face painting duty panicked. I told him I'd do the dragon if he would paint my son. My kid asked for green squares for some reason and the guy looked so relieved! Also glad not to have to paint a dragon.

Anyway, a tip for future, figure out what you feel comfortable painting and make a sample sign. Then they just point to what they want and it would be less nerve wracking. (Give kids the choice of a rainbow or a heart or a star and they are usually happy.)

6/4/11, 8:57 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I think my husband would actually be really good at this! He's always drawing on your boys with sharpie markers (on bellies and back where the general public can't see). So paint would be the same idea. And for once, he'd be able to show off his work. Too bad he'd refuse.

(You should see the elves both kids had on their backs around Christmas. Pretty kick ass.)

6/4/11, 9:19 PM  
Blogger Devra said...

Every time you write a post about something at the elementary school, it brings me back to my own childhood. And for this, I thank you. I have such wonderful memories of growing up in that 'hood.

You are also a braver woman than I. My claim to fame is volunteering at the carnival to bring in a cake for the cake walk.

6/4/11, 9:31 PM  
Anonymous Stephanie P. said...

So great! And I like imagining that somewhere out there is a mom's post on her own blog about the strange anorexic butterfly she paid $3 to get emblazoned on her kid's cheek.

6/4/11, 9:35 PM  
Blogger Marinka said...

I'm pretty sure that this is how those Ink people got started.

6/4/11, 9:44 PM  
Blogger Lady M said...

You rock. If I got assigned to face paint duty, I would be limited to hearts, stars, and octopi.

6/4/11, 9:50 PM  
Anonymous Julie Marsh said...

A panda? I wouldn't know where to start. Nice work, mama!

6/4/11, 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anthony from CharismaticKid said...

The fact that you have no pictures of your work makes me sad. Wish I could have seen the butterflies.

6/4/11, 10:33 PM  
Blogger Shasta said...

Aw cute, what a great story. This is what my first editor would call a silk purse story. You made a sow's ear (a relatively boring event) into a silk purse (something people want to read). Good work!


6/4/11, 11:55 PM  
Blogger MANDI said...

This made me laugh and laugh. When my now 9yo was in pre-school I too was roped into helping with the face painting. Hilariously bad face painting. But the enormous smiles from the kids, whose faces I'd just 'artistically' ruined were totally worth it. Funnily enough, the next year I got in nice and early and signed up to sell the cupcakes :)

6/5/11, 12:17 AM  
Blogger The Martin Family said...

Too funny! I totally feel your pain! My girls are in elementary and preschool...and they both had carnivals the same weekend...and I volunteered for both. It was crazy! I steer FAR FAR away from the face painting business. Give me an auction anyday...but nothing that requires an artistic hand. Luckily both schools had quite a few ambitious high school students who offered their talents. Teenagers are a great labor force for carnivals - they need volunteer hours for college!

Save yourself the stress next year and sign up at the first possible moment.

6/5/11, 2:19 AM  
Blogger Nina said...

Oh, the fun of school carnivals. Thanks for the giggles this morning:)

6/5/11, 6:16 AM  
Blogger Amelia Sprout said...

This is where I hope that my kid's school really needs some pro-bono IT work. I mean, I was an art major, but I liked doing abstract sculpture.

6/5/11, 11:30 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is so cute and funny. I especially love your ending. Hope I can someday work my blog to be as entertaining. Please check it out if you find the time - www.momma-licious.blogspot.com

6/5/11, 3:21 PM  
Anonymous Tina Modotti said...

My favourite is working the dunking booth at my kid's school fair - where Im the one to get dunked. Wet and fun!

6/6/11, 9:09 AM  
Blogger Mahlers On Safari said...

People still ask me to decorate their children's cakes - after learning about our stint at Carvel... and alas, they are always disappointed. If only they'd let me decorate punk rockers with mohawks!

6/6/11, 1:35 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

oh why, oh why are there no pictures with this post?!

6/6/11, 2:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love this story. Kids are just the best. :)

6/6/11, 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Cam - Bibs and Baubles said...

so sweet - i would be freaked out if i had to draw anything! sounds like you did just fine!

6/6/11, 5:27 PM  
Anonymous The Culture Mom said...

I agree, photos would have made this post but it was already wonderful.

6/7/11, 3:40 PM  
Blogger the mama bird diaries said...

I started sweating just thinking about the pressure of trying to do face painting. Well done lady!

6/7/11, 11:04 PM  
Blogger Kelley Barnhardt said...


I would suck at face painting, btw.

6/8/11, 8:07 AM  
Blogger Marivic said...

I paint, so I can be considered an artist. In my daughter's 7th bday party of 12 kids, I assigned myself to be the glitter tattoo artist. I wasn't about to pay someone to come over for 12 kids when I could do it myself!

I did each one of her friends, but I was downplaying my talent, saying "is this how they do it at other parties?", "how long should we leave the stencil on", thinking they would be more forgiving if the tattoo didn't come out perfect (it was also the first time I was using the tattoos too)

After the 6th girl, my daughter who was cringing on the side the whole time, quietly asked me to stop being so unsure and to pretend I was the best tattoo artist in world! She was embarassed that her mom the artist, didn't know how to do the tattoos!

I quickly put on my "I'm the artist" attitude and all the kids were in awe. It was a lesson on self-confidence I learned from her that day!

6/8/11, 10:31 AM  
Blogger Sandra said...

K, you're a saint.
This was so cute, it ALMOST made me want to try my hand at face painting. Then again, my family hasn't quite recovered from my stint as a cake decorator. Love the line where you write the little boy could pass as a bunny...or an otter! Loved this.

6/11/11, 9:23 PM  
Anonymous katecake said...

I've done face painting before too. The worst for me is anything sport themed. I can never remember exactly what a football looks like and I'm terrified I'll do it wrong. Or a mascot? Egads. And hearts are difficult to do because you can really worry yourself trying to get both sides even and then before you know it you've got a giant blob on their face that in no way resembles a heart.

I think I'm going to go lie down now.

6/11/11, 10:43 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

I feel you! I was handed face painting at this year's classroom Halloween Party. I am the least artistic person you or anyone else could know. I figured the only way to get through it was to get tough. I painted some some shapes on a paper towel and when a kid got to the front of the line I'd point down at my feeble heart, pumpkin, and cat face and say, "You have to pick one of these. I don't do butterflies or Spider Man." I felt like I was totally getting away with something but my daughter was very proud...and that's all that mattered.

6/11/11, 11:18 PM  
Blogger Poker Chick said...

Brave lady. My response would be: cupcakes full? Only face painting left? Sorry, I don't do arts and crafts. Where do I write the check?

6/12/11, 10:23 PM  
Anonymous Denise said...

Good thing you survived the sleep and potty training.Job well done Momma..

8/4/11, 9:07 AM  
Anonymous SupermomWannabe said...

That is sooo funny!! I love it! It was like watching a comedy sitcom in my head. Good sales skills and easy patrons! Thanks for the laugh.

12/6/11, 5:32 PM  

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