That Time I Got Naked in a Room Full of Strangers
“No daughter of mine is going to get naked in front of a room full of strangers.”
When you grow up with an artist and a photographer as parents, the nude as a subject for art is about as interesting a concept as trees, grass, hunting hounds, or sailing ships as subjects for art. As in, it wasn’t particularly noteworthy.
Both my parents had studied the human body as a subject for art and because both taught their respective fields of artistic creation at various universities and community colleges, they had both hired models to pose nude in their classes. Many times.
Our conversations around the dinner table might include discussions of which models knew what they were doing (and who didn’t have a clue), who was going to be available for a particular session, and whether so-and-so had filled out the requisite paperwork so she’d be paid before reading break. You know, utterly ordinary, business-like conversations like those one might have when engaging someone to rake your leaves or walk the dog when you go on vacation.
At our house, nude models were part of the requisite equipment needed to produce art and photography.
As a teenager, I sometimes picked up work as a costume model in Dad’s classes. I wore various period outfits and posed for his art students (it would have been a tad strange to pose nude in a class Dad was teaching).
As a result, I learned the basic requirements of posing. Gesture drawings required dynamic poses that expressed movement and tension. Fortunately, they didn’t need to be held for long. The students sketched quickly and the pose changed every 60–90 seconds.
From there, the poses were held for longer and longer stretches until the final, very long pose in the last hour (or more) of the class. Needless to say, those marathons were not done standing on one foot while reaching one’s arms skyward.
Long Poses are the Most Painful
Just because I’d try to find as comfortable a position as possible to settle into for the long haul didn’t mean they were easy to hold.
One of the first things I learned as a costume model trying to hold still is that we are never still. Sit (or recline) for more than a few minutes and the tingling starts in the fingertips of the arm draped over the chair back, buttocks go numb, and the weight of the upper leg resting across the lower is soon unbearably heavy.
Reclining and seated poses may look like the model is draped in the most relaxed manner possible on the chaise longue, but the reality is probably somewhere between ‘man, my foot hurts’ and ‘I wonder if the circulation in the lower half of my body is so compromised they’ll have to haul me out of here on a stretcher on my way to having a limb amputated.’
By the time I graduated from high school, I had put in many hours in front of drawing students. I had also spent a significant part of my childhood posing patiently as my mother photographed me from every conceivable angle.
When I went off to university it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that I took note of the ‘Models Wanted’ poster tacked up on bulletin boards all over campus. I met with the head of the art department who was impressed I knew my way around a gesture drawing and was hired on the spot.
My big news was met with a less than warm reception when I called home to let my parents know how I was going to be earning a little extra money.
“You’re doing what?” my mother asked.
“Modelling. You know. For art classes.” I thought maybe she had misheard me.
“I heard what you said. But, nude?”
“Generally that’s how it’s done. Yes.”
“No daughter of mine is going to get naked in front of a room full of strangers.”
Deathly silence. I had no idea what to say to this horrified reaction. At the other end of the line, my mother summoned my father. I heard her say, “Come and talk some sense into her.”
My father came on the line.
“I don’t know that this is such a good idea.”
Another silence. I had no idea how to respond to this completely unexpected response.
“But… but… How many models have you hired in your career?”
The phone was handed back to my mother who, I could just imagine, must have been vibrating with agitation by this point.
“Nikki. This is a terrible idea. Tell them you quit. That you came to your senses.”
“No buts. You can’t just flaunt your body around in front of people you don’t know.”
“Mom!” I can’t think of too many occasions in which the use of the word flummoxed is appropriate, but I was flummoxed. “But — what about the model you hired for your advanced photo students — “
“That’s completely different.”
Now it was her fault to be silent, but only for a moment. Then she shot back, “Fine. You are an adult. Do what you want.”
I suspect her strategy was to have me retreat to my corner and have a sober second thought about the whole flaunting my body matter and reconsider. And, had I been raised by more mainstream parents, that’s quite likely exactly what I would have done.
