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On Being an Artist's Model

ART TIMES May 2004

HAVE YOU EVER seen the glorious pictures of the Pre-Raphaelite beauties languidly looking at some distant point in space with thinly veiled expressions of lost and longing on their faces? I have. Many times. I even have a book of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their world. I wanted to be those girls. Sadly, as a younger woman I was too inhibited to even attempt the comparison of being an "artists model." The term just sounded too glamorous, too exotic, too not me. It conjured up visions of Dante Rosetti and his Bohemian artists’ circle, and Edmund Burke Jones and William Morris' wife posing as … or was that Jane Burden? I can't remember. I have to go look at the book. And all sorts of delicious scandals. How could I, a humble, introverted, socially avoidant creature hope to compete? I couldn't; I just couldn't. This idea of being an artist's model stayed a long deferred and repressed dream.

After many years and a series of life events that encouraged me to "open up" and "be myself" and " deal with the rage, just deal with it," I began to express myself. What that translated into in real life-speak was I got to the place where I could tell people off. So much for self-expression. And then I met Georgia. Georgia is a lovely white haired grandmotherly type, a true angel. She makes beautiful fish necklaces, has tons of art class experience, and runs the local art guild. I met her at an open fair. We struck up a conversation and she urged me to join the local art guild. She urges everyone to do this since we are all artists in the making in her experienced eyes. Then she urged me to pose as a model, a nude model no less, for the drawing class held on Tuesday nights, since, in her words, "why not, it’s a good experience, and you get to see what being an artist is all about." From a woman who could be my grandmother. Well who knew? Maybe my guardian angel was secretly wanting me to be all I can be. I tried it. It took me a while to get up the courage, but I tried it. If a white haired halo graced artist wanted me to take my clothes off in front of strangers, then do it I would. How Georgia knew this was one of my secret dreams, I don't know. Maybe God told her. Or whispered it in her ear one night.

The little artist’s studio I was to first exhibit myself in was a homey place. Upstairs in an old house that doubles as the art guild, very quaint and very sweet. And yes, at first I felt I was to be an exhibit, along with the half-finished charcoal sketches on the walls. I soon discovered that was not the case. The most important thing in being an artist’s model, I discovered, was the time clock on the wall. Two minute poses, five minute poses, ten minute poses. "You must time yourself," the moderator, a woman who did excellent character studies, told me. "Timing is everything," she said. And here I thought I'd be looking with gauzy indifference at lace curtains blowing in the breeze. I wore a bathrobe, took it off and plopped on the podium. I felt at first odd, and then just one more ingredient in the artist's workbook, along with his brushes and paints and easels and charcoal. I felt a part of something once everyone settled down to study, not me, but my body angles, and how I turned my head. And yes, I was 15 pounds overweight and 25 years older than the average artist’s model, but then again, did you ever see Renoir's models, I reasoned with myself, how skinny really were they? Not a lot I don't think.

Becoming one with something, to feel you've worked with an artist, not as a muse exactly, but as a form, not a piece of furniture, but a design, along with a table top, a sunset, a flower, is one of the most peaceful feelings I have ever had. In time the removal of one's clothes was of no importance; it was an act that included me along with everyone in the room. It didn't matter who did, or did not pose. They saw me and I saw them. We were united in sketching. Georgia, the guardian angel, knew that, and so encouraged me to do it. She just sensed that I might like it and so I did. I didn't go at first for fear, but then after that I went several times until it became old hat, just something I did to be included in the art community. I went myself to sketch lessons sometimes when I wasn't posing, to see how the other models did, and draw my own little compositions. Again, there was no distinction after the first few seconds of who posed and who didn't. It was a unification of everyone there.

On a less spectral level, I found the twists and turns that were demanded much harder than I thought. Having to put your body into tortuous shapes was not as pleasant as I thought. Making body lines interesting for the artists wasn't as easy as I anticipated. It seemed to me it was the symmetrical shape the artists were looking for, and then having that shape distorted to give them something to challenge themselves with. Each body part — knee, elbow, hand, neck, leg — had a role in this. Each part was to be seen by the artist and brought about however he or she determined it to be. When I had a chance during break to walk around the little studio, I was amazed at the different renditions I found staring up at me from the sketches. A swirl here, a line there, a splash of paint over in the corner. Surely this was not as I looked. But, yet again, maybe it was. I incorporated into something larger than myself for those few minutes of trying to stand stock-still and not move a muscle and uniting with the artist before me. That did mean something. I don't pose anymore, but I'm glad I once did. I guess Georgia knew what she was doing.

(Isabelle Ghaneh, free lance writer, poet and astrologer, lives in Glastonbury, CT).

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