I have been touched over the years by the kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness of a number of the models I worked with, and like to think that my respect for their professionalism and collaboration was reciprocal. Their gestures were varied: S let me stay at his home two nights a week for a winter semester, when I commuted to Montreal from Arundel to teach - an experience of comfort and humour; J gave me beautiful porcelain dishes, odd items of clothing and unique ‘stuff’, that he collected in ‘junk’ shops; JP built my chicken house and coached me in hen management issues(socio-economic, and foot care); S or J would act as tea master at my annual women’s tea party and were at ease in the estrogen-infused atmosphere, pouring tea and chatting with the ‘dames’(up to 75 women); and finally, MT helped me sort and purge mountains of ‘stuff’ when I packed up my Montreal home/studio and moved to Arundel in a(cleaned out cattle car with the available space of 13 heifers). These small gifts and big gestures were a form of thanks, I like to think, for the collaborative work we shared over the years.
M, the thinnest, angular model I ever worked with, had the grace and poise I saw in professional dancers, but, he was in fact a musician - a guitar player and singer in a Klezmer band. He lived and posed in Montreal for six years before returning to Toronto, and suggested I might like to teach at the Halliburton School of the Arts in cottage-country Ontario. I followed up his introductions and spent ten years enjoying a teaching experience in what felt like another country. For a couple of weeks each season, I had the privilege of living and working with artist/teachers and motivated students in a rural Ontario setting. We shared heat, storms, bugs, fun and companionship, and of course - art. I brought my favourite Montreal models with me over the years, since we taught well as a team. Spending one or two weeks together cemented contacts and some friendships that have endured to the present. Good times/good memories - thanks M.
Two last model essays:
‘Inside The Pose’ `J `
He shifted his weight slightly towards the left. The movement was so small I might have missed it, had I not been staring at his feet - at his left foot, to be exact. My eyes glided upward to connect with his, and I smiled as if to say, that this crack in the porcelain, this break in his immobility was all right. It was, in fact, welcome, since it triggered a reaction from me and I pushed deeper into the paper and my pencil line extended its meaning.
I retraced my line upwards towards his hand which looked as if it was beckoning someone - someone outside the frame of action. Sketching up further, I noticed that his jaw was slack, his mouth slightly open as if a word had been uttered, then checked. J had a remarkable capacity to immobilized his body into a gesture; to suspend one of life’s countless tiny movements just long enough for me to respond with my sensed lines. He measured moments by counting the beat of his heart and when it was time for a break he never shocked me out of the pose, but withdrew gently, drawing the gesture back inside himself.
Returning to an awareness of my own physicality, I glanced at the clock and was surprised that almost an hour had passed. The awareness of passing minutes grounded me immediately, and I landed from where I had been gliding. The concreteness of time connects me to the pace of others, and reminds me of my worldly responsibilities. I made us some tea.
A faint odour of tobacco emanated from J when we resumed working. In order to reorient myself, I stepped back and observed my markings, my tracks on the paper. I was as attached to these lines of graphite as a sled dog is attached to its harness. I cannot get away from them, I can just let them lead me. J regained the pose congruently, exactly as he had been before, and I began to observe again, slightly distracted by the tobacco smell. Because the break had been brief – shorter than what I needed, I struggled to regain my bearings. Being rapidly pushed in and out of an altered state is dangerous, and some artists get stuck at one end or the other, floating without an anchor, or solidified in cement.
Moving away from his upper body, I relocated my awareness to somewhere on his inner thigh, in a familiar place where I had been many times before. Then, as if on cue, an involuntary urge pulled my eyes upward as I responded to the terrain and a visual rhythm was reestablished. My line traveled under and over the curves of his testicles; grooves and folds clustered together accordion-like. I stuck close to where the Renaissance painter, Caravaggio, might have lingered before me, and when I tried to pry myself away, the familiar territory made me continue my exploration. What could I say about these forms? Could I disclose something vital that went beyond a mere description of their geometric shape?
I imagined an erection - diagonal, not vertical, some of which projected outside the limits of the paper - floating there as an immaterial form, seeking out someone only J could see, or perhaps remember? The intimacy of imaginary contact gave meaning to the other elements of the pose: his look of surprise, sense of anticipation and his expectant demeanour - searching outward towards someone. J, the model was more than an entity for me to represent, he was a trigger for my imagination to shape.
