Demystifying The Nude

April 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

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My first impression of Ellis Avery’s novel The Last Nude was, “Oh brother, another tale of the artist sleeping with the model.” I’ve been hard-pressed to find a book or a movie where this doesn’t enter the plot. Of course, much of history upholds this narrative with Diego Rivera’s mad lust for his models, Lucien Freud’s misogyny, and Picasso’s narcissism. In the film Venus, Peter O’Toole’s character has an old man boner for a young girl that he convinces to model – the purpose, of course, being so that he can peer in through a window and see what she looks like naked. The idea of the art model as an object of lust is really the only narrative we hear about in the mainstream.

The most realistic representation of what the artist/model relationship is like is in a French film entitled The Artist And The Model. This film was not only very realistic, but it showed the process of making art in a way that we never get to see outside of actual studios. At one point, the artist feels the curve of the model’s knee and reaches around the muscles of her shoulders, which makes her rather nervous regarding his intentions. Set in the forties, there were less rules then. Today, an artist generally never touches the model, though sometimes it still happens in the most unobtrusive ways.

I’ve written before about how I often run across people who are judgmental of my life as an art model. They picture the studio as some den of depravity, where pervs are sketching me one minute and jacking off in the bathroom in the next. Those that judge seem to think of me as some kind of enabler. They admonish the thought of running across a painting of me nude, and then what?

As I leave my body to be still in the pose – I observe the artists as they grow in their skill, approaching the difficult equation of capturing the human form, creating shape through shadow and light, measuring each angle, examining my structure next to a skeleton, identifying every muscle and how it connects to other muscles and bones. I am a living and breathing human anatomy lesson.

From my point of view, art modeling has been a study in subtle realistic poses – contrapposto, odalisque, the curve of the back, the angle of the head. I know exactly what my body can handle for what length of time. The pressures of stillness are a strange study, and I’ve learned from many mistakes – how to create poetry while balancing your weight to avoid pain.

In The Last Nude, the famous Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka picks up an American female model in the Bois de Boulogne. Rafaela is still a teenager, but she’s been selling her body to old rich men for a life of independence in 1920’s Paris. Tamara seduces her, and Rafaela falls in love. It’s the first time that Rafaela sleeps with a person for the love of it, rather than for what she wants. But is that really the case? In the heat of their summer together, Tamara paints the most stunning nude of her career. She keeps her motivations a secret from Rafaela, and to the young naive girl, the relationship is not what it seems.

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I work in a wide range of settings, mainly art schools and private studios where several artists gather for sessions. I enjoy the people who call me to come in every three months. They’re dependable. It never gets too personal, but it’s always fun to see them after a while.

On the other hand, working for the people who get swept up in me as their muse can at once feel more relaxed and have an increased sense of pressure. The more they look, the more they see new lines that amaze them. Or they think of new scenarios to pose me in, week after week.

I get stuck having to wear my hair exactly the same way for months of sessions, and once I was chided for the fact that my hair grows. At times I feel claustrophobic being around the same people for too long (another reason why the variety of the job generally works well for me). Then I begin to resent how much I come to love these people, knowing that one day they’ll drop me and move on to the next model (as they should). Whether or not I’ll get to see them much after that point is left to be determined. When you are an artist, there is little time for friendships. Everyday is devoted to work. This is another cliché’ that gets broken – artists are not lazy, and their quest is somewhat obsessive and heroic for all the obstacles in their way.

Outside of the studio, the social strata present degrees of separation. More well known artists are likely to give you the feeling that you need to take a number to talk to them at art shows. The excessive amounts of time spent in their studio, countless meals eaten together – it’s all for naught when your time as muse is up. The intense connection dissipates over time.

Models have been fighting to be more than just the model since the dawn of figurative art. Before the 20th Century, female art models, dancers, and actors were basically viewed as “whores”. The main motivation of whoring yourself is to gain money and power and find success in the thing you love to do (which usually doesn’t involve seducing ugly old rich men). It’s a way out of poverty for people with assets and aspirations beyond the daily drudgery of life.

It makes sense that throughout history, models have often slept with the artist, especially in cases where the artist is wealthy and socially mobile. Sex can feel like a transfer of power, genius, and a solidifying bond. But in extremes of power imbalance, it often ends badly for the model.

Of Picasso’s models and lovers, overall, their lives ended in complete disrepair. They never recovered. The only one who was a success post-Picasso was Francoise Gilot, who left him of her own accord, knowing that her art career would go nowhere if she continued to live in his shadow.

