Would you agree to have your portait painted without makeup? These women did.

by Sally Friedman, For The Inquirer

Updated: JUNE 29, 2016 — 93:0 AM EST


The offer was simple. An artist was organizing a come-as-you-are exploration of older women's faces - devoid of makeup. With hair untended.Would you agree to have your portrait painted without makeup? These women did.

That invitation, delivered to 20 friends between the ages of 65 and 73, came from South Philadelphia painter Ellensue Gross, who has long been fascinated by facial features."In them," she said, "I really wanted to capture the character, emotions, and spirit of my subjects."

Along the way came a growing realization that women felt enormous pressure to not visibly age - and were relentlessly wooed by the marketplace to follow the fantasy. "I noticed that youth has become a magic word," said the artist trained at Fleisher Art Memorial and Pennsylv$nia Academy of the Fine Arts. "Do women actually believe that there are such things as antiaging shampoo, antiaging creams and lotions, age-defying lipsticks and even toothpastes?"

More recently, Gross was seeing cultural evidence of resistance. The No Makeup Mondays hashtag even reached the Today show crew (albeit for one segment - but the "befores" and "afters" remain online). Actresses were taking to posting makeupless selfies, and no makeup selfie became a way to raise money for cancer research.

Locally, in April, Jennifer Childs, cofounder of the Philadelphia's comedy troupe 1812 Productions, created "I Will Not Go Gently," an entire show built around women's aging experiences. Often gently and with humor - and sometimes not - Childs gave audiences a glimpse of how women may wonder, as they age, whether they are relevant.

Having recently celebrated her 69th birthday, Gross felt the issue personally. So she put out the call - and in the end, 12 of her friends said yes: They would bravely bear their faces, bare.

Gross took photos of each woman without makeup (some volunteering to pose right after they woke up in the morning), and for the next 18 months, she painted. From Gross' perspective, she hopes one day that the artworks can be displayed together at a gallery. "I truly think they . . . show the beauty and strength in women as they are natually," she said.
The group agreed: Many thought their faces reflected a certain pride in age. The experience of being  portrait subject, which no one regretted, was unique and even somewhat indulgent.

But reactions were a mixed bag among individual subjects.
Psychologist Karen Schwartz, who sports a short 'do with wispy bangs and usually wears only tinted moisturizer and lipstick, was startled by her portrait. The Gladwyne resident said she looked unhappy. (And she isn't unhappy!) It's not that Schwartz, 72, was expecting a glamour shot. But these days, she concedes that even seeing her age on a medical form shocks her. Seeing her bare face with hair slicked back felt similarly. "I wouldn't mind being 35 again, but it is what it is."

Jill Porter, on the other hand, was delighted by her portrait."I totally trust Ellensue's integrity, and I felt that she was very kind to me - and also honest."The Center City resident, a public relations consultant at Einstein Medical Center and former Daily News columnist, is widely regarded as a confident and self- possessed woman with her short brown curls. Still, she, too, can be vulnerable to the pressures of makeup."Even when I just walk from my own office past other offices, I always pause first to put on lipstick," said Porter, 69. "I'm not even sure why I do it, except that it makes me feel better."

For Bonnie Sherr, 69, life has been difficult since her husband died three years ago, and when it came to her portrait, a semi-profile, she was candid about it. She looked grim."It was interesting what Ellensue saw in my face, and I know that she was being artistically honest.”Sherr, the owner of a Wilmington real estate brokerage firm, was somehow relieved when her children agreed with her, and then even more so when they assured her that she doesn't often look that way."I guess I should have smiled," she said,"and since I wear makeup all the time, I definitely felt shocked without it."

College administrator Ilene Baker, 67, was unfazed about not wearing makeup: The woman with a head of full, brown curls often doesn't wear it, except for a little blush in winter and occasionally a dab of lipstick. Nonetheless, she was surprised at how serious she looked.

June Wolfson, a well-known former actor with a bright smile, now an active arts patron of Center City, was so impressed with the experience that she also arranged for Childs, the "I Will Not Go Gently" creator, to have Gross paint her portrait as her Patsy persona (makeupless, too) - which was eventually purchased by Childs' father as part of an 1812 fund-raiser.

One of the original 20 who said "no thanks" to the project was Marian Robinson, a Center City jewelry designer. With all due respect to Gross, Robinson said, she is "a believer in makeup."I make no apologies for it. Makeup doesn't change who I am, and I'm not a slave to it," Robinson said. "It boosts my spirits."

Gathered on a recent afternoon in Gross' home and studio, some of the subjects said that, without makeup, they felt invisible on the streets. Gross, who did a similar sans-makeup self-portrait, conceded that when she has walked around the city, she has rarely gotten a glance if she has ventured out without any makeup. Reaction is more positive if she has fussed. "Maybe wearing makeup makes me feel more confident, and I probably show it in the way I carry myself," she said.

In discussing the portrait experience, the women also reached clarity about their efforts trying to erase more than 60 years of history through makeup and balms. It can't happen. But, Wolfson, 73, said, there are worse things than wrinkles. "We have life experience, and we have life itself. And I wouldn't trade any of that for youthful beauty, with or without makeup."