When I tell people outside of the art world that I model, they often seem confused. Not clothes, I clarify. Usually at this point, they sigh in relief and confess that they couldn’t see me as a model of clothes, and that this is meant as a compliment because those women are spooky. I usually feel a mixture of pride, resentment, and defensiveness on the part of these spooky girls. The female figure has just been judged in such a lightning fast hypocritical manner that I almost can’t quite keep track of my own position on the subject.
But then, I tell them that my job consists of taking my clothes off in a little room or curtained-off area, donning a robe, coming out of the little room, standing in the middle of a studio, taking off the robe in a way that gives the illusion that I have never worn anything other than a robe in my life, and contorting myself into odd positions while artists draw or paint and photographers photograph. They ask me, How long do I do this for at one time? I say, for hours. Until my knees feel like they’re bending in the wrong direction. Until every last one of my fingers and toes, as well as parts of my body I didn’t know I had, fall asleep. Then they ask me if I like it. Yes, I say, I love it.
My first modeling job was for the drawing group that a painter friend attended weekly in Quincy. One night they lacked a model, and she asked me if I would like to do it. Their wanting me was confusing. I didn’t think I was enough of an artistic spectacle to be of interest. I was not a dancer, nor was I an acrobat, nor was I particularly muscular or in possession of what most would call “bone structure.” But the painter assured me that I had “a Classical kind of shape” that was quite in demand among artists. I think I said yes primarily because I was an artist looking to do something interesting and strange for cash, and secondly because I was curious about what it would be like to be the subject of art rather than the creator of it. Then there was the fact that models drew for free, as is true of many drawing groups. I was seventeen, below the age that one is meant to be allowed to do such things, although this never occurred to me at the time.
I took the T out to Quincy, nearer to the end of the line than I had ever been, my stomach empty. I can still remember how the floor beneath my feet seemed to undulate as I disrobed. I can remember how I sweated beneath the studio lights, which are invariably hot as terrarium lamps. I was nervous; I was shaking, but the artists were encouraging and sweet; they only snarled at one another, not at me. I was so brightly illuminated, studied by a semi-invisible audience, like a bug under glass on a stage. They were looking at me. They could see me–all of me. I have never been overly hampered by modesty. However, I would be lying if I claimed to be completely unabashed by my exposure to these strangers. It wasn’t until I realized that they were utterly unconcerned with how I looked in the context of clothes, or compared to other young women, that I really began to relax and enjoy myself. My body was just that, a body. It had never been anything else and it never would be anything else. I was surprised at how much I liked that.
In fact, I wanted to do it again. After I turned eighteen I began to advertise (a flier in the window of Utrecht) and received quite a few jobs that way. Each time I would meet with an artist or group of artists at their studio, we would talk about what they had in mind and negotiate poses; I would disrobe and they would draw, and often we would talk. We would discuss art and literature and cats, and they would ask me what my plans were for college. It was kind of like being at a cocktail party, making small talk. The nudity was always surprisingly easy to disregard. During lulls in conversation the atmosphere would shift toward professional. They were working, as I was, and as such, neither of us was inclined to misbehave. We each acknowledged our privileges and admired the scenery. Once I happened to look up during a reclining pose in someone’s parlor in Newton and was shocked to see an original Chagall hanging on the far wall. Only after I left did I consider whether they were worried that I might come back and raid the place.
The trust that exists between artist and model is elemental in the creation of good art, but it can be hard to achieve. To be nude in the presence of a stranger is to be vulnerable, but an artist intent on working must also acknowledge their dependence upon the model’s comfort. Ideally, when both parties are aware of their dependencies, a balance of trust is made possible. I have talked to many artists who have had bad experiences with models, and just as many models who have had bad experiences with artists. One artist told me a chilling tale in which a model in his employ proceeded to overdose on heroin in his studio bathroom. A model friend I worked with in tandem once told me the story of a photographer who hired her to shoot outdoors on a beach, and who, after throwing a very artistic tantrum, picked up her gear and drove away from the shoot, leaving the model naked and stranded. While I am aware that somewhere down the line I might meet with an unfortunate appointment, as would reflect the law of averages, I am happy to say that it hasn’t happened yet. In close to ten years I have never been put in the position of feeling unsafe, or of feeling undervalued for my skill. How strange I feel as a woman, never mind as a woman who takes off her clothes to work, admitting that.
It should be noted at this point that my experience as a twenty-first century artists’ model is not at all consistent with that of my predecessors. Think about all the faces that stare out at you from the walls of museums, from the walls of dentists’ offices, from famous advertisements and illustrations… all of their faces. Despite their status as symbols, the power these models represent is still rooted in their objectification. Despite the amount of work they did, they are not credited by the artist. Usually they’re anonymous; we’ll never know who they were. They have been joined forever with the images of idealized women through the ages, when many of them were prostitutes (a well-bred lady of stature would have never modeled nude in those days). For most of history, being a model has not been a profession for respectable women. When they were known, in the case of the models of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for instance, they were still primarily wives, idols, muses, and property, not professionals. I’d advise you to try to see them the next time you encounter a work of art made famous by virtue of its creator. It’s so easy not to see them. They were all living women (in fact some of these women were men, keeping Michelangelo in mind). Look around. They’ve been looking out at you all your life.
After struggling to wrap their minds around my unorthodox profession, people often proceed to ask me what I like so much about modeling. It’s strange, because this question is being posed to me as a model, and I tend to answer from the perspective of an artist. It’s one of the times that the two sides are indistinguishable from each other. My answer is this: I love the rich subject that is the human figure. Bodies are fascinating, whether they are whole, fragmented, ideal, or taboo. They are all connected to each other and to the earth through their underlying structure. They are us. Since there has been a human desire to create art, so has there been the desire to depict ourselves as the subject of such art. It could be one of the most definitive ways in which identity is explored in creation, the construction of a mirror preceding and continuing past the object’s invention. As an artist, I am able to examine this creative process objectively. As a model, I am able to physically step into it and understand.