Interview: Kathleen Rooney, author of Live Nude Girl

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

By Katherine Wootton

Kathleen Rooney bared it all—and got paid to do it. In her new memoir, Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object, Rooney recounts her experiences as a nude life drawing model, exploring the history and culture of the practice and examining the idea of the nude form as a commodity, both in the art world and in modern society. She recently took a few moments from her 25-city book tour to g-chat with interviewer Katherine Wootton. You can read the transcript of their conversation below, and an excerpt from Live Nude Girl here. -Elizabeth Minkel

Katherine Wootton:  Hey—are you all set?

Kathleen Rooney:  Fired up, ready to go. Shall we?

Wootton:  Let’s.

You address this a little in your final chapter: How would you compare being nude/naked as an art object to writing a memoir? Does being exposed physically and mentally, both in controlled ways, feed the same compulsion?

Rooney:  The line between posing nude and composing a memoir is, for me, fairly direct, which is something I didn’t notice or realize until the book was getting close to being done. I don’t mean for that to sound cheesey, or to say people automatically “lay themselves bare” when they write directly from their lives, but there is that element of making yourself vulnerable in both taking your clothes off for art and in writing a book based on personal experiences.

More than that, I think both posing and writing are thrilling and rewarding, but also terrifying because you do both in front of an audience, and you hope that audience will be pleased with what they see/read, but you also know you can’t please everyone all the time. It’s a rush either way.

Wootton:  When you speak of your motivation to pose, you specifically call it a compulsion, does it come from that rush of being exposed? Is there also an element of validation of self in being repeatedly “seen” (or “read”)?

Rooney:  Short answers to both questions: yes and yes. Longer answer to both:

The thrill from being exposed is a great motivator, but I’d hasten to say that that exposure comes not just from the nudity itself (which tends to get fairly old hat in the first 30 seconds or so of any given session), but from the larger idea of exposing oneself to new things—new people, new opinions, new ideas. Many of the other models I met while working in the field and with whom I spoke while researching the book shared my take on the job, which is that one of the best things about it is you get to spend time around all these brilliant painters and sculptors and photographers, and be a part of a collaborative creative process. Though the model is theoretically silent—an object—in practice, he or she can, of course, talk and think out loud and respond to what’s going on around him or her, and this can lead—at least if you are working one on one with an artist and not in a class full of 20 people—to more interesting art.

As for being seen/read, it is without a doubt validating, but it can also be troubling. I don’t want for “validation” to sound needy, though, like models go around needing to be approved of–the process is more like the epigraph that E.M. Forster used for Howard’s End: “Only Connect.” A writer—and a good model and a good artist—is on some level interested in reaching outside his or her own body or experience and connecting with other people.

Wootton:  You’re quite honest about the occasions of sexual tension that some of your sessions elicited. Is this an extension of that kind of Forsterian connection? How is being seen specifically in a sexual way in the posing environment different from the same kind of attention elsewhere?

Rooney:  The posing environment in a classroom—and often in a one-on-one session with an individual artist—is very human, but also highly ritualized. In a class, typically, a model does 20 minutes of posing, takes a 5 minute break, does 20 more minutes, then 5 and so on. Often this is replicated in private sessions, and it’s almost like a dance.

These traditions or patterns can, in a situaton where there might be an attraction between the artist and his or her model, work to heighten the sexual tension, but also to frustrate it. In the book, I quote Donald Barthelme quoting Freud, who says “The value the mind sets on erotic needs instantly sinks as soon as satisfaction becomes readily available. Some obstacle is necessary to swell the tide of the libido to its height, and at all periods of history, whenever natural barriers have not sufficed, men have erected conventional ones.” The artist-model relationship is, or can be full of such barriers and this can sometimes be, for lack of a better term, really hot.

Wootton:  To shift focus a bit—you address the assumed cultural and social taboo and shame of nudity, which you connect to your religion, Catholicism, and, by extension, your family. In the book you mention how you navigated the conflict with family members. How does your willingness to pose interact with your religion? Your perception of what is modest and immodest in others?

