Utah-based artist and photographer Paul Butler took a model out into Utah’s west desert and painted her bright red for the first time 20 years ago.
Since then, he has led his annual “Wendover Project” every September. The project was named after a nearby town on the border of Utah and Nevada. The event has inspired hundreds of women of varying ages and sizes to strip off their clothes and body-image insecurities to be painted and photographed, with reporting and interviews by People.
57-year-old Jan Postel, one of the participants in the exhibition, told the magazine as she stood naked with a bunch of other women and felt nervous that her body wasn’t good enough. After looking at the hundreds of other women, she began to relax and not feel so self-conscious about standing naked.
“I came to accept myself – to embrace all that I am, both inside and out,” Postel said. “I felt empowered, confident, beautiful and healed from past experiences in my life. I felt at peace.”
And that is exactly what Butler had hoped for.
“I want them to go away feeling that there are no good or bad bodies- that every body should be celebrated and that women should love who they are,” Butler explained to People. “Every woman is exceptional. I want them to realize how gorgeous and amazing they are.”
Butler has experienced many women over the years expressing discontent with their figures whenever he hired models for nude drawings and paintings.
“Almost without fail, every one of them at some point would say something like, ‘I really hate my thighs or ‘I really don’t like my stomach,'” he said. “I always responded, ‘If you realized what you look like to other, you wouldn’t be saying that. You should be celebrating every part of you.'”
Butler’s mission has continued to expan over the years, increasing annually from his original start point. When he began, he put out flyers requesting volunteers of any body type and says he usually received responses from women ages 18 through 72.
The project portrays a different theme every year. This year, the theme was Roman, displaying women as warriors.
“Because it’s the 20th anniversary of the Wendover Project, I wanted to make a nod to the past,” he explained. “The Romans were really proud of being human and thought the human person was so gorgeous that they made all of these wonderful sculptures. So this year, I decided to say to the women who participated, ‘You’re beautiful and exceptional and we’re going to make you into a statue.’ “
33-year-old Ashley Smith told People, “At first, you’re scared to get naked in front of strangers, hoping they don’t notice you’re sucking it in or walking weird so that flaws aren’t noticed.”
“It’s uncomfortable because it gets hot and the paint hurts,” she said, “but the art that can be formed with all curves, textures and shapes is what astonishes me. Paul’s art is amazing. When you see the end results, you feel confident and beautiful and have a giant boost to your self-esteem.”(PEOPLE.COM)
“It’s really neat to travel out to that alien landscape with a bunch of women who were strangers and be part of this shame-free art making,” added Kat Bischoff, a volunteer of six times. “All of the women there help take care of each other. It’s a rewarding experience like no other I’ve been a part of.”
Heather Kasey said, “For me, it’s the feeling of belonging to something a bit bigger than myself and knowing that we all celebrate each other with no boundaries and love in our hearts.”