by Tamara Moan
My neighbor calls it my “stripper job.” I drop my clothes to pose nude for figure drawing classes. It’s not as titillating as it sounds. I sit as still as possible on a hard stool in a drafty room, eyes focused on a grimy spot on the paint-spattered wall, trying my best to ignore the itch on my nose or the cramp in my right calf.
And yet, this test of modesty and stamina has its rewards. I get to meditate or work out problems in my head. Often I’ll figure out how to fix a painting composition I’ve been struggling with or figure out how to rearrange a story plot while I sit there. Then there’s the thrill when I see a drawing on someone’s paper: It’s me! The more surprising reward has been the new relationship I have with my own body.
Many models in art studios or classrooms are young students, artists, dancers, actors or other creative types wanting to supplement their income. I didn’t, however, take my turn on the model stand until I was past 40.I had a number of other careers behind me and had spent many years on the other side of the easel as an artist. In part I started modeling out of annoyance. Unimaginative poses irked me – models who had a repertoire of two stances (stand on the left leg, stand on the right), models who looked bored, models who were too lazy to turn and face a different direction in the room.
I also wanted to confront my own fears. I’d never stood naked before a roomful of spectators. What could that be like? Would I collapse in a pool of shame? Or would I rise above my own insecurities about my body? Embarrassing scenes from my past came to mind – my childhood piano recital when I blanked out and had to restart from the beginning; the wrong lines I delivered in a play, sending the whole cast into Act III before we’d finished Act II; the basketball free throw I missed, causing my high school team to lose by one point.
The night of my first modeling session arrived. A friend had gathered a few artists for a private drawing session. I opened the door to the studio and found a room full of friends and acquaintances and tried to smile bravely. In the bathroom I changed from my clothes into a robe, trying to decide if it would be easier or harder to be naked in front of people I knew. Back in the studio, I tried to chat but I had to swallow a lot. My hands kept fluttering and fiddling with the belt of my robe. My nervousness crept into my armpits and I felt a single drop of sweat snake down my side.Finally it was time to start. I stepped up to the model stand. I hesitated, my hand at my belt, but all my unease – the tightness in my stomach, the shakes in my fingers – fell away the moment I untied my robe and let it drop to the floor. My self-consciousness was replaced by an intense and minute awareness of my body. I felt every breath as it eased in and out of my lungs. I sensed the heat rising from my skin, creating clouds of warmth around the creases of my elbows, anywhere limbs touch. I could pinpoint each of the muscles that held me in place, acutely aware of every spot that supported my weight.
After that first session, I began to model for regular drawing classes. My focus quickly became not “What personal flaw will everyone see?” but “How can I make myself into an interesting composition for these artists?” This is the part I enjoy. For me, success is when artists put their sketches up on the wall and I can see that everyone in the room got to work with an interesting view. That is, they got to see more than one side of my body, limbs interacted, the angles of torso, neck, thigh created interesting shapes and variety. As an abstract composition, the body can be more than a box with four sticks attached and a knob on top.
In our culture, nakedness raises hundreds of issues. We’re unwilling to identify with our bodies, reluctant to accept our bodies’ inconsistencies and failures. We can’t deal with the disparity between our physical ideals and reality, the insecurities our bodies represent. A rack of supermarket magazines reveals how obsessed we Americans are with physical perfection. The covers are full of airbrushed 16-year-olds and headlines like “Lose 10 pounds overnight” and “Flat abs in 21 days.” Sickness, aging, and death are treated as bad habits to be cured or avoided by eating the right amount of broccoli and flax seed. To hide our lumpy bodies, we use clothes as an artful disguise, projecting our desired identities through style and color. Stripped naked, we no longer have that adopted identity. We’ve only got what we’re born with.
Over time, starting in my thirties, I’ve found an increasing willingness to identify with my body. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable posing nude. The self-examination and self-acceptance it requires would have been too painful for me. For years I’d thought of myself as too heavy, too tall, too flat-chested, too whatever. I made a deliberate decision to stop comparing myself to the magazine covers and start congratulating my body according to its functions. I consciously appreciated my legs for walking me so far, my arms for easily carrying groceries or throwing a baseball. It was a sort of self-help, positive thinking tactic, but it actually helped change the voice in my head. At this point in my life – my late-forties — I feel good about who I am physically. I’m also pleasantly surprised at my ease with my own nakedness. And the practice of baring my skin to others has only increased my self-confidence. The fear of self-exposure has dwindled and my new fearlessness has slopped over into other arenas. If I’ve already been naked in front of someone, there’s no point in hiding anything else, and if I’ve revealed everything to the artists I’m in front of, why hide anything from anyone else? I’m more comfortable with who I am, flat chest, bookish bent, tomboy habits, social awkwardness and all.
