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A Nude Model's Story of Humility and Joy

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I was going to be an important and well-paid writer, see. The modelling thing, that was just to tide me over till the whole writing gig took off, because I knew that you could basically walk in off the street and get work taking your clothes off for artists. But in the end, I found I liked it so much that I never gave it up. I found that there are many advantages to modelling for artists, though none of them is what you'd expect.

When you model, especially naked (or nude, like that makes any difference), people think it's because you have this huge ego. The reality would deflate any such pretensions. I think it was the very first class I ever worked with, during a longer standing pose (the bane of all art models,) the instructor was walking amongst the students as they drew, helping out and critiquing, admonishing one student on his inclusion of irrelevant detail. "You don't have to draw every dimple on her butt, man!" he barked out behind me.

There are people 360 degrees around me as I do a series of poses that will range from 30 seconds to three hours in length. There is always an unflattering angle, and someone eager to record its every detail. I don't have frown lines or jowls (yet) but the winsome college students I model for routinely draw me with them both; (they're plane changes, for God's sake!)

A drawing instructor was once giving a class tips about a seated pose I was taking. She got to my thighs and looked at me anxiously, pointing out how the roundness of the thigh becomes flattened into a wider oval when sitting. She had this funny look on her face, like she hated to mention it, and when I looked at the class they were sporting funny looks too. I wanted to jump up and down and yell at them, "Look at your own thighs, for God's sake! They're doing the exact same thing!" But somehow, photography and the prevalence of two-dimensional images in our media-drenched society have given everyone the idea that they look like their favourite Photoshopped picture. They've forgotten what they really look like in the round.

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Humility, and a de-investment of my ego in their perceptions and opinions were an essential and unexpected consequence. I'd go insane if I worried about how anyone saw or depicted me, and what becomes obvious is that what they depict has as much or more to do with them than me in any case. I remain the same, yet all their drawings and paintings and sculptures somehow show something different each time. It really is about them -- not me.

As an art model, you learn the painfully concrete truth of the Buddhist notion of impermanence. People assume that a long pose sitting or standing is easy; you're getting paid for doing nothing. But even the seemingly most comfortable of poses becomes the most exquisite torture eventually. You learn about each of the muscles that hold you in place in various positions because they will all hurt at some point. You definitely learn both the reach and limitations of your own body.

When students start to learn sculpting, they often make a bust and it's an odd thing that the first attempt, (and possibly many after that,) will actually look far more like them than it will me, the model. How does that happen? When you see small babies in the crib, they're often looking around, excited at absolutely everything they see from the crib and toys to their own fingers and toes. At some point, Mom and Dad's repetition of the word 'hand' clicks. That funny looking thing at the end of their arms is called a hand -- and they never really observe or examine it again. 'Hand' becomes a concept, a symbol, a word, and along with other human features, is based on self-reference, so when you go to sculpt a face, your brain tries to reproduce the features it knows the best -- your own. Learning to draw and sculpt from direct observation retrains the eye to actually see what is in front of it rather than substituting its own set of shorthand symbols.

On the practical side, I've learned to draw by osmosis, (the images are mine -- completed in five minutes each at my very first attempt at life drawing without ever attending a class that I wasn't modelling for). It also cuts down on laundry.

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The real reason I still do it after 14 odd years though is that I'm totally hooked on being part of the artistic process. It works best if I get into a kind of meditative state, not ironically the same kind of state that produces good drawings, paintings and sculptures too. It ends up as a Zen dance, all of us in the room not thinking, just doing. I'm in the centre twisting and turning in various visually interesting ways and all I hear is the scratching of conté on paper, then when I change positions a furious rustling for a fresh sheet before the scratching resumes. It's like something that starts with me, is then filtered through the artist and what emerges as a work of art is a third and separate entity that includes bits of us both.

It's a cool high. Long live art students.

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