The model remains as a vague representation of a person. A person we will never truly know. What makes the Mona Lisa famous? No one knows what she’s actually thinking, but whatever it is, her thoughts look very interesting. That’s the trick of being a good model – to always have a curious mind that never stands still within the stillness of your body. I love to be within my brain, barely aware that I am onstage, ignoring intense amounts of physical pain as the warm air of the space heater embraces my body.

I’ve seen thousands of versions of myself in drawings and paintings, and it is rare that any of them really fully capture me. I’m counting about five in my head right now. But that’s not really the point. My body is only a guide to what the artist sees. After so many years at it, I still feel excited to see what people are working on, and feel a sense of surprise when there is a new voice that speaks through the fascinating curves of lines and paint. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that sense of wonder, because I am an artist as well.

For the last year, I’ve been increasing my time and efforts in my painting practice. I knew that painting would come back to me one day. It was all I did for so long, and then went away when I became a writer.

People struggle with the idea of others in more than one role. They are sometimes amazed to see me painting. There is a tug of war between days that I model, days that I paint, and days that I write. Models are never just models. They are poets, actors, burlesque dancers, musicians, singers, and artists. It is the perfect job for the creative person who wants to make their own schedule, be their own boss, work as much or as little as they want to.

Hopefully, the majority of our lot will make something of themselves. I overheard a well-known artist say, “We’ve lost so many models to thinking that they want to be artists. It’s a real problem!” Quite a lot of people would like to see others remain in their known role. It’s up to each of us to make our lives what we feel it should be.

I never stop reaching for greatness. It’s a magical thing to work for people who teach me to go that much farther. Art is a discipline; a playfulness; an openness; an exploration. I get to watch people create from onstage, and then go home and do the same. I’ve found my place in Seattle through my work, and I’m building a sense of community and friendship.

Did I mention that I’ve never met a model that slept with the artist? It wouldn’t bother me if I did. But the point is, it’s a job like any other. Word spreads fast, and we depend on the money to get by. For those that don’t take it seriously, go ahead and fool around. Though trust me, overall, artists aren’t nearly as sexy as people make them out to be. We’re a nerdy lot.

The Truth About Sex

April 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

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As a single twenty something, I subsisted on stories of sexual exploits. Brunch with friends consisted of dishing the dirt on what happened the night before. All of our experiences seemed like some kind of amazing movie, where the hot musician/artist/stranger from out of town walks in and sweeps away the night with his own unique way of wooing, either leading to mounting sexual tension or strewn sheets.

I also worked at a brand new restaurant where they only hired you if you were beautiful or Irish. Everyone was sexy. We worked hard, played hard, and then all ended up in bed together. To be honest, it was the best job I ever had, with the strongest sense of community. The drama kept it interesting, and persistent flirtations kept my adrenaline pumping. People with commitments didn’t fare so well working there. But I had no strings, no attachments, and just a couple of obsessions. I was at that age where you were allowed to be just a little bit stupid. I learned that you probably shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but it’s a lot more fun when you do.

Ten years later, I look back on that time as my heyday of singledom. It was an adventure to sleep with all kinds of men, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a great deal about life from all of those experiences. I never imagined that my life would change so much since then, and that I would choose to be in a monogamous marriage.

We’ve both admitted that the single thing we miss most about dating is the variety. Once married, that excitement of the brand new person in your arms is a thing of the past. The challenge is to go beyond the familiar to create a fresh erotic experience. Biologically, the familiar is a warning signal that keeps us from committing incest, and once your family, there is nothing more familiar than your spouse.

At times, we get our kicks from listening to stories told by our single guy friends. But as they talk, I find myself feeling depressed and left bored. They check young girls off their list, and are consumed with looks rather than substance – the type of girls who like to flip their ponytail in your face; had a boob job at eighteen; and fail in conversations with comments like, “Alcohol was once illegal? That never happened!” In the meantime, the fully formed human beings are relegated into friendship territory.

For much of our lives, love and sex are two very different things. If you marry a person based on your passionate sex life, you’ll wake up one day to find that you have nothing in common. If you marry your best friend, you’ll realize that as love grows stronger, keeping sex fresh is a challenge. Love and sex only come together completely in the first initial phases of an intense relationship, and as familiarity takes over, lust wanes.

Everything that I’ve ever felt about the nature of human sexuality is explained and affirmed in Sex At Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’. As their theory goes, we owe much of our culture to the rise of agriculture, but the earth was a more balanced place when we remained hunter-gatherers in pre-history. There was no famine, no malnutrition; people grew taller and lived longer; finding food took up to three hours a day leaving the rest of time for play; when food and resources were scarce they kept moving; and communities were kept small so that everyone could be accommodated for. Strength came from how little you had – as in possessions as well as people. Greed represented failure, and sharing was the ultimate benefit. As food was not withheld, neither was sex.