Rooney:  I was raised in an extremely devout environment, by hardcore church-going parents, and I have many relatives who are members of the clergy—in my grandmother’s family of six children, to give a handy example, three of the four boys became priests (one of them is even a bishop) and one of the two girls became a nun. So my disappointment in the Church as an institution and my falling away from that tradition is no small spot of contention among my family members. For years, I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my parents that I was posing nude because I knew they would disapprove, and even now—though they are, to their credit, very supportive—they wish maybe I hadn’t gone and written a book about it. With hindsight, it seems that my decision to become an art model was a deliberate (and maybe kind of obvious) public rejection of certain elements of a faith tradition that says that bodies, especially women’s bodies, are just vessels or temporary containers for the soul. One of the most appealing aspects of the use of the human figure in art seems to be that all bodies are welcome—art classes seem to be one of the last spaces where bodies—real, non-surgically altered bodies of all ages, races and sizes—are truly welcome and appreciated.

I’d add to my answer to that last question that whether or not you believe, as the Bible teaches, that we are made in God’s image (which you would think would be cause for respect for all people, including their bodies), it’s refreshing and important to maintain a space where bodies are evaluated frankly and honestly, but with care and respect, which is typically the case in an artist-model situation. And it can also be very empowering for men and for women, on both sides of the easel.

Wootton:  One of the things you talk about in conjunction with the all-bodies-welcome nature of life modeling and art in general, is being increasingly aware and glad of your appearance as one that is young, thin, and female (the current pop-cultural social ideal). Has the experience of modeling made physical appearance (yours individually and those of the general populus) more important to you generally, and happy to find artists who connect with you individually through it, or has commodifying your figure and having artists fail to ‘see’ you in there made you value, and notice, non-physical attributes more?

Rooney:  At first, I sort of thought that maybe being a young-thin-female model was somehow easier or less risky or empowering than being a model whose appearance falls outside that hot-commodity-category. But in conversations with other models and artists, especially the photographer Amanda Tetrault (who has put herself on both sides of the lens) and the painter Jeremy Hoffeld (who has done the same), I think it can be a way NOT to totally buy into the women’s-magazine concept of what a woman “should” look like or how a body should or should not be governed. As the model, you have a lot of control, a lot of agency, about when and where you will be exposed and seen. I talk about this in my first chapter in particular, but unlike in a lot of normal, non-nude jobs, I’ve never been sexually harrassed or made to feel like I’m not the one in control in an art modeling situation.

So in that regard, for me, and again, for a lot of the models I’ve spoken with—including a former student I helped get into art modeling when she expressed an interest—posing can be a way to reject stereotypes and commodification, and to assert yourself on your terms, or at least on terms that fall outside the frequently depressing and disgusting mainstream.

Wootton:  You often mention art as a means to a kind of immortality; is the desire to be seen and be recorded part of a more universal urge to resist death? Would you describe that urge as essentially vain?

Rooney:  To paraphrase John Berger, art is often used to conjure up the image of that which is absent. A big part of being able to stay present in life is being aware of, but able to functionally ignore, the huge looming fact that eventually we will all be dead—permanently absent from this life as we know it (ooooh, deep). So while it may sometimes be vain in kind of an “Ozymandias”/Percy Shelley “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” kind of way, ultimately, the urge to leave a legacy—by painting a picture or being the subject of one, by writing a book or having one written about you, is human.

Wootton:  What did you have to leave out of the book that you hated to lose? What do you wish I would ask (and what is the answer)?

Rooney:  I hate to be the last to leave party—the guest who stays too long—so I wanted the book to tend toward the shorter side, at 200 pages or so. I think I hit what I was aiming for in that regard. But of course, I had to leave out a lot in order to accomplish that, both in terms of art history and in terms of good stories and experiences I had with artists and classes. But that’s what interviews and book tours are for, I suppose. So to answer your last question: I wish you would ask about my ongoing 25-city book tour!

I’ve done 8 stops so far, through the West Coast and Midwest, and am about to head to the East Coast next week. I’ve been traveling with my friend, the fiction writer Kyle Minor, and we’ve been keeping a blog about it, and it’s been so fun. To keep with the theme of exposure, it’s been great to read our work to audiences along with various other talented writers, and to experience the displacement of traveling to a lot of places in a little time.

Thanks, Katherine!

Wootton:  You’re welcome! I do love a good interview ;)

Rooney:  This was great—-your questions rock!


READ an excerpt from the book

BUY a copy of Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object

VISIT Kathleen Rooney’s website

CHECK OUT the book tour blog

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