I have a lightweight mauve-colored robe...
I have a lightweight mauve-colored robe I bought on sale at Nordstrom’s that I used to cart everywhere with me around Denver, Boulder and Manhattan. It lives in a bag with toe-holed suede ballet flats that are perpetually covered with dirt or stone dust. The robe itself has traces of oil and acrylic paints, most in light smudges or strokes. This is my pre-work uniform when I prepare to pose for a group of artists. My actual work uniform is not so much what I put on, but rather what I take off. I’ve seen classes, books and trainings offered in art modeling, but really all it is dropping your clothes and holding your body still till the buzzer rings. It’s both one of the easiest and hardest jobs I’ve ever had.
I started modeling in graduate school, while I was working on my master of fine arts degree in interdisciplinary art, with an emphasis in writing and performance. I’ve been called an exhibitionist, but to tell the truth, modeling nude for artists is the least sexualized thing I’ve done. Taking off my clothes is a service, not for the artist, but for the page. We’re both there for the page. The artist’s job is to draw me for the page, and mine is to hold still, straightforward as that.
Get all you want about nude models being sex exhibitionists out right now and brace yourself. My story is quite different.
When I first started, I was modeling for two figure drawing groups, one in Denver and one in Boulder, so I was taking my clothes off on a daily basis. I was also doing privates for an artist in Boulder. Not a studio, his living room. Not the most professional of settings. But safe. Generally not recommended for a new model. But reasonable. He had a pet parakeet he kept in his bedroom during our sessions, and often he would break poses to go pet or talk to her. Sometimes she would watch him draw me. I once heard someone liken bird watching to bird porn. I wonder if this was the same for the parakeet. Lots of times he and I would talk through the poses, and as time went by, I was wearing my robe more and more because he was mostly interested in drawing my portrait. In addition to wanting someone to draw, he was also looking for someone to talk to. I got it. He was lonely. Was this what it was all about?
I started to realize that artists come to figure drawing groups for a variety of reasons. For most, it’s a way to keep their chops up. They’re not looking at a naked model as much as they’re looking for lines. But for a few, it’s cheaper than a strip club. They usually don’t last long in the setting. The lack of sexuality in the air will invariably send them to a porn shop instead. There’s the single, the married, the divorced, the never-will-be-married, the young, the old, the genuine, the inappropriate and all permutations in between. Then there are the women. Most are there to draw, some are there to see if they want to model, and others are there to pick up lonely, horny guys. They’re the smart ones. A relaxed setting with the premise of drawing, with the undercurrent of sexual tension and repressed libido.
My fiance, who ran the Denver group, was booking me on a weekly basis, and he called a lot. He would serve me wine during my breaks and keep me after class, sometimes for up to half an hour, just talking. We started spending more time together, going out for lunch, catching movies, and watching his friends perform in bars. I liked the attention, but I was so used to him seeing me naked, I didn’t realize that he was also trying to take me out, not until the night before I left to move to the East Coast, and he kissed me in my car. There, I saw the sterilized rituals I had created to protect my nudity were only for me. I was attracted to him, but until that night, posing nude for him was really just a job and nothing else. It was an entirely different perception for him.
Here is where I realize a connection between nude work and performance work—perceptions change from person to person, especially when it’s transferred between performer and audience member. What a performer intends to create on stage isn’t always how his or her presence or work is perceived by the audience. The same goes for art modeling. While I intended to remain a motionless object, others were perceiving me in other ways. For the artist in Boulder, it was someone to talk to. For my fiance, it was a sexual attraction that developed into him wanting more than our established work relationship.
There’s a perceived rebellion or lowering of oneself when they strip off their clothes for others, but in the art world, it’s a transaction of respect. And it’s through that respect that I learned not so much a new way of performing art, but a new way of respecting myself and my work as a performance student. Really, there’s no better way to get over stage fright than to stand naked in front of people who are scrutinizing every possible way they are rendering your body.
-- Excerpted from nakedladyinawhitesilkdress.wordpress.com