At four o’clock he left and I studied my drawing trying to make sense of it. Then, I remembered a brief disclosure J made months before when we shared a meal together - a name; a southern location; a love; a death. Such a sparse account - yet fecund to my eye’s memory. What did he look like, this person just beyond the edge of the page? Dark, I think, olive skinned and gleaming from a warm climate or a high fever. He was reaching into the page, drawn toward J’s beckoning hand.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc,
Inside the Pose
She arrived at the studio late, clutching a large bottle of Coke, reminding me of an adolescent puppy with long legs trying to control its moving parts. M hurried into her pose, murmuring apologies, and her rushing in gave way to quiet immobility. Her appearance was beyond a specific definition, so I was free to interpret her dreadlocked hair symbolically.
In my mind, we traveled to England, to the studios of the Pre-Raphaelites, and I set up next to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s easel. He worked at a table mixing glazes carefully: three ounces of varnish; one of thick oil; a touch of drier; a bit of turpentine. As he stirred the mixture small bubbles formed – not good – a drop of ox gall would solve the problem. He moved behind his easel and looked at M, his model, his mistress. She was sitting by a window humming softly with sunlight sifting through her hair. Rossetti added a bit of cadmium red to his glaze and applied it to the canvas. Then, he stepped back and inspected his work. Too pure, he thought, and decisively added a touch of burnt sienna into the wet glaze. The stroke shone with an erotic-tinged essence that would have met with John Ruskin’s critical disapproval. Although I might have enjoyed lingering, I decided to move on since women artists were not taken very seriously in those times.
I reexamined M, and set my imagination adrift once again. Heading south, my easel beached on the sandy shore of an island – Medusa’s. Oh shit, I thought, where have I landed? I don’t want to stay here. The harshness of the place transformed my feelings and my vision of M. The once luminous hair became dull, infected with a muddy brown colour, and the visual weight made her tresses look like sausages. I decided to make a sadistic devil-woman out of her and began to rub away as much as I could of the brownish-red colour, and when I stopped, I floundered, lost in the ugly stain. Where to go and what to do? Something drastic was necessary to pull me out of the dull-coloured mud. I chose a musical selection and hoped Kurt Weil would shoot me off the island, towards postwar-prewar-another war-Germany. My easel resettled at a ‘table for-one’ in a crowded bar, and horror of Medusa transformed into the artifice of Marlene Dietrich.
As I listened to the music, smelled the smoke and sensed the movement around me, my rounded lines became angular and a brassy rhythm took control of my hand. I painted M in thigh-high black stockings which contrasted with her pale skin. Her eyes took on a narrow droopy slant and closed periodically with the burden of immobility. Sleaze filtered onto the canvas in a glob of cinnabar green. Eeek, I remembered it isn’t permanent, in fact it’s poisonous. Throw away the tube, mix some viridian and ocher – Erg, too dull!. When the right degree of green was achieved, I settled down and struggled with the lightness of her skin. I mixed white and Naples yellow tinged with ultramarine blue – smeared it on the canvas and examined it from a distance, too dark; more white; back up and examine again. I saw that the blue softened the green and enhanced the yellow. Mix together more; smear it on; scrape it off; add a little of this; diminish a bit of that. I squinted my eyes to eliminate detail, and approached the surface until my nose smelled the paint, then, I backed away and squinted again. The rhythmic ping-pongness of painting had reasserted itself - finally.
Initially, M had launched me on a journey, she was as important as a ticket or a passport. Now, I almost didn’t need her anymore, and she became like excess luggage –useful, but not essential to the trip - a pretext. Gaining momentum I pressed forward, sure of my destination, dragging her along for the ride. Something ‘other’ was asserting itself on my canvas; I was reading it like a map and finding my way. As the image gained authority, I traveled further and further away from my point of departure. On the model stand, M remained steady like a beacon shining from a distance, and I re-situated myself periodically by looking at her. Soon, however, my journey came to an end and I shed my imagined realities and turned towards a safe landing in the studio.
Once, I knew an artist who did not return from her journey into paint, but remained in the world just beyond the edge of the canvas. She drifted away from her friends and solidity and her eyes filled with disturbing sights and her ears with frightening sounds. Remembering her sad disintegration, I willed myself back into the here and now. My landing was smooth this time not too disorienting, and M got dressed, thanked me for her pay and rushed out late for her next modelling job. Later, in the fading light of the winter afternoon, I set about cleaning my brushes and putting away my tubes of paint. Then, I sat down and examined the scratchings on my canvas, my mind once again quiet and rooted in the present moment - safely grounded in the familiar ambiance of my studio.
© Joanna Nash, Arundel, Qc.