The Woman Who Paints Faces (and Bellies)

Six-year-old Abby wants to be a catterfly, a creature of her imagination that is at once cat and butterfly, and her less articulate 3-year-old brother, Andy, can’t wait to turn himself into a snake monster.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Lenore drew from her childhood to create her career.

That’s why they’re visiting Lenore Koppelman, who is going to make their fantasies come true with nothing more than a little face paint and a lot of creativity.

“This is all about making sure you have fun,” Lenore says as she sits Abby then Andy at her kitchen table, where her artist’s paints are laid out.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Abby wants to be a catterfly.

Within minutes, Abby’s face is purringly pretty in pinks and purples and Andy’s is green and gruesome.

Lenore, who is wearing a magenta stripe in her dark brown hair, amber cat glasses and a dress with dancing dinosaurs, makes all this makeup stuff look like fun and games.

She wouldn’t have it any other way. It took her forever to make face painting her career, so she’s coloring as quickly as she can to make up for lost time.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Lenore uses sponges to create the outline.

Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the country of her mother, Lenore found herself in Forest Hills, where her German father spent his youth after fleeing the Holocaust, at age 4.

When she was 6, the family took up permanent residence in New Orleans.

And that’s where Lenore’s story gets colorful.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Abby’s a happy catterfly.

“I had my face painted nearly every Sunday in Jackson Square by a lady with a big, floppy hat that was covered in silk flowers,” she says. “I told everybody I knew that I was going to be a face painter when I grew up.”

Nobody believed her, and to tell the truth, neither did she. That’s why she majored in interior design at Florida International University.

“I became an assistant to an interior designer, but I was miserable,” she says. “All I wanted to do was make things pretty. I wasn’t interested in the math and architecture that went with it.”

Phto by Nancy A. Ruhling

She took a job with a medical company in Miami, but she wasn’t cut out for cubicles.

“I felt like a hamster on a wheel,” she says. “And I missed New York City.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Lenore, aka The Cheeky Chipmunk.

Transferring to the company headquarters in Rockefeller Center put her in the right city, but even that wasn’t enough.

So she took a position at Kaplan Test Prep, only to be downsized three weeks into the job.

“Everyone else was crying,” she says. “But I thought, ‘I’m free.’ I went out into Times Square and threw my hat into the air like Mary Tyler Moore and sang, ‘I’m gonna make it after all.’ My hat fell in a puddle of melted snow.”

Her husband, Steve, whom she had met in Florida, suggested they have a baby and that she find a career that made her happy even if it didn’t make money.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Andy gets a glimpse of his inner monster.

Their son, Ralph, is 6, and her business, The Cheeky Chipmunk, is 3.

“I came up with the name because when I was a child I had such enormous cheeks that my pet name was Cheeky Chipmunk,” she says.

Although Lenore has always been what she calls the artsy, fun one of her family (her older brother, the serious one, is a physician), face painting turned out to be much more difficult than putting brush and sponge to flesh.

“My work was so awful that one of the first kids I did started crying when she looked in the mirror,” she says. “But I didn’t want to give up.”

Lenore took online courses and began practicing on herself, making her face up in the mirror and painting her arms and legs.

Photo by Nancy. A. Ruhling
He’s one scary kid.

“I didn’t realize it, but nobody paints themselves because it’s nearly impossible,” she says. “But it made doing others’ faces really easy.”

Ralph, who is autistic and hyperlexic, cannot tolerated being painted, but like his mother, he loves to draw, and he displays his artwork on his own website.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Lenore also paints pregnant women’s bellies and does special-effects makeup for films.

So once Lenore mastered her own bodywork, she practiced on friends’ children like Abby and Andy.

Soon, she became so proficient that she was not only doing children’s parties, pregnant women’s bellies and corporate events, but she also was teaching the art on FabaTV, the industry’s online classroom.

Along the way, she created special-effects makeup for a variety of projects including the web series You Only Die Once, the cult film White Privilege Frankenstein and the upcoming Broadway star-studded musical film The Oz Project.

“It usually takes people five to six years to master the art,” she says. “But I was so passionate about it that I did it in two.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Capturing the catterfly on cellphone.

Lenore is so excited about her new career that she can’t put her brushes, stencils and sponges down.

“Even when I try to take a day off, I can’t,” she says. “When I walk down the street, I see people as blank canvases.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Andy and Abby are all set for adventure.

Abby and Andy are making faces at each other, which makes Lenore laugh.

“I’m the happiest person you’ll ever meet,” she says.

Abby, the catterfly, and Andy, the snake monster, race into the living room.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;,

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling


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