The first time that Jan Postel took off all of her clothes in the desert and stood naked with nearly 100 other women waiting to be painted head-to-toe by strangers, she felt nervous that her body wasn’t “perfect” enough and wondered why she’d agreed to participate in the unusual Utah art event.
But then, after looking around and realizing that nobody else’s body was perfect either, she started to relax and enjoy the freedom of standing nude in the sun’s warmth as she soaked up the stark white beauty of the Bonneville Salt Flats.
“I came to accept myself — to embrace all that I am, both inside and out,” the 57-year-old registered nurse from Layton, Utah, tells PEOPLE. “I felt empowered, confident, beautiful and healed from past experiences in my life. I felt at peace.”
That’s exactly what Utah artist and photographer Paul Butler envisioned 20 years ago, the first time he took a model out to Utah’s west desert and painted her bright red.
Since then, his annual September “Wendover Project” (named for the nearby town on the Utah and Nevada border) has inspired hundreds of women of all ages and sizes to shed their clothes (and their body-image fears) and be painted — and then photographed.
“I want them to go away feeling that there are no good or bad bodies — that every body should be celebrated and that women should love who they are,” Butler, 64, who lives in Ogden, Utah, tells PEOPLE. “Every woman is exceptional. I want them to realize how gorgeous and amazing they are.”
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A longtime sketch artist, painter and photographer, Butler had for years heard women express unhappiness with their bodies whenever he hired studio models for nude portraits.
“Almost without fail, every one of them at some point would say something like, ‘I really hate my thighs’ or ‘I really don’t like my stomach,’ ” he says. “I always responded, ‘If you realized what you look like to others, you wouldn’t be saying that. You should be celebrating every part of you.’ “
After his first trip to the desert with a gallon of body paint, he returned the following year with six women, and the project grew from there. He put out notices that he was looking for models of any body type, and heard from volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 72. Butler chose Utah’s Salt Flats for the body painting and photo shoots, “because it’s like an enormous white stage,” he says. “It’s the perfect place to create an abstract ‘painting’ of bodies lined up on a white surface surrounded by nature and sky.”
Each year’s project has a different theme, with the women helping to coat each other with paint.
“At first, you’re scared to get naked in front of strangers, hoping they don’t notice you’re sucking it in or walking weird so that flaws aren’t noticed,” Ashley Smith, a 33-year-old tattoo artist, tells PEOPLE.
“It’s uncomfortable because it gets hot and the paint hurts,” she says, “but the art that can be formed with all curves, textures and shapes is what astonishes me. Paul’s art is amazing. When you see the end results, you feel confident and beautiful and have a giant boost to your self-esteem.”
“It’s really neat to travel out to that alien landscape with a bunch of women who were strangers and be part of this shame-free art making,” adds Kat Bischoff, 40, a Salt Lake City schoolteacher who has participated six times. “All of the women there help take care of each other. It’s a rewarding experience like no other I’ve been a part of.”
For this year’s shoot on Sept. 16th, Butler chose a Roman theme to represent women as warriors.
“Because it’s the 20th anniversary of the Wendover Project, I wanted to make a nod to the past,” he tells PEOPLE. “The Romans were really proud of being human and thought the human person was so gorgeous that they made all of these wonderful sculptures. So this year, I decided to say to the women who participated, ‘You’re beautiful and exceptional and we’re going to make you into a statue.’ “
Although it was a bit chilly this year in the desert, “Paul’s work allowed for so many women to shine in all their glory and perfect flaws, and was truly something to behold,” says Heather Kasey, 42. “For me, it’s the feeling of belonging to something a bit bigger than myself and knowing that we all celebrate each other with no boundaries and love in our hearts.”
“Each year that I’ve participated, I have grown as a person,” adds Postel. “Paul has provided a way for women to see and feel the beauty of being, to embrace ourselves and embrace others and acceptance.”