Celes Williams founded Mystique’s Fancy Face in 2011. This year, she’s landed some big contracts and was hoping to quite her day job. Then coronavirus hit. We checked in with Williams to ask how a facepainter copes when her usual canvases are suddenly off-limits and hidden by masks.

A typical COVID-free Portland family summer might include a few street fairs or park parties, complete with a face painter. When that face painter is from the nearly-decade-old Mystique’s Fancy Faces, we know we’re safe from some blobby daub of color that briefly resembles the heart or frog or wildcat paw we asked for before disintegrating into a sweaty blur. Rather, the Mystique fairies, butterflies, Spider-man faces, and other Hollywood-film-crew-caliber creations have been known to set off many a fight between parents and happy kid customers who decide they might never wash their faces again. (If my own daughter had her way, that mermaid from a Kenton Street Fair years ago would have become a permanent tattoo.)

For Mystique’s Fancy Faces owner Celese Williams and her 10 subcontractor artists, the novel coronavirus has brought business to a standstill, calling for a switch from birthday parties, street festivals, and corporate events to teaching and mentoring. Williams—who recently lost her day job as a receptionist for a major construction firm amid the pandemic, after she says she was deemed essential to work on-site but couldn’t due to child care—is conducting her first class this week for budding face-painters. We checked in with the Southeast Portland artist and mom to ask how she’s coping.    

“February was such a crazy month. I had actually secured three really big contracts. We got our first official government contract with the Oregon Zoo. We were going to be the face painters for all their events and private events. That was really, really big, and we were gearing up for that. I also got contracted with the Portland Timbers for all of their home games. Those had just started in March when all of this happened. We did some preseason events, too, and then one single home game [before the Major League Soccer season went on hiatus], and we got such a great response.

“The day prior to the restrictions that were put in place, we were scheduled for the Blazer game. We were going to do a pregame celebration for them. My daughter was actually scheduled to participate, because she’s very involved with AAU basketball and was enrolled in one of their camps. This was their Women in Sports night. It was a girls-only basketball camp, so all the girls signed up for various activities—assisting with halftime, helping with the national anthem. She was really excited about that, and that was a game that got canceled.

“We do birthday parties, but they don’t schedule out as far in advance. Our main clientele is corporate clients, and we had a ton of corporate clients scheduled: a lot of repeat events, annual events. We do the Mississippi Street Fair every year, and the Kenton Street Fair, and I had submitted an application, which was basically in the approval process, to be a vendor at the Portland Cityfair this year with the Rose Festival. They finally had an opening, which hasn’t happened in years and years. So that was a big bummer as well.

“This was going to be a record-breaking year for us. I had kind of been scaling my business to where I could exit my day job, because I would work that job five days a week and then work on the weekends. I’ve barely had any days off in the last couple of years. When COVID hit, they were like, OK, work from home. Then they kind of changed that language to label my title as essential.... But schools are closed, summer camps [my daughter] would have normally been in sent me an email and said they weren’t opening. Also with my business at a standstill I don’t have that supplemental income to afford the cost of child care. [So my job was terminated, and now I’m waiting for unemployment] like everyone else, you know, with the backlog. Luckily my landlord is very flexible. And I did get a grant from Prosper Portland to help cover expenses, and I got a grant through the Black Resiliency Fund, and a national grant through the Artists of Color Council.

“I was kind of on the fence [about doing a private event], because the restrictions don’t really imply that it’s not allowable, just that the gathering size has to be under a certain amount. So I decided to try it out. I did all the things as far as changing how I normally face-paint: only use one sponge per kid, make sure everything has its own separate water, washing everything thoroughly with alcohol after, all the things. I wore a mask. But what I found out is when you’re entering into someone else’s space you can’t really control that environment. You can’t say, OK, everyone that comes to the party wear a mask and social distance ... so long story short, the person who hosted the party sent me a message the next day that there was someone at the party who was exposed to COVID. Initially I didn’t freak out [but planned to] definitely monitor myself, to make sure I’m feeling OK, for 14 days. [Then I learned there were other possible cases and positive tests associated with the party.] I went to the OHSU drive-through site at the Expo Center, which was a long process. They shove that stick into your brain, which was very uncomfortable, but they sent me the results the next day and they were negative. But I was pretty freaked out. That was the only request I’d gotten for a birthday party. The next week, like I felt the universe was conspiring against me. [Just when I decide] I’m not doing any more birthday parties, then the next week I got six different requests, and then this past week I got two or three, so that’s when I decided to make a Facebook post and say, ‘Hey everyone, I’m not face-painting, just FYI.’ That was crazy.

“I’d still highly not advise that people have birthday parties. Kids don’t quite understand on the level that we do. Most kids are very smart, but if they see their friend, they’re going run up and hug them, you know—it’s very hard to gets to abide by all these rules. Whatever it is, it can wait. It’s not like it’s totally canceled; it just has to wait a little bit. Have your kid’s birthday party in a few months, and make it bigger and better without all of these restrictions.

“I’ve done quite a bit of pivoting. It’s all virtual now. I joined a mentor group, Facepaint Mentors. The owner lives in Seattle, but it involves face painters all over the world, and what we do is offer one-on-one mentoring for people who want to get into the face-paint industry, or maybe they already are and need specific help in different areas. It’s a really cool new service, it just launched on July 4. Also I’ll be doing classes with mostly Mt Hood Community College this fall, as well as PCC, so look out for those catalogs, and more virtual classes from Mystique’s Fancy Faces, for sure. I’ve taught classes in person, but not virtually. So it’s been a whole learning curve. I’ve done a ton of tests and gotten a lot of really good feedback.

“It’s a surreal feeling [seeing everyone’s face covered up by a mask]. It’s just a part of our new normal now, and it’s something that we all have to do responsibly to curb the virus. If you don’t do that, it puts other people at risk. I’m willing to not go and face-paint if that can encourage people to wear a mask and be responsible so we can all get back to hopefully life as normal sometime next year.”

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