Becoming Kiora

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on December 23, 2016

By Maria Bartholdi

Maria is one half of the podcast Magic the Amateuring. When she's not working on the podcast, she's probably in an improv show, speaking Welsh, or thinking about popcorn. Rakdos is the true nature of her heart.

Foam from a yoga mat. A tutu. Spray paint. An old baseball cap. Duct tape.

Hours behind a sewing machine. Hours hand-painting. Hours editing.

"Should I add another layer here?"

Hours in front of a mirror, getting the details right.

"How will my skin react to this glue?"

Hours spent researching, poring over lore.

You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. A smile breaks across your face.

"Yeah, it's all worth it."

You don't just look like Kiora.

You are Kiora.

It takes a long time to get from that pile of yoga-mat foam and discarded tutu tulle to Kiora, the Crashing Wave. More than a year, in fact.

"It was a lot of doing, then waiting for something to dry," says cosplayer MJ Scott. The makeup alone for this costume takes three hours to perfect.

MJ has loved costumes since she was three years old, but, until recently, she never considered dressing up as a character from a game. "I thought once you hit adulthood it was something you only did on Halloween or at theme parties." Her perspective quickly changed as soon as she saw other people dressing up as characters from Magic, a game she'd been playing for a handful of years.

"I was like, 'I should do that. I need to do that.'"

But where do you start? After all, really becoming a character isn't as easy as knowing how to sew, glue, or apply makeup. It's not as simple as knowing a character's relevant flavor texts or having an affinity for acting.

For MJ, it all starts at the source: the character's story.

"I'll meditate on the character while I'm building the costume, look up background information, and reread the relevant Magic Story," she says. "Sometimes I'll think up a scene or jot down a story that helps me understand the character better." She'll also make custom playlists based on the character she is building. The first song on the Kiora list? "Pound the Alarm" by Nicki Minaj.

Sometimes she goes even deeper—and tastier. "One thing that helps me is eating and drinking what I think the character would eat and drink."

I asked her what she ate while designing her Liliana cosplay.

"A T-bone steak, done perfectly rare."

Seems about right.

Like lots of Magic players, MJ loves fantasy and all sorts of different fantasy realms. But she's specifically drawn to Magic characters when she cosplays. It's not only because of their often intricate storylines, but also because of what those characters stand for.

"Magic is actively working to represent women, people of color, and people who don't fit into the 'vanilla sci-fi/fantasy profile' in fair, artistically interesting ways." And that hits home for MJ. It's actually a large part of the reason she chose to build a costume for Kiora.

MJ feels a deep respect for the heritage of native islanders around the world, especially those in Hawaii. Her father grew up in Hawaii, and she often visited there as a child. And while the design for Kiora wasn't directly influenced by native Hawaiians, she is said to be partially inspired by other native islanders—the Maori of New Zealand.

"In Kiora, I see that same kind of enduring strength," MJ says. "And those transcendent, innate ties to the land present in native cultures. I think Kiora's ties to Zendikar and the tragedy of the Eldrazi on that plane are a strong parallel to native experiences, and I strove to artistically portray that kind of emotional gravity with this costume."

MJ imagined standing in the surf of Waikiki as she painted, sewed, and made alterations.

Despite her indisputable love for the land and her people, "Kiora is not an easy person to like," MJ admits. "She's a Planeswalker we're still struggling to understand."

After all, she is responsible for a popular character's death—even if it was a mistake made with the best of intentions. But beyond her tentacled tussle with the Eldrazi and her audacious mission to steal a weapon from a god, we don't know that much about Kiora.

We know is that she's courageous, foolhardy, and determined. She already feels complex, conflicted, and tragic. Her moniker of "The Crashing Wave" feels quite apt. And MJ likes that.

"I love that duality," MJ says. "I have a feeling she has a lot of epic adventures in her future."

"Don't be afraid to fail" is MJ's top tip to would-be cosplayers.

It's simple advice that's not so simple to follow. But, if you need a place to start, MJ suggests finding a piece of art you love or a character you identify with on a personal level.

Before embarking on Kiora, MJ was drawn almost exclusively to black mages because she loved the way they talked about the struggle between selfish, destructive urges and the desire to love and show compassion. "[It's a battle] for most people, but only the black mages will readily discuss it," MJ says. For her, it's not only about the character's personality, but also about what she's examining in her own life.

MJ offers a second piece of advice for those interested in entering the world of cosplay: start small. "Don't be afraid to use something pre-made as a starting point," she recommends. Accessorizing as a character would, or modifying an existing piece of clothing from your closet or a generic costume piece picked up in a pop-up Halloween shop still counts as cosplay.

For instance, Kiora's headdress started as nothing more than an old baseball cap. She cut off the brim and dyed it blue. She sculpted the jewel out of a polymer clay and attached it with rubber cement. Next came the best part: the tutu. She attached it to the cap, upside down. The final step was adding some (real!) bird feathers along with foam cutouts to give the piece authentic detail and textural depth.

The journey to becoming a professional cosplayer isn't for everyone. Forget about wearing your heart on your sleeve, this is wearing your heart into a crowded convention center and having thousands of people photograph it. The gig can come with some pressure.

Even MJ isn't immune to the stress of the job. She struggles with the urge to make costume pieces picture-perfect every time. "I get angry when I don't see results fast enough," she says. "I have to constantly remind myself to enjoy the process and keep the play in cosplay."

But the real test of the costume isn't in the details. It isn't on the hangar or the dress form. It's the moment the costume becomes real—when the cosplayer puts it on and transforms into character.

For MJ, cosplay falls somewhere in between acting and modeling. "You're playing a character, but you're also trying to make the costume look good at the same time," she says.

Whether she'll respond to fans in character depends on the person she's portraying. As the Elf from Seek the Wilds at Grand Prix Atlanta, MJ chatted with onlookers freely since the Elf wasn't a "named" character and didn't have a distinct backstory. It'll be a different story at Grand Prix Portland this summer when she dons Liliana. "I will definitely be in character," she promises. "And I'll have the Chain Veil. So don't sass me."

Cosplay is a both deeply personal and entirely public love for MJ. She's passionate about creating work that explores parts of her own psyche as well as global issues. It's simultaneously small and intimate, large and universal.

"At the very least," MJ says, "it's a harmless form of self-expression, escapism, and entertainment. At its best, it's an art that can inspire, build communities, and change perspectives."

Be sure to stop by and say hello to MJ if you see her cosplaying at an event you attend. Know that hundreds of hours of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into creating the character you see before you. Actually, at that point, maybe it's not even a character anymore.

"By the time I step out of the bathroom after my final makeup check, I feel good to go," MJ says.

"By that point, I am that individual."

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