To be naked is also to expose our sexual selves. Displayed on the model’s stand however, the mystery and allure evaporate quickly. Genitals are not such a special attraction in the context of the whole body.
As with any other job, there are little tricks I’ve learned while modeling. Poses typically range from 30 seconds to 25 minutes and the model usually chooses the stance. A lunging position with raised arms is fine for 30 seconds but torture to hold longer. Sometimes I’ve tried new things that are mistakes, like going up on tiptoe or holding a stool aloft. My leg will start shaking uncontrollably and I have to begin counting breaths to calm myself and make the time pass. I make a mental note: “Don’t try this again.”
The longer the pose, the more comfortable the position I choose. A typical class starts with short poses for quick gesture drawings, followed by longer and longer poses (5, 10, 15, 20 minutes). At 10 minutes, I sit more than stand; by 20 I’m even closer to the floor, folded as comfortably as possible or reclining completely. Even an easy reclining pose can put my leg to sleep or make my hip or shoulder ache after 20 minutes. If I’m very lucky, I can close my eyes and take a cat nap.
Temperature’s important. If the room’s too hot I’m sweating, too cold and I’m shaking and blue. My preferred temperature is 76 degrees. I’ve realized we wear clothes for reasons beyond vanity.
Models pick up tips from each other. One friend who formerly made her living as an artist’s model told me, “Don’t put your ass on anything unknown.” Anything and everything in an art studio is usually filthy– floors, walls, chairs, cushions. I always drape my own clean robe or cloth over whatever I’m resting on. Her other advice was to deal ruthlessly with perverts (close the doors, shut the blinds, kick anybody out who’s there for a thrill). I haven’t run into that situation but I plan to be blunt and direct. And her last word of advice: Always make sure you get paid.
I work on Oahu, a medium-sized island in the Pacific, and my life intersects with many different groups including artists and writers. Modeling in a town with a small, tight-knit arts community means there’s no anonymity. I’d always thought it would be easier to model where no one knew me, like performing behind stage lights that would blind me to the audience.I thought, “If those people with charcoal and paper don’t know me, they’ll just think of me as a body, not as someone they really know who is now standing here naked.”
Living where I do, I had to skip the anonymity part. I’ve never modeled yet where I didn’t know at least one person in the group from another – clothed – context. Sometimes the realization makes me gulp or blush but it no longer unnerves me the way it used to. Sometimes it unnerves the person who knows me. Once I was in the middle of a session when an old family friend walked in behind me. I didn’t see her until the break. She greeted me warmly and said “I only gasped once when I realized it was you.” Now, after modeling for eight years, I have dropped my robe in front of former instructors, fellow artists, the mother of a former child student, and even my own mother (an artist herself).
What I learned as a student in drawing classes is that there is a huge diversity in body types and it’s all good: skinny, fat, tall, short, dark, light, old, young. We’re all humans, expressive through our bodies and expressive in how we use our bodies to draw. When I pose nude I bare myself for the education of others’ hands and eyes. They learn to look without distraction and to shorten the gap between perception and expression. In baring myself, I’ve come to understand the capability and power of my own body. I’m not a dancer, but I can express emotion through the position of my arms or the angle of my head. I can tell stories with my stance. I can express an attitude about my body and about who I am. I take possession of myself.
One of the mental techniques for making a blind contour drawing – drawing outlines and edges without looking at the paper – is to imagine your pencil tip is physically touching what your eye is looking at. You imagine the touch of pencil along shoulder-upper arm-elbow while the pencil makes its mark on paper. Sometimes as I sit quietly in a pose, I imagine the tips of those pencils tracing over my skin. A web of delicate, slow lines, like a pattern of spider filaments, covers me in layers. Over and over, pencil lines wind over me, capturing me with gentle, attentive marks.
Art making is a collaboration between artist and subject. For me, to be a model is to participate in an act of transformation. I bring my body, my attitudes, and my emotion to the collaboration. The artist brings paper, pencils, charcoal, pens, ink, brushes, and paint plus their own perceptions and the facility and vocabulary of their hands. The result reflects us both.
Figurative work by its nature is mainly about humans and can reflect the artist’s own humanity. The body – the artist’s own body and the model’s body — is an organic form that contains stories and emotion and can show the whole range of human experience. An artist who draws the figure is a storyteller. Without me, the artist might instead draw a box or a flower, a still life or a landscape. When I’m not a model, my life stories unspool without finding their way to paper or canvas. Without the artist, I am simply a woman standing naked.
Tamara Moan lives and works in Kailua, Oahu. Her poetry and nonfiction have been published in literary journals as well as national circulation arts magazines.