What I chose to share today are some essays about a small group of special life models. Making and teaching art meant learning - who, when and how to work with art models. Little has been written about these professionals whom I considered vital art collaborators. I will post three more essays in February.
3 selections from ‘Inside The Pose’
My memories of C are both visual and verbal, his face and flowing white hair intermingle with his words of advice on any subject. C didn’t so much pose as a life model - he recreated life, which came to him naturally, fostered by his years of stage acting in England. When modelling, he could evoke numerous personalities; he would arrive in the studio and bring his costumes or props. Equipped with a bed sheet and a broomstick, he transformed himself into Moses parting the Red Sea or, he became ‘Cowboy Bob’ in a checkered shirt, jeans and hat - holding a frying pan and pretending to cook over a fire. On another occasion we were transported to a Scottish moor by a piper-guide with a strong highland accent, wearing a kilt and carrying a bagpipe.
C’s most impressive posing, however, was in the nude; he was an elegant and graceful man, totally unselfconscious at 75 years old. During the breaks in my art classes, he would stride about naked, fearlessly correcting any anatomical drawing errors he might see in student’s work. “Australian women have enormous sexual appetites”, he might casually mention to an unwitting student. I admit I encouraged him, knowing my students might never again experience anyone like him in their lives.
When C posed for me in my studio, I asked him to talk about his life, and as his voice resonated, my awareness would drift between his animated orations and my sketching. He spoke with a hybrid accent: British upperclass + American midwestern + Australian drawl. Other times, taking a break, he would stretch out his long legs and give me veterinary advice about my cat. He peered intently into the deep caverns of Cecil’s ears looking for mites. “Never feed this cat potatoes”, he told me, “it could kill him”.
His life was as interesting as his appearance. Besides having acted, C also had been a teacher in Java, and he showed me his sketches of that time. Influenced by the region’s culture, his work was figurative, colourful and erotic. The men in his paintings had prodigious penises which stretched out as tall as their height, and in some cases threatened to topple them over with their weight. All the women had thick lips and huge breasts that were very pointed and firm. I managed a comment on the necessity for exaggeration in expressive artwork, and, my hope to become as unabashed in my painting as he was. C patted my arm encouragingly. After all, I was still so young.
As one might expect from such a cosmopolitan, C would disappear for months at a time to travel. He would reappear unexpectedly and inform me that he was again ‘available’ for modelling. In his later years, arthritis made standing poses impossible, so C would sit and pose as “the storyteller”. With lumpy fingers grasping a gnarled walking stick (he carved it), he described his childhood difficulties in a British boarding school, his travels around the world in the merchant marine, his teaching jobs in Java and Bali, his numerous ex-wives and children, and his stage acting. He often spent summer months in the far north camping with First Nation Canadians. “Never throw out the water you cook pasta in”, he advised me, “use it to thicken soup”. I still do, many years later.
C told a funny story about camping alone in the north. One morning he climbed out of his tent holding his tooth mug, and overtaken by the absolute beauty of the desolate lake in front of him, he succumbed to a spontaneous expression of joy. He yelled as loud as he could, and flung the water left in the bottom of the mug far out into the lake. C watched his only set of dentures fly out and sink deep into the aquatic mass in front of him. He had forgotten they were there, and had to gum his way through the rest of the summer. When he was close to 80, C asked me to help him find a brass ear horn since he found hearing aids cumbersome. He mentioned that finding the horn was imperative, since he had fallen in love with a younger women(65 years old), and they were moving out of the city to join a commune.
One of his last bits of advice was given to me some years later, months before I received notice of his death. In a post-card sent from Paris announcing an exhibition of his paintings, he wrote: “Joanna, come to France - the French can be obnoxious, but they really understand painting”.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc.
As I waited for him in my car, outside the university where he was modelling, I realized what an exotic figure he presented at the suburban art centre where we were headed – his dark skin, dreadlocks, silver jewelry and flowing black clothes would be an anomaly in the neighbourhood. He appeared a few minutes late, characteristically out of breath, and his personal warmth and charisma enveloped me.
The first time R had posed for me was a nude study, and his well-articulated muscles and smooth skin projected a sense of youth, strength and well-being. Although his poses were both graceful and powerful, nudity seemed to make him anonymous, whereas his uniqueness as an individual, I came to realize, lay in his clothed appearance. Since R’s primary vocation was acting, he was sensitive to his persona and his everyday ‘costumes’ were inspired, personal creations. My favourites were his black ‘gorilla’ sweater (a fuzzy tight-fitting knit) and his long, flowing black cape which he wore with a British bowler hat. He sometimes looked like a Dickensian rasta-man, an incongruous image that R could pull off well. He had long tapered fingers each encircled with silver rings, thus making his hands another expressive part of his visual appeal.
R worked with me frequently, and traveling to class together gave me an opportunity to understand more about him; little by little I was able to piece together a picture of the life behind the look. He had a strong desire to succeed as an actor and was aware of the competitiveness of the profession, and yet, in spite of this ruthless milieu, his gentleness was obvious. He showed me photos of his two beloved Abyssinian cats, and he disclosed a fervent loyalty towards his family. Any stereotypes or assumptions I might have made about R – the rakish, aloof young black man – dropped away as I got to know him.
A strong image which remains with me occurred about a year before R’s tragic death. He was posing in one of my classes when suddenly he appeared to be crying. The students stopped drawing and stared as large tears ran down his cheeks. He apologized reassuringly, telling us he suffered from severe allergies. Another time he was very short of breath and used an inhaler, confiding in me that he had bad asthma. I didn’t realize at the time the extent to which dusty art studios might effect him; I was surprised that this robust young man seemed to have a serious health problem. Months later, R told me that he had admitted himself to hospital because his asthma was acting up, but that he was much better and could work with me the following week. A few days afterwards I received a call from another model, who told me the shocking news. R had died suddenly – an asthma-induced suffocation.
