My Life As An Art Model

November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

You may remember that I wrote a post a while back about making my living as an Art Model.  I’ve been modeling now for the past eighteen months, and I actually receive more work than I can handle.  It’s strange that all of my previous jobs gave me anxiety, but for some reason being naked on a stage in front of twenty people totally relaxes me.  I feel safe up there, in the artist’s appreciation and quiet meditation on the human form.

Last Sunday night I went to my first studio as an artist.  I actually felt nervous to be crossing over to the other side.  Drawing was an awkward struggle, and I wanted to loosen up my hand.  The model was beautiful, and it was torture attempting to draw her perfect lines.  She is much shorter and curvier than I am, so it was difficult for me to get her proportions just right.  But now, I am hooked.

In high school and early college, I thought that I would be an artist.  I was selling paintings and winning contests, and the head of the art department was upset when I decided not to major in art.  I thought the fashion business could be a more dependable income, but the industry wasn’t for me.  Instead, writing chose me, and since college, I’ve worked to support my craft.  But I’ve never stopped doing little art projects here and there.

As an Art Model, I rarely meet people outside of the art world that can really comprehend what I do.  The job makes my family slightly uncomfortable, and they don’t want to see the art that comes out of my collaboration with the artist, at least not the figure studies.  My dad even just asked me, “Are you still doing that?”  This after I told him that I’m booked solid through January.

At a party last summer I told an acquaintance that figure artists are often able to sell their work to wineries since wineries want to be aligned with European tastes.  The woman replied, “Oh great, then your friends will see you naked!”

If that bothered me, I wouldn’t be doing this.  Most funny, is that she tends to hang out with the sex-positive crowd, and you would think she would be more relaxed.

My liberal friend from my conservative college days responded by saying, “Oh, I see you’re still objectifying yourself.”

It gave me meditation on the word ‘objectify’ – a word that does not take place within, but without, a choice of the viewer, and not the viewed.

 Definition of OBJECTIFY

1: to treat as an object or cause to have objective reality

2: to give expression to (as an abstract notion, feeling, or ideal) in a form that can be experienced by others <it is the essence of the fairy tale to objectify differing facets of the child’s emotional experience — John Updike>

I could never objectify myself since it would be impossible to experience my own self as an object.  I am within, not without.  It is the viewer’s benefit to see the human form as an object.  In their study they can come to a greater understanding of our own structure.  Not just physically, but spiritually, emotionally, mentally.

People also don’t realize I actually make money as an Art Model.  They see it as a funny little hobby.  They always assume that because I’m a wife without a traditional job, I’m just gadding about, living off my husband’s income.  Besides food and housing, we don’t share our money.  Modeling pays my bills.

I love being an Art Model for the feeling of collaboration.  I love that I see it from both angles as a model and an artist.  I love the unknown – the moments where an artist’s work blows me away or surprises me, or when they see a person that I don’t look like at all.

“’Thereness’ follows nothingness.  It is impossible to premeditate.  It is to do with the collaboration of the sitter, …  but also to do with the disappearance of the sitter the moment the image emerges (Berger, 78).”

In John Berger’s book “The Shape of a Pocket,” he meditates on art and different artists throughout history.  But it was his discussion on the mystery of the model that most fascinated me, whether the model is a building, an object, or a person.

“The ‘sitter’ is at first here and now.  Then she disappears and (sometimes) comes back there, inseparable from every mark on the painting.

After she has ‘disappeared’ a drawing or two are the only clues about where she may have gone.  And of course, sometimes they’re not enough, and she never comes back (Berger, 80-81).”

An artist I work for said that she felt invisible when she stopped modeling.  I think I began modeling for the same exact reason.  I can’t say that now I feel seen, because much of what there is to see is within.  Sometimes people see that, sometimes they don’t.  But I see my body differently than I did before.  There is no shame in it, no discomfort.  I see it as an instrument.  I train it to be strong in the pose.  I sink into the physical pain for long periods of time, and travel through my thoughts.  Then eventually I come back again, and slip into my robe.

