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Paintings In (Really) Living Color

Up, 2012 Alexa Meade/ hide caption

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Alexa Meade/

This is a painting of man. But it's also a painting on a man. His skin and clothing have become a canvas for Alexa Meade, an artist based in Washington, D.C. The result is striking -– especially when the subject leaves his acrylic world.

Upon, 2012 Alexa Meade/ hide caption

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Alexa Meade/

First-time viewers of these "Living Paintings" usually react in disbelief: "Wait, that's a real person?" Even Meade's first model, whom she painted back in 2009, mistook a photo of himself for a two-dimensional portrait.

Once you've convinced your stubborn brain that yes, these are living figures with depth, breadth and breath, there is a kind of joy in knowing the secret. My favorite pieces are those in which the "real," unpainted world intrudes. I feel like I'm backstage -– I know the magician's trick.

"I'm not painting on a static canvas," Meade says. "My brush strokes are a product of my mood and the mood of the model. It almost feels like a collaboration at times."

Meade paints, photographs and destroys each piece in a single day (she can't send her subjects home covered in paint) so she has to work fast. Sometimes she uses a household broom as a brush to paint large sections and speed things up.

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"It's part of the adrenaline rush," Meade says. "Everything is in the moment — I can't take a step back to look over the painting. I just have to trust my instincts."

On Wednesday I visited Meade's interactive installation at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Two women, costumed in paint, posed and shifted and posed. It was a little eerie. Some paintings have eyes that follow you around the room but usually their bodies don't come along.

Alexa Meade peers into her interactive Living Painting at the National Portrait Gallery. Maggie Starbard/NPR hide caption

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Maggie Starbard/NPR

Alexa Meade peers into her interactive Living Painting at the National Portrait Gallery.

Maggie Starbard/NPR

Small windows cut into the backdrops invited viewers to occupy the artwork. I queued up with a few friends to have my photo taken; we all wanted a chance to disrupt the illusion.

A thin wall separates the real and painted worlds. Maggie Starbard/NPR hide caption

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Maggie Starbard/NPR

At the end of the day, Meade's models peel a thick layer of acrylic from their bodies and performance of the piece is over. What remains is portraiture in triplicate: A photo of a painting of a person, and the real person hidden somewhere underneath.