I heard from a number of you that you enjoyed the essays about life models. So, I have included a few more. The solitude that many painters feel, is somewhat assuaged by the reciprocal relationships that can exist between artists and models. I think of these individuals not so much as muses, but as vital pretexts to the creative interpretations that they evoke, and I feel grateful to my favourite models who have posed for me and for my students over the years.
So, here goes, enjoy:
I have been seduced by a shape. I draw it over and over, sometimes elongating it into improbable lengths, other times stretching it exceedingly wide. The shape belongs to a head, or perhaps, the head belongs to a shape. In either case, I am not finished with it yet, it continues to intrigue me, year after year. Because of the never-ending permutations of this shape, I can never anticipate how I will ‘see’ it. Planning a strategy ahead of time is useless.
When he first enters the studio, J-P acts and looks like I expect him to - no surprises there. He is always on time, often a little early, usually carrying a book. His greeting is warm and sincere and sometimes his kiss feels prickly, depending upon the amount of facial hair, most of which is clustered around his chin. He asks me what I want to do, while I’m hoping that his presence will give me a clue. “I just want to look at you”, I have been known to answer. This comment leaves the situation undefined; the definition comes later, worked out on paper. Once J-P assumes a position, I cannot imagine the strongest force moving him out of it. He exudes a state of immobility – a vision of solidity in front of my eyes. Both these qualities help me focus my attention and stay concentrated, and not get caught up in trivial thinking.
The inconsequential thoughts that invade my mind when I am not vigilant, amaze me, and I am thankful for outstanding models who hold my attention, so that the thoughts flow through my mind, but do not get stuck there. As J-P settles into a pose, and ‘the shape’ manifests itself, I achieve the mind/body equilibrium so necessary for optimum work. ‘The shape’ constitutes my point of departure, and serves as a centre I can return to if my mind gets stuck in mental games.
Here is a brief description of my wandering mind:
I was 35 years old when I learned to spell the word ‘easel’. Prior to that point, I spelled it ‘easle’, which felt very right and it has been difficult for me to accept the conventional spelling. In spite of most English-speaking cultures spelling easel ‘easel’, I sincerely felt that it should be spelled ‘easle’. Perhaps I was unduly influenced by ’beagle’ or ‘treacle’. In any event, I still balk at spelling ‘easel’, for the sake of conforming to an acceptable norm. Is this why I have trouble following food recipes? In regards to the word ‘recipe’, obviously it should have a ‘’y‘ at the end.......
Back to reality, I circle around J-P waiting for ‘the shape’ to appear, never sure which angle it will speak from. This time it appears as I view P from the left, and I roll my easel over and put down anchor. I am confronted by innumerable possibilities and let my hand explore the space around ‘the shape’. I move my brush out from the shape and back into it when I don’t know where else to go. I add and subtract, do and undo, and eventually an image forms. Sometimes it resembles J-P, sometimes it does not – but what has begun as a description of ‘the shape’ takes on other meanings.
Because I am unhappy painting from my mind, I paint from an undefinable place somewhere between my brain and stomach. The power of this ‘painting central’ guides me; it is the sacred terrain of the Patron Saint of Brushstrokes. I feel fully whole only when I attain this place of equilibrium, and I gladly lose myself in it, rather than getting lost in my thoughts. It is an ‘unthinking’ place where informed gestures and meaningful strokes of paint occur. My ‘special’ models act as a conduit leading me to this spot.
After sixty minutes J-P abruptly moves out of the pose; the phone rings and I have difficulty speaking. After J-P leaves, I know I am back in reality, because I begin to have distracting thoughts about the sound of blue.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc.
Yuck! I’d been kissed by a freak. After he described the cosmic, ultra-sonic properties of two pieces of metal he was waving at me(they looked like an old T.V. antenna), he instructed me to close my eyes. Generally I ignore orders from odd people, but this time, in a lapse of resolve, I did what he said and SMACK, right on the lips!
He looked like Rembrandt in the famous self-portraits of his middle age: lines creasing his face, circles under his eyes, a lean, muscular body somewhat worn beyond its forty-five years. He was a sculptor, always in need of money, and so he modelled. He was good at it, because he understood what made a pose interesting. Habitually dressed in loose clothing, P had an impoverished look, his teeth badly needing attention - he lost a few during the years we worked together.
Although I loved to sketch him, I rarely understood what he was talking about. His philosophy was a hybrid style of 1970’s drug culture plus an incomprehensible melange of new age-born-again-jewish-zennish-anarchist-macro-veganism. He could talk non-stop for ten minutes and leave me absolutely clueless about his subject. This in itself was not serious, since he didn’t seem to require any response from me, but it did unnerve my students, who felt they should listen to him and comment. Alongside his nonsensical diatribes, there existed a fully developed sense of humour, and P would often laugh uproariously at something he had said. This genuine pleasure would transmit to his listeners, even if they didn’t understand a word of it.