Works of art stay within my mind for years.  If I love them, I never forget them.  Sometimes I even think about how I can recreate them.  I dream about the works.  They become a part of my subconciousness.  They can even change my life.  These images go way beyond what anyone in the media can toss up on us.

“…  the media surround people with faces.  The faces harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition or, occasionally, pity combined with a sense of impotence (Berger, 58).”

Art doesn’t speak as much as it feels, unless, of course, it’s propaganda.

Watching those who are adept with the charcoal, capturing every single muscle as though they have been trained by Leonardo Da Vinci, gives me strength to go on feeling clumsy and awkward until there is some kind of breakthrough.

“Real drawing is a constant question, is a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality towards what is being drawn.  And, such hospitality once offered, the collaboration may sometimes begin (Berger, 75).”

It is a pleasure to be clumsy as an artist, and graceful as a model.  The two balance each other out.

My problem with past jobs was the same exact problem with the media.  I always felt harangued, pitied, made to feel envious, impotent.  But as an Art Model, I can just be.  No one is asking more of me than my perfect stillness.  While the timer is ticking, I solve all of my problems, envision plans, come up with titles and new writing ideas, and sometimes let my emotions fall into a song playing on the stereo.  While somewhere off in the distance, artists struggle along over the lines of my body and the colors of my form.

 

Why Art Will Always Be Literary

December 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

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            I have just finished reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe and my mind is spinning with the insanity of the Modern Art world.  I’ve always loved Modern Art, but suspected that something was flawed with the movements heaped upon movements and the over-intensity of new theories at every turn.  Pieces became more a dissection of art than a complete work to be enjoyed.

            Art has always been and always will be a reflection of our culture.  The twentieth century was a story of mass consumption and the obsession with the newest, best, latest thing.  Suddenly realistic painting was not cool.  “Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art…  The idea was that half the power of realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it (Wolfe, 5).” 

So strip away the story and the vision and all the things that allow us to emotionally connect to a piece of art.  Subtract until all you have is color and unrecognizable form and absolute flatness.  Build a pile of overlapping theories that sit in the corner like dirty laundry.  Then you have the truly bohemian disease; the disease that keeps the artist from becoming a success.

            Few artists can make the leap from, what Wolfe calls, “The Boho Dance” to “Consummation.”  Few can genuinely double-track between their anti-bourgeois values while kissing the ass of the bourgeois.  But who else buys the art?

            Picasso was an enormously talented painter but so was Georges Braque.  Today we remember Picasso as the great master while Braque remains that neighbor he chatted about Cubism with.  Braque clung to his bohemian values and was never going to let go.  Picasso, however, adapted to wealth and used it to the advantage of his art.  He was versatile and knew he had to constantly evolve as an artist and a man. This is what made him great and gave him such a diverse body of work.

            Jackson Pollock, in his time, was lauded by the critic Clement Greenberg as, “the most powerful painter in contemporary America.”  But he couldn’t sell a painting, never evolved past the drip-phase, and “… one night he arrives drunk at Peggy Guggenheim’s house during a party for a lot of swell people.  So he takes off his clothes in another room and comes walking into the living room stark naked and urinates in the fireplace (Wolf, 57).”  I kind of love him for that.

            Within Pollock’s personal values also lies the art that cannot be understood without the theories that go with it.  Otherwise you might just look at his work and think, “Well, his mind must have been a mess.”  Which leads us back to where realism left off.  “Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text (Wolfe, 5).” 

The difference is that in twentieth century art, only a very small group knew the text behind the art – the artists themselves and a small group of collectors.  But in realism we all have the text to bring to the art – realism is all-inclusive.  This is why it’s so hard to sell abstract art.  “They will always prefer realistic art instead – as long as someone in authority assures them that it is (a) new, and (b) not realistic (Wolfe, 65).” 