It seemed impossible at first, imagining R dead; he had been so optimistic and full of life and, the last time I saw him, he was excited about a role in an upcoming movie. At the funeral home the person posed in the coffin didn’t look like R, at least not the man I had known and painted. He lay so still in a state of anonymity, clothed in an ordinary suit, so different from the unique and dramatic way he usually dressed. I remember him taking long strides, his cape flapping in the wind, bowler hat set at a jaunty angle. Suburbanites would slow their cars to look and wonder who he was. He was R then, in his finest role, just being himself.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc.
The ones I’d rather forget
I have collaborated with art models for many years, in my studio and in my classes. My favourite models project a unique presence in their looks and physical gestures. Comfortable in their skins and disciplined in their work habits, they are vital to my art and teaching. Standards of appearance are highly subjective, and some models challenge current ideals of attractiveness. Non-conformist or theatrical models are interesting to work with, but few can carry out these traits genuinely. I choose my models carefully, and rely on the recommendations of a few trusted artists. Although many people think they make good art models; some should never consider the work. I hired the following models once – and only once.
I overheard ‘Ch.’ described as ‘cute’ and ‘a great mover’, and therefore avoided hiring him for years. ‘Cute’ is a quality I appreciate in a puppy, not in a life model. But, one day my regular model had to cancel, and I reluctantly arranged for Ch. to substitute. Immediately upon arrival, he informed me that he only modelled to his own musical selections, and did not take ‘conventional’ poses. And, I joked silently, would you like to teach the class as well?. We began with rapid nude poses, and I assumed that ‘His Majesty’ would work on the model stand, instead, he danced around the studio to music by the ‘The Village People’, approaching already nervous students, and freezing into ‘cute’ poses. Amused, I watched his ‘show’ for a couple of minutes - then he began winking at a male student. Sensing my student’s discomfort, I abruptly turned the music off. Ch. froze. When I asked him to get dressed and pose on the model stand for the remainder of the class, he was deeply offended but reluctantly complied. Glaring out at me, I could see his lips moving as he mumbled silently under his breath - angry and resentful, his face finally became interesting. Some years later, I read an advertisement: Ch. was offering a “letting-go” art workshop where he both modelled and taught. Hmm, I thought, maybe I should sign up and learn something from his act, and who knows, I might develop a cute pout at the same time.
She was an artiste herself, I was informed, and well experienced as an art model, and, oh yes, posing nude was not a problem, she knew just what art students needed! Watch out, my inner voice said – and I am old enough to know I should listen to it. But, I was in a bind and hired her as a last-minute replacement model. She arrived early, looking stressed, and spent a lot of time in the bathroom preparing what she called, her ‘Audrey Hepburn’ look: white face, black hat and her body partially wrapped in a translucent pale blue cloth. Jesus, I thought, can’t anyone just pose as themselves anymore? Then, she unpacked a portable television – it relaxed her while she worked, she said. Did I mind? she asked, it was a small t.v., and she promised to keep the volume low, just enough sound to catch her favourite soap opera. She never forgave me for saying no, and a few minutes into her pose, the white face took on a purplish hue and her eyes narrowed into a murderous look. In a quivering voice she asked me to approach her. I moved towards the strange apparition expecting the worst. She didn’t like the way the students were looking at her she hissed at me. “Why me”, I thought, “why do I deserve a model who needs a t.v. and doesn’t like to be looked at?”. The class turned out to be awfully long, longer than any soap opera, and G’s visible discomfort was very apparent.
Later that evening, she called me at home, her voice rising: I should never have worked for you! Your students were staring at me as if I were an object! “Perhaps”, I ventured, “Audrey’s white face created some distance between them and you”, (and that sunk it), a final verdict: “This was the worst class I have ever posed for, your students have no talent, you are a crappy teacher and and don’t ever expect me to work for you again!. What a pity, I thought, next time we could have watched reruns of ‘Law and Order’.
I was in a bind, my model was ill and could not make the class. So, consulting the office file, next to his name and phone number was a note: he lived near by, and was available on very short notice. He arrived wearing an overcoat with a striped hospital gown underneath. He asked me if he could take a seated pose which was not too strenuous, and since his complexion was greyish and he was sweating profusely, I immediately agreed. Ten minutes into the pose he began to slowly droop to one side. I asked him to straighten up. He complied, but a few minutes later, began to list towards the other side. Then, slowly and gently, he lost consciousness, falling off his chair and collapsed onto the model stand. I gasped! He had fainted in slow motion. Fortunately, one of the students was a nurse and she revived him by placing his head between his knees. He immediately perked up and told us not to worry, he fainted periodically but had never hurt himself. At this point, another memorable class etched itself into my mind.
I received many phone calls from individuals soliciting work as models. I have never hired the following: the fellow who told me he was exceptionally well-hung; the man who felt he needed to be looked at; the woman whose psychiatrist thought the work would be good for her; and the man who really wanted to pose but had to keep it a secret from his wife and co-workers, so I could not call him, but he would gladly call me twice every week to ‘check in’ and see if there was any work. Yeah, sure buddy.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc.
Some reading you might enjoy, including commentaries about models:
* The Undressed Art: why we draw, Peter Steinhart, ed: What is the dynamic between a clothed artist and a naked model? ISBN: 1400041848
Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, by Rozsika Parker, Griselda Pollock.
I B Tauris, pub.