His free spirit conveyed itself in a number of ways. During one of my evening classes he took a ten-minute reclining pose and immediately fell into a deep sleep. I decided not to disturb him, and encouraged the students to do a slow study of his foreshortened body.
A few days later, an artist who taught painting in the next studio, asked me if any of my students had tampered with his still-life. It seemed that some green onions and a week-old baguette were missing, and a full bottle of red wine was empty. I couldn’t imagine any of my students disturbing the arrangement, I responded - baffled. Only later did I recall P’s stupor, and realized a correlation: missing wine = sleeping model.
My sense of P’s uniqueness increased after myself and a few artists were invited to sketch in his home. He and his girlfriend lived and posed together in approximately 6,000 feet of industrial space, filled with ‘found-on-the-street’ furniture and objects transformed into sculpture. The consolidation of art and life made it difficult to distinguish which structures were for sitting on and which were for artistic appreciation. After a few visits I sensed that his girlfriend ‘M’, who worked full time as a secretary to support them - was finding life on the margins difficult. Since the heat in the building was turned off on weekends, we sketched in our winter coates, and as our vaporized breath filled the air, P expressed concern about his numerous marijuana plants which he feared would suffer from the cold. M. meanwhile, was slowly turning blue and resented his concern for plant life. On one memorable occasion, they got into a bad fight while posing together, nude. Surrounded by sketching onlookers, they maintained an artificial loving embrace, white their angry words threatened to turn into a fist fight. After a long tense interval, their animosity subsided and we all continued to work. Another interesting characteristic of the chilly atelier were large numbers feral cats seeking warmth in our supply bags and portfolios.
Tea break was greatly appreciated in the cold studio since it involved drinking a hot liquid. The downside however, was having to use the toilet which was installed right in the middle of the loft, enclosed by a flimsy circular shower curtain. The last time I saw P, he told me his ex-wife from California was demanding child support payments and had traced him to his current address in Montreal. It was time to move on, he informed me, as he continued stuffing cats into the back of an old van. I wished him good luck, but in retrospect, I think that some kind of ‘ultra-cosmic’ force was already taking care of him.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc.
“She cleans my house, and I think she would make a good model”, an art student of mine casually mentioned. I kept the telephone number for a couple of weeks, hesitating to call because so few people understand what makes a good art model. When I finally did call her, she was shy and uncertain, but after discussing the pay she agreed to try one session. I assured her she would not be expected to pose nude. When she arrived at my studio for the first time, she wore a hat, raincoat, gloves and handbag; a modestly dressed mature woman, looking uncomfortable in a new situation. Her eyes explored the studio, taking in the paintings stacked up against the wall, the high unfinished ceilings and the exposed pipes, but she was too polite to comment.
She sat very straight as if she were posing for a formal photograph, holding her chin up and head tilted. L was at least sixty-five years old, had beautiful unwrinkled dark skin on her face and neck and, and modestly dressed, radiated a natural elegance. She had a strong neck and powerful shoulders, and it was easy to imagine her lifting children out of the way or moving furniture. Her working years seemed to have only added to her graceful carriage. L’s grey, kinky hair was cut short, exposing unadorned earlobes. After the session as she carefully took the money I gave her, folding the bills and placing them in a separate compartment of her wallet, she confided that she wouldn’t mind posing again. But, she added, she could not pose on Sundays because she spent much of her day in church.
I hired L frequently after that first session and she began to relax, smiling a little and talking during breaks. Gradually, I noticed a subtle difference in her appearance; one week she wore little pearl earrings, another time she put on lipstick, and eventually she agreed to remove her shoes and nylons and pose with bare legs showing below her dress. A few weeks later I noticed that she had applied red polish on her toenails. Later, I asked her to take short active poses instead of sitting still for portraits, and she agreed, moving stiffly at first, shifting her weight from side to side. Then I played a Bob Marley tape and when L heard the music, she smiled and her movements became supple as she sang along with the tune.
Months later she agreed to pose in a slip, but insisted on wearing all her undergarments, which included a complicated bra and corset device stretching to mid-thigh. After all, she explained, she was sixty-five, and the body needed to be held in place.
Over two years I grew very fond of working with L and was disappointed when she called to say she could not pose anymore. When I asked her why, she told me her minister considered the work improper and ungodly. It seemed someone from the church had seen a painting of her in an art exhibition, in which the outlines of her breasts were revealed through a slip – not chaste breasts encased by a girdle, but soft, abundant ones, suggesting nakedness. And, apparently, sin.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc.