For artist visiting East Lyme, the story is on your face

East Lyme — As Christopher Agostino talked about the longevity of fables, the back of 4-year-old Jack Farrior was to the audience of more than 30 children and their parents and guardians gathered at the Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut.

Agostino spun Jack around to reveal the lion painted on his face, which would be used to tell the fable of The Lion and the Mouse.

He painted a tiny mouse on Jack's nose and proceeded to tell the story: The mouse woke the sleeping lion but implored the lion not to eat him, saying he would come back and do the lion a favor. The lion laughed but let him go.

Agostino painted a white net on Jack's face as he talked about hunters trapping the lion, and finished the tale with the mouse chewing through the net.

"As Aesop reminds us, even the smallest amongst us can someday help," Agostino told the audience. He held a mirror up so Jack could see his reflection and proclaimed, "You have a 2,000-year-old story on your face."

This was part of Agostino's hourlong show StoryFaces, in which he paints faces to illustrate stories as he tells them. The show is part of his New York-based theatre and event company Agostino Arts.

The stories he told late Thursday afternoon at the Children's Museum ranged from an Australian Aboriginal myth about the Sky Hero creating the world to his own story about how the tiger got its stripes.

Holly Cheeseman, executive director of the museum, explained that Agostino's visit was 75 percent funded by CT Humanities as part of its Book Voyagers program. One of the grant stipulations was that admission to StoryFaces be free.

Agostino explained to the kids at the beginning, "I'm not going to ask you what you want to be, and I'm not going to tell you how it's going to look. It's a complete surprise."

As a demonstration, he brought up 5-year-old Roosevelt Lowry. She sat perfectly still, head tilted up, as Agostino held her hair back while painting yellow down the center of her face, and purple and blue around the sides. It was a splash of color against her gray outfit.

Roosevelt laughed as Agostino held up the mirror and showed her that she was a magic fish. She said later she had no idea what he was painting on her but thought perhaps it was a toucan.

For Agostino's tiger story, he brought up three volunteers, scurrying between their faces and turning them around at different points for dramatic effect.

The audience oohed and ahhed when he revealed silhouettes of animals across one child's face, while the second kid had a striped tiger and the third a burning tiger. Agostino said he was able to write this story because of all the folk tales he has read, and that he stuck a folk tale trope into his own story.

Agostino kept kids rapt as he alternated between reveals and showing the process, and he made them laugh as he danced as a cow, horse and bunny in his final story. But he also offered broader reflections on commonalities between cultures and on the face-painting of long-ago humans.

"This is an art of transformation, of identity," Agostino said. "We humans change the way we are seen when we change our appearance."

This was the wisdom he imparted as he worked on his lone adult volunteer, turning the sun he painted on her face into a spider and then a space monster.

"We still have Emma and her face to defend us, with her mighty sword, and magic flower!" he said, drawing the two items in the hands he had drawn sprouting from her neck. "For this is Emma the brave, and her face is amazing."

e.moser@theday.com

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