During ovulation, women slept with as many men as possible, letting the best sperm-match for her egg battle it out inside her body. The baby could be anybody’s, and this ensured protection for the child. Everyone took responsibility for raising the children. There are many communities throughout the world that still function in this way, though outside pressures threaten to stamp it out.

Our bodies perform functions that are basic to this mode of sex and reproduction. As a woman vocalizes during orgasm in the throes of sex with one man, she is calling attention to other potential mates in the area. When a man thrusts, his action combined with the coronal ridge of his penis creates a suction that removes competing sperm from a woman’s vaginal canal. A woman’s body will actually attack sperm that are not the right match for her egg. But when sperm and egg are the right match to make a strong and immune child, her body is more welcoming. These various functions are called “sperm competition.”

There is a lot to be learned in this regard from our primate cousins. With Gorillas, the largest male wins all the females. He competes with his strength, but his scrotum is tiny – an example of male competition rather than sperm competition. With bonobo chimps, the females lead with a sexually free society, where the males can enjoy themselves instead of posturing to win the ladies. When there is enough sex to go around, everyone can relax.

Most social primates are non-monogamous. In fact, it’s a real stretch to find any animals anywhere that are monogamous. I hate to burst the bubble, but even penguins find a new mate after the hardships of protecting the young are through. Sometimes penguins engage in threesomes that are beneficial for the male in times of keeping the egg warm – double duty.

Of the primates, gibbons are a standout for their solitary existence up in the trees, with a generally monogamous existence. Among the gibbons, males and females are exactly the same size. Humans have much more in common with chimps and bonobos in regards to male/female size ratio and the general size of male sex organs. We also share 98.8% of the same DNA.

As a social function, sex throughout history has been a solidifying exercise between people groups – a way to create bonds, establish friendship, welcome distant travelers and gain their trust. Marriage, on the other hand, was a negotiation – an economic and political maneuver. Typically, patriarchs chose who you married, before the Victorian era built up the idealistic idea of marrying for love. That same era was the most uptight, restricting, and repressive time. No one thought that women actually wanted to have sex. They were idealized as angelic creatures, all the while getting their orgasms at the doctor’s office in treatment for Hysteria.

“Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity (Ryan, Jetha, 124 – 125).””

Sound advice. There is a reason why “gang bangs” are such a popular porn feature. The truth is, it takes us back to our roots in the ultimate expression of sperm competition. Monogamy has caused an increase in fertility issues in men – some 20% of men suffer, and the numbers are rising. These issues would never arise in a non-monogamous society, where the strongest sperm win, weeding out the weak. In monogamy, the weak just keep trying.

A man’s sexual preferences become rigid in his youth, while a woman’s preferences are infinitely flexible (whether she knows it or not).

“Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect…. The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With women… mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person (Ryan, Jetha, 273).'”

Despite the major shift in consciousness through the last one hundred years, women are still very good at being sexually dishonest with themselves. And why wouldn’t they, when society at large anxiously awaits that moment when they can label a woman a slut or a whore? Women are still punished for being sexual, when it should be celebrated.

I’ve never fared well with overly idealistic women. When they ask me to tell them how I met Michael, how he proposed, where we got married – I cringe a little bit. They are all great stories, but they sum up our relationship into some bizarre fairytale narrative that has nothing to do with our day-to-day reality. Those stories are mere blippits on the radar at this point. They remind me of the whirlwind that I was swept up into, left almost unrecognizable to myself, as I planned a wedding and turned into a girly girl, entering into a mainstream institution.

I’m still confused by what, exactly, happened to me. I’m still difficult to deal with, yes, but my personality did a back flip in response to Michael’s triple lutz. He made me a better person. I became strong and secure, simply because he believed in me so much. And now, five and half years since we met, we’ve changed so much together that I have little in common with the person I was back then.

I know that I could handle an open marriage, but Michael is not interested. And would I want to go back to that way of life? I see the other options out there, and it all pales in comparison. Before, so much energy went into thinking about sex, when now, we put our energy into the work that we love doing. I was not that productive before Michael came along.

We have a shared narrative that makes life enjoyable. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and sometimes we forget to have sex for a few weeks, and at other times, he feels more like my brother or my son or my father than a husband. But then it all comes back around, and it’s like we’re at the beginning again, in our own little world, with the sheets in wild disarray, and the hours passing by undetected.

I think the important thing is to not look at a relationship as a given. To not give up on life and let everything go. It’s the outside world that keeps the inside world invigorated. It’s the community at large that keeps love alive. An insular relationship is doomed to end in boredom. With trust and openess, fresh energy flows, and you find that the person you married never stops changing.

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