It’s a Monday afternoon in Riverside. Artists, photographers, writers, designers, children and even a dog mill in and out of a two-story gallery space at CoRK Arts District. And yet, with all of the distractions present, one of Northeast Florida’s best-known personalities sits as still as a statue.
Donna Deegan is transforming into a green-and-gold cobra for Folio Weekly’s Halloween issue. St. Augustine-based photographer and makeup artist Cat Lippi steadies her right elbow with her left hand as she paints the fine lines and details.
“I’m frightened to death of snakes,” says Deegan, the former First Coast News anchor, founder of The Donna Foundation, and Lippi’s brave and patient model. “I know that they serve a purpose in the world, but I just can’t stand them.”
As for Lippi, who says she was unaware of Deegan’s reptile fears, this elaborate makeup and photo shoot makes perfect sense. By day, Lippi works in fish neurobiology at Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, a University of Florida research institute located at Marineland in southern St. Augustine. Her responsibilities include taking MRIs of dead fish.
“I worked as a herpetologist for a bit,” Lippi explains of the branch of zoology that studies amphibians and reptiles. “It’s one of my great passions in life.”
Born Catherine Ann Smith on Oct. 6, 1984, in New Orleans, Smith (who now goes by her married name, Lippi) grew up in Jacksonville around the Fort Caroline area. She graduated from Bishop Kenny High School in 2003 and studied wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida.
After graduating, Lippi spent two years living in Connecticut and working at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Resettled in Northeast Florida in the last year, Lippi is married (her husband, Danny, is a member of the popular 1980s cover band Papercutt), works by day as a scientist and by night pursues two lifelong passions — photography and horror movies.
“I’ve always loved photography,” Lippi says. “But I didn’t want to commit to it being my career. Now, in my free time, I’m working on this fantastic and horrific photography series. Before this, I did mostly street and event photography.”
Under the moniker San Gato Photography (Spanish-to-English translation: Saint Cat), Lippi creates characters inspired by some of her favorite horror films, like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the 1954 classic “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” “I thought the creature had a raw deal,” she says of Gill-man. “I always kind of liked the underdog creatures.”
For Deegan, horror films are just downright scary. “The last one I saw was ‘Friday the 13th,’ and I didn’t sleep for three weeks,” she explains. “And I still have nightmares about it to this day.” Deegan’s also not much of a Halloween fan: She hasn’t dressed up for the holiday since she was a kid.
Though Lippi and Deegan differ when it comes to All Hallows’ Eve, the model recognizes the professionalism of the make-up artist. “My whole news anchor career, if it took more than five minutes, I wasn’t gonna do it,” Deegan says of putting on concealer and eye shadow. “But this is much more fun.”
Lippi is predominantly self-taught when it comes to learning the tricks of the trade. “The makeup is just something I fell into,” she explains. “It took a lot of trial and error. I read any literature I could get my hands on. It started with me using store-bought Halloween makeup to moving on to better quality products like TAG Body Art and Diamond FX.
“I like to use water-based paint because it’s easy to clean up and clean off the models. It also allows me to fix mistakes, where as cream and oil-based makeup is messier,” explains Lippi as she squirts water from a spray bottle onto her paint pallet. “I mix it until I get the consistency I like.”
When asked if she has any aspirations to move to Hollywood and become makeup artist to the stars on big-budget films, Lippi answers, “Absolutely not.”
When Lippi’s not creating ghoulish creatures, she’s working on her relatively new photography venture called Hound About Town. A self-professed dog-lover, Lippi takes on-location pet portraits. She also works in event, travel and human portrait photography.
A year into the horror series, Lippi has enlisted the help of friends (mostly friend and model Blair Richardson) and her husband — pretty much anyone who’s willing to sit still long enough to be transformed and photographed. She began by practicing on herself. “I really appreciate the models that subject themselves to this.”
Lippi’s also thankful to the local community of horror film creators and special FX artists. “We’re really good at egging each other on,” she says.
Some of the creatures in Lippi’s repertoire include Maleficent, the villain in “Sleeping Beauty,” female demons, a woman with black eyes and red lips bathing in milk titled “La Madre de Leche,” the devil posed on a couch with guns and a Confederate Flag titled “Southern Devil,” femme vampires, a tortured prom queen and demon nurse.
“I’m influenced by my day job,” says Lippi, connecting the marine life at Whitney and the characters she builds from scratch. “I like to make them as biological as I can. It’s me paying homage to all of these movies that I like.”
Because a photograph is a static image — the opposite of a movie — Lippi says there are a lot of shortcuts one can take when putting the costume together. “I’m not a fan of excessive photo-manipulation, so the majority of my creatures and images are created in-camera with practical effects, costumes and makeup.”
For this shoot, Lippi created a cobra hood out of thermoplastic, a reusable nontoxic material that becomes pliable and moldable when heated and can be painted on once set.
“There’s so much generic bullshit out there,” says Zach Thomas, a fellow St. Augustine-based photographer who has known Lippi for roughly two years. “I really appreciate her work in that it’s experimental. She’s doing something not a lot of people are doing, and I think that makes it all that more special.”
Lippi puts the finishing touches on Deegan’s makeup. She rounds out the eyes with black eye shadow and hands her model the mirror. “That’s frightening,” Deegan says. “If I wasn’t supposed to keep this a secret, I’d drive home with this on and scare my husband.”
Deegan might be warming to the idea of dressing up this Halloween, but probably not. As for Lippi, the holiday is just another reason to don Day of the Dead makeup and take on a different persona. But don’t bother looking for her latest creation on Oct. 31: Lippi will be in Orlando watching Nine Inch Nails perform.
“I always loved dressing up and often got into trouble for ruining my mother’s makeup to paint myself like various woodland creatures and cats, but Halloween was always special because everyone took part in the fun as a community,” Lippi says. “I suppose I never really grew up because Halloween continues to be a big event for me.”