But my parents had taught me that the human body was worthy of artistic exploration. We had nude drawings done by my father hanging in the house. As kids, we’d been taken to art museums from the time we could toddle and nobody steered us away from the nudes on display for all the world to see.
Dad had started art school and formal training when he was in his teens and he had told me many stories of how much he had appreciated the really good models who understood what the young students were struggling with. He was the one who had taught me the ins and outs of how to come up with a great dynamic standing pose (thrust all the weight onto one hip, exaggerate the curve of the spine, don’t keep the shoulders square — look back over the shoulder — create a dynamic pose, but one that you can hold without moving…).
And now these great parents of mine were trying to tell me that I couldn’t take this artsy part-time job?
On Tuesday evening, I showed up for a community extension class run by the college with my legs freshly shaved and my robe at the ready.
This was a not university credit class, though there were some students in attendance who were also enrolled in the regular art program. But there were also others who were just interested in trying their hand at drawing. Some had done a bit, some had done a lot, and a couple were brand new. The group was about as mixed a bag as you could get, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-fifties and about equally divided along gender lines.
I sat off to the side in my robe as the students came in, found their seats, and pulled out their drawing supplies. They arranged themselves in an arc around the area where the instructor had set up a chair, a couple of sturdy wooden boxes, and an armchair I would use for the longer pose at the end of the night.
Even though I knew the routine as well as (and, in some cases, better than) anyone in the room, my heart was skipping as the moment drew near when I was going to have to disrobe. The instructor stood at the front of the room, welcomed everyone, and introduced me.
“This is Nikki,” he said. “She will be our model this evening.”
Most of the students nodded and said hi, several smiled. But one heavy-set man in his early 40s looked decidedly uneasy. He wore jeans and work boots and a pale blue denim shirt. His drawing supplies were brand new. He glanced from the instructor, to me and back to the instructor again. He cleared his throat, pointed at me and asked, “We’ll be drawing her?”
The instructor nodded. “We’ll start with gesture drawings — they fly past quickly. Just stay relaxed and loose and try to capture the essence of the pose. You won’t have time for any details.”
I stood, took my place at the front of the room, my hands moving to the belt of my robe.
“Wait!” The man in the boots was now beet red. “Is she going to take that off?”
He sounded as horrified as my mother had sounded on the phone.
The instructor tilted his head to the side, confused. “Of course. You are here for the figure drawing class, right?”
“Well, yes…” The poor guy in the front row was now crimson and I could see beads of sweat on his upper lip. “I didn’t know — I mean — that’s what figure drawing is?”
The instructor swallowed, I think trying to proceed diplomatically. “Yes. You are here to draw her figure. Are you ok with that?”
“Did everyone else here know this is what was going to happen?” the guy blurted out, looking around to his classmates for support.
The others nodded, though who knows whether or not this had been clear to everyone else. Whatever they did or did not know walking in, they all knew now and nobody else was going to admit they might just possibly be somewhere they didn’t want to be.
There was an awkward moment when I thought the man in the boots was going to pack up his stuff and leave, but then he picked up his pencil and gave the smallest bob of his head.
“Great,” the instructor said. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
I removed my robe, draped it over the back of the chair, and moved into my first quick pose. The familiar scritchety-scratch of pencils on paper began. As did the running commentary from the instructor.
“That’s it — fill the page — broad strokes. Don’t worry about that angle — change.”
I changed the pose — made sure that with each fresh pose I faced a different direction. I extended an arm toward first one side of the room, then the other, knowing how hard it was to quickly capture a foreshortened limb.
“Don’t erase — you don’t have time — just draw another line — that’s it — yes, use the side of your pencil — maybe try a softer pencil for the next one — change.”
And so it went, one pose after the other, switching positions every minute or so, working as hard as the students.
I was so busy thinking about not losing my balance, being dynamic but steady, rotating so all the students had a chance to sketch my profile, as well as from in front and behind that I didn’t have time to be nervous. I remembered how hard it was to model and to do it well, how tired I was going to be by the end of the evening.
The first series of poses came to an end.
“Great! Take a moment, Nikki and I’ll explain the next exercise to the class.”
