by Brittany Nader
Makeup and special effects artist Jenniva Cummings has developed a reputation for transforming others into dynamic, visual works of art.
Her makeup clients range from brides wanting to feel beautiful on their wedding days to out-of-the-box thinkers looking for a more creative approach to transforming their bodies into otherworldly creatures.
A visual artist, Cummings entered an industry in which she felt women of color, like her, were underrepresented. Although she was interested in drawing and painting from a young age, Cummings says she was hesitant to pursue the arts as a career choice because it seemed impractical.
With the insistence of her mother, the Akronite decided to leave her decade-long job at an insurance agency to devote her time to a hands-on passion where she could interact with people regularly.
After enrolling in the Paul Mitchell The School, and with the guidance of local makeup specialist Alyssa Ball, Cummings realized she could fill a niche and bring beauty and empowerment to women like her.
“People of color, women especially, who are normally not portrayed and seen as often in a space that is occupied all the time — to see that and see great work with meaning behind it, I think that’s a fantastic start,” Cummings says.
Cummings’ journey as an artist wasn’t easy, and her initial hesitations about the industry weren’t the only obstacle she had to overcome. She once resided in Harvest Home, a homeless shelter for women and children in Akron.
Cummings had two infant children and was pregnant with her third while living in the shelter. She says the experience made her even more grateful as she made the decision to leave an unfulfilling job and begin her career as a hands-on visual artist.
“I found something that makes me happy if I’m paid or not,” Cummings says. “I got a little emotional thinking about how the hard times didn’t diminish my character or make me lose hope that great things could happen for me.”
When Cummings enrolled at Paul Mitchell, she planned to become a hairstylist, specializing in coloring. But then she fell in love with makeup. Her goal shifted to striking a balance between bringing beauty to underrepresented women and becoming one of very few recognized Black special-effects artists.
Cummings says she’s always been interested in the visuals associated with makeup, but when she began researching the medium, she was intrigued by the two different extremes of classic beauty and special effects. Halloween-esque designs created with liquid latex, as well as traditional beauty looks crafted with smokey eyeshadows, winged eyeliner and a classic red lip, both interested her.
“People say to me, ‘how do you do bridal and make these women look amazing on their special day, they’re like glowing, but then you make it look like your mouth is falling off?’” Cummings says.
Her time at Paul Mitchell opened new doors and gave Cummings a taste of the industry. It enabled her to create looks on models for Today’s Bride bridal show and Kent Fashion Week. Cummings also pursued additional training outside of Paul Mitchell to hone the craft of prosthetic makeup.
Working with diverse models and photographers outside of a classroom setting was important for Cummings as she worked to build her own network and make a name for herself — specifically as someone who creates individualized looks for women of color.
Cummings wants to be recognized as a makeup artist who can make Black women look beautiful, and to carve out her own space as a Black artist in the special effects industry.
“As I’m looking at [cosmetology] schools, at the pictures that are out there for references, there was nobody that looked like me,” Cummings says. “A lot of the products, I didn’t know if I could use them or if they would work with my skin tone. A lot of the colors of the products they make, they don’t even make for darker skin tones.”
Cummings says this motivated her to create something new and publish her own visual content in hopes of getting noticed by other creative types in Akron and beyond. She says being well-rounded as an artist is key to accomplishing her goals, and resisting the urge to fall into one category as a makeup artist has opened new doors.
“It just so happened that makeup was what I wanted to do, but I want to be well-rounded as an artist,” Cummings says. “So when it is my time, [people will say] like, oh you can do this and you can do that—you’re not just boxed in by your own fears.’ I want to get out there and do a little bit of everything.”
Working in these mediums has even made her consider leaving Northeast Ohio. Cummings says that, with any kind of ad campaign or on any television show, there is a makeup artist behind the scenes creating the image of the people one sees on screen or in a print ad.
Cummings says she will use imagery and themes from artist Jeff Donaldson as she presents her makeup looks during the “Dig” exhibition at the Akron Art Museum on Dec. 13. Donaldson, a cofounder of the AfriCOBRA movement, is recognized for using vibrant “Kool-Aid” colors in his paintings, which portray images of Black iconography and their connections to Africa.
Cummings says she was inspired by Donaldson’s ability to deceive the eye with visual works that instantly draw the viewer in.
“I wanted to bring the colors that Mr. Donaldson uses into my models,” Cummings says. “When you see those paintings in person, they just kind of pop out at you—they’re almost 3D. To me, they just look like traditional African colors, and I want to put that into my models and bring that past, present and future vibe to it.”
The themes of past, present and future permeate throughout the “Jeff Donaldson: Dig” exhibition. The show serves as an introspective, highlighting the paintings, prints and mixed-media works in Donaldson’s past, while also showcasing how the pieces reflect the contemporary state of Black culture and how they will influence future generations.
“It’s mind-blowing how relevant the art is that he did in that era — and all the other artists in the AfriCOBRA movement — how relevant it is today,” Cummings says. “I want people to take away from it the connection between the past and now and what we could be doing to make a difference ourselves.”
Cummings strives to uplift people through her makeup and special effects work, specifically people of color. Like Donaldson, her art aims to celebrate beauty in people who often are not represented as beautiful.
Cummings also says she wants to create a “lane” for other Black artists in fields like hers, and inspire future generations to know that this type of artistry is not out of their reach.
“This hasn’t been an easy ride for me, but I’m seriously humbled and grateful for everything I’ve gone through leading up to this point,” Cummings says.
Jenniva Cummings will create works of art inspired by Jeff Donaldson as part of the “Dig” exhibition at the Akron Art Museum Thursday, Dec. 13 at 6:30 p.m.
The event showcases three Akron-based African-American artists who perform or show their original pieces live in the museum. Admission to the Akron Art Museum is free the day of the program.
See more of Cummings’ makeup and special effects work by following @beatsbyjey_ on Instagram or Jenniva Cummings Makeup Artistry on Facebook.
Brittany Nader has been a professional writer and marketer in Akron for the last five years.
Photo at top of page: Jenniva Cummings poses half submerged underwater wearing a makeup look she created for herself. The artist says this is one of her favorite photos that highlights her work. (Britney Rossiter Photography, used with permission from Jenniva Cummings)