Don’t forget to sacrifice those virgins, spring is on its way! Here’s a little article I wrote about my time as an artist’s model and the way it changed my view of the human body – as well as exploring others, including Edie Sedgwick, who became more than the sum of their parts. Enjoy!
It’s my birthday today and I’m editing my novel before going off to pose nude. Later I shall be watching a documentary about sideshows and then Derren Brown. Woo! Saturday I’m off to a burlesque night, I shall go into detail for my Alternative Travel series.
I may have mentioned that I work at a few colleges as a life model. I mostly keep to myself, I chat a bit with the teachers and read my book in the breaks, occasionally I speak to the students but not too much. Today the new students of the year began their life drawing classes after getting their GCSEs in the summer. I sometimes forget how earnest and serious you can be at that age, bless their cottons.
I was reading Paranormality by Richard Wiseman (very good by the way, surprisingly funny) when a young girl came over to me and introduced herself. I was a little taken aback and regressed into British formality by shaking her hand. We then had a short conversation which I will transcribe to the best of my memory.
All the words in bold reflect my thought process at the time.
Student: I don’t think it’s weird that you’re a life model.
Me: People – people think it’s weird? Uh, thank you.
Student: It’s not a sexual thing, it’s society that’s sexualised it
Me: They have? That’s right, yes.
Student: Does it make a difference when the artist knows you well, cause people just look at the model as an object which is horrible
Me: OK, I think I remember being like this Uh, well, I pose for friends too, and it’s fine either way
What would you consider to be a good job whilst studying for a degree? At the tender age of 20 I found out. Cleaning, bar work; all these things I did, at least for a while. I was terrible. Cleaning wasn’t so bad, but bar work was something else. I enjoy pubs, I still like being in them even though drinking is no longer one of my main pastimes. I like talking to people. However, I did find out that these are not necessarily good things for being a barmaid. You need an ability to add up, for one thing. An ability to remember drink orders for another. One member of staff thought I was so bad she asked me in all seriousness if I was on heroin, so it was clear I would have to do something different.
But what? A shop? It was possible, but again my lack of numerical skills made things difficult. I was living in Bath whilst studying, and managing to find a job in a shop was like looking for gold dust. Every student was making the same searches and all had got there first. However, none of that mattered. One day I managed to find the perfect job, in 2002, and it happened in a pub.
“I’m off to New Zealand, but I just can’t find anyone to cover my classes.” This was Teff, a lady who lived in a boat along the canal. She had striking, angular features and a shaved head. Her clothes were almost as colourful as mine. We were sitting in the beer garden of a pub called the Bell; a friendly relaxing place that often played reggae. Sipping on my cider I asked what she did. “Life modelling” was the unexpected reply. Life modelling? Without asking anything further the words just came out of my mouth.
“I’ll do it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yes, I don’t mind, I’ll do it.”
She seemed understandably skeptical. I was a young undergraduate who probably didn’t know much about life, let alone life modeling. However I eventually convinced her otherwise, possibly through desperation both on her part and mine. It was for the art and design section of the same college I studied at. ‘At least I’ll be amongst friends’, I thought.
The day arrived. It was a crisp morning in November, the kind that makes you feel as though it’s spring even though it’s quite cold. I had to be there for 9 AM and I made sure I was up early to have a bath. Forty minutes and a lot of moisturiser later I was ready. I felt excited rather than nervous, although in hindsight I was terrified. I made my way across the picturesque hills of Bath to the life drawing room. The first thing I noticed were the enormous windows. It was a spacious, airy room, with a wooden floor and a number of easels surrounding a long block on which a mattress was placed. I noticed with relief that there were curtains waiting to be pulled.
The teacher arrived first and was very friendly and welcoming, with soft brown eyes and mid length brown hair. Her overall impression was warm. I realised I didn’t know the process, the little details of what was to happen. In a very low voice, as students poured noisily in, I muttered that I hadn’t done it before. I was a nudity virgin. She smiled reassuringly and seemed a little surprised, but lent me a blanket to wrap around myself whilst I made the journey from changing area to mattress. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, I wasn’t ready to sashay amongst the students completely and utterly naked.
I went behind the tall changing stand, which reminded me of cartoons and films from the 40s where you could see the outline of the changing person as they flung undergarments over the top. I didn’t do that, I flung them untidily on the floor. I wrapped myself in the blanket, told myself to stop thinking about it and stepped out as confidently as possible towards the block. A chair had been placed on the mattress. Without catching anyone’s eye, I stepped through the gathered crowd who waited with charcoal in hand, onto the block and into the chair. ‘Ok’ I thought, ‘First part over, weirdest bit yet to come.’
The soft spoken teacher gave me a brief description of how she wanted me. “Sit facing towards the back of the chair with your arms resting on the top,” like some tough guy from American films. Just what was I supposed to do about the fact that I was wrapped in this blanket? I felt I wanted to be absolutely certain I was supposed to be undressed; at this stage I didn’t feel I could cope with the embarrassment if I got it wrong.
“Um…naked?” I asked stupidly. She nodded her head. I breathed in and whipped off my protecting layer. This was it, I had done it. I was nude in a chair, surrounded by people. They were just drawing. They were listening to long descriptions of angles and lines and proportion, and they were just drawing. No one shouted “Oh my God she’s naked!”
I deliberately hadn’t worn my glasses or contacts so that the students would be a distant comforting blur. After a while I began easing into the role, listening carefully to instructions on posture and positioning. I became so at ease that I dozed off during a lying down pose. I was awoken by the sound of my own snores. As I drifted gently back into consciousness, I became aware of three things. Firstly, it was a bit cold. Secondly, I was nude. Thirdly, I wasn’t at home. The jolt back into reality wasn’t as much of a shock as you would expect. It was more of a subtle surprise.
As I twisted myself into several more poses, daydreaming and running entire songs and films through my head to pass the time, my thoughts wandered onto the subject of art and nudity. Why was it acceptable to be nude in front of art classes, even though it’s as much about being paid to be naked as stripping or porn? Maybe the difference was that this was not intentionally to incite sexual thoughts – not that there’s anything wrong with that in my opinion. The naked body is certainly supposed to be one of the hardest things for artists to draw so therefore it makes sense that they should do it. However, how did it come about that public nudity was wrong, and those who decided clothes were too inhibiting were arrested? I myself admit I think the man who liked to ramble up hills naked must have been mad, or at least a bit cold.
Is it because we are so basically self conscious of how we look without the protection of clothing that we think if you’re happy to show off your lumps and bumps you must be a bit bonkers? There are things about my body I’m very unhappy with, and Teff had things about her body she dislikes I’m sure, and yet in this particular situation we were willing to not care. Why was that, I wondered. Perhaps it’s the strength of a civilised society. After all, if everybody decided to fling their clothes off at every opportunity, where would we be?
So as I lay there, pondering on all these questions, I realised I actually was quite comfortable with my body the way it was. Once the fear of exposure has been removed you just…get on with things. No one is looking at you as critically as you look at yourself, and that in turn made me regard myself differently.
So, after an eventful day, I was thanked by all the students and scheduled to make an appearance the week after. I started collecting other classes as well, and thanked whatever lucky thing it was that I would get paid ten pounds an hour to sit around for three days a week. Nude.