I slipped back into my robe, took a sip of water and sat down for a minute to catch my breath. The fellow in the boots studiously avoided looking at me.
“Next up, we’ll do a contour drawing. We’ll take a bit of time with this one and then we can all take a break.”
Contour drawings are one of my favorite types of drawings. The idea is to choose a point on the figure (or teapot, or flower arrangement, or whatever you are trying to draw) and then follow a contour. The tricky part is you aren’t allowed to look down at your paper and you can’t lift your pencil from the page.
This is an exercise in looking, in seeing, and in absolute concentration. You are looking for lines, fissures, shapes, lumps, bumps, and features you can follow with your eyes and then convey that to your hand — without looking down. Ever. Like, for ten or fifteen or twenty minutes or however long your instructor decides to drag out the torture.
The results are bizarre and beautiful — ears protrude from shoulders, eyebrows float in mid-air, a knee and a breast fuse. There are parts of these drawings that are insanely accurate, precise, and detailed and then gaps and spaces where a whole section of body appears to be missing. Then you realize the waist has been displaced over to the side and much too high so there’s the appearance of a torso floating beside an oversized nose.
Silence descended over everyone as I took up a seated pose with one leg crossed over the other, something that I knew I could sustain for the length of a contour drawing.
Without thinking about it, I found myself oriented so I was directly in front of and staring at the man in the boots. He swallowed hard and began to draw.
The first time you experience a roomful of eyes staring at you without ever looking away, it’s a bit intimidating. But very quickly the students became fully absorbed in the challenging task before them. And I became fully absorbed in not moving.
I thought about stillness and calm, and what on earth my parents had been thinking when they forbade me to take the modeling job.
My nose began to itch and I started the same chant in my head I always used to distract myself. You cannot die from an itchy nose. This. Too. Shall. Pass. This, I repeated several dozen times before the pain in my knee became too intense to ignore.
I counted my breaths. I slowed down my breathing. I practiced blinking slowly. Fixed my gaze on the top edge of boot-man’s drawing board and endured.
At a certain point in any pose, all the voice in your head can do is scream, “How long has it been? How long is left? When can I move?”
About halfway through the pose, the instructor stood behind boot-man and looked at his drawing. The corners of his mouth twitched upward, though he didn’t say anything. He moved on to the next student.
I was, of course, consumed with curiosity. I wondered what it must be like for the stranger’s pencil to be tracing every angle and curve of my body. I wondered if he spent time like this gazing at his wife’s body. If he had a wife. I wondered if he had ever looked at the human form in such an analytical and careful way.
The tip of his tongue poked out slightly from the side of his mouth and his breathing was slow and even. He was concentrating hard, really trying to get this whole contour thing right. I admired him for that, for stepping way outside his comfort zone and trying this new, weird thing.
When, at last, the instructor called time, all the students looked down to see what they had drawn. There were gasps and giggles, much laughter, pointing and sharing. I slipped into my robe, stretched and then moved around the room, enjoying the work the students had done.
Then I went over to see what boot-man had drawn. When I looked at his page I could see immediately just how uncomfortable he must have been.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, clearly embarrassed. “I just couldn’t go… go up… I had to stay…”
His voice trailed off and we stood side by side staring at a massive drawing of my left foot. He had drawn in magnificent, glorious detail every toe, every wrinkle, the curvature of the toenails, each joint, bump, vein, the graceful arch, the angular ankle bone, the wrinkled skin along the outside of the foot, the dark spaces between the toes.
The big toe had been closest to him and that was the most impressive feature of all. Disproportionately huge, that toe appeared to thrust forward and out of the plane of the paper. It was ugly and glorious, as toes tend to be.
“That’s fantastic,” I said.
He blushed again. “I’m so sorry. There’s nothing wrong with the rest of you…”
“It’s fine. This is really a great drawing. These contour drawings are so hard. There’s nothing wrong with this at all.”
I’m not sure he believed me, but after the break, he came back. He came back every week after that and by the end of the 12-week session, he had a fabulous collection of drawings. And, not just of my toe, either.