            I usually have no money to my name.  But I am still often driven to buy art, and will find a way (layaway plans) if I love something enough.  Great art tells a story that you can get lost in.  This is timeless.  The same goes for literature.  I’ve never liked Hemingway because he is an abstract writer.  He only puts ten percent of the story onto the page.  It reads so dry and empty – whereas his personal letters were full and rich and honest and true, as he would put it. 

            After all the Abstract Expressionism came the relief of Pop Art.  Art was fun again.  The paintings still had the same flatness of abstract art but with recognizable images from everyday life – American flags, soup cans, comic books, celebrities.  Collectors bought it up and who was more cutting edge or as obsessed with the rich than Andy Warhol?  His work was new, and not quite completely realistic.  The Bourgeois ate him up with a silver spoon.

 

The Rape Propaganda of the Nineties

November 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

            Remember the nineties when rape and sexual harassment were everywhere?  There were all those televised court cases such as Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.  In Modern Novel class in college, every book we read had a rape scene in the first chapter.  Wherever you turned, there was some outrage over the untamable impulses of male sexuality – that evil creature that for one second is the boy next door and in the next is that gang rapist in the fraternity at 3am on a Saturday night.  The problem was that young women grew up thinking that men were evolved spineless teddy bears.  But feminism is no match for nature.

            I’d forgotten about the rape preoccupation until I read Camille Paglia’s collection of essays, Sex, Art, and American Culture.  To be honest, the book is outdated and repetitive.  But Paglia’s voice more than makes up for it and her rich knowledge from ancient history to pop culture is passionate and invigorating.  She loves to tell it like it is.  “American feminism has a man problem.  The beaming Betty Crocker’s, hangdog dowdies, and parochial prudes who call themselves feminists want men to be like women.  They fear and despise the masculine.  The academic feminists think their nerdy bookworm husbands are the ideal model of manhood (Paglia, 5).” 

Paglia embraces nature and our natural impulses to understand why we behave the way we do.  When it comes to survival in nature, you must always be aware. “Feminism keeps saying the sexes are the same.  It keeps telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything, wear anything.  No, they can’t.  Women will always be in sexual danger (Paglia, 50).”

            I still hate admitting that this is true, even though I have learned from many bad experiences that it is.  And of course, Paglia tends to contradict this statement as well.  I’ve been mugged, and more humorous than scary, once I was on my way home from work in my sweats and a guy in an SUV from the suburbs mistook me for a prostitute.  He asked me how much for a blow job, and was embarrassed when I rounded the corner and entered my building.  But it still left me shaken, because he was following me in his car.

            Most recently, I was walking home from dinner and on a street corner a man asked me the time.  “10pm,” I said.  The light changed and I started walking.  He followed me for six blocks – up the bridge, over the freeway, through the dark foliage of the side streets.  My heart was pounding as I felt his presence behind me, keeping close watch on his shadow.  Then he said something, which I couldn’t hear.  I turned and snapped, “What?” 

He goes, “How would you like me to rub my penis up on you?”

“Fuck off!” I yelled, “Do you want my husband to come down here and fuck you up?  You need to respect women!”  I shook my finger at him, inflamed.

Immediately he stepped back four feet, struck by the sheer force of my anger.  He held his hands up in surrender.  Just at that point, I reached the well-lit entrance of my building where my neighbors were in the lobby getting their mail.  My hands were shaking, “That guy was disgusting.”

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” they cheerfully replied.  I tried to keep myself composed as we rode up the elevator, but as soon as I was inside my door, I melted onto the floor and lost it.  In a rage my husband ran down to the car, circling the neighborhood to find the guy – someone who could be almost impossible to recognize, slipping in and out of shadows, a faceless loner in the night.

Feminism’s biggest mistake was in denying nature, history, and the archetypes of our mythology.  Utopia doesn’t exist, and we live in a world of risk.

At some point in his journey towards maturity, the average man will reject his mother and his dependence on women.  He will join the pack mentality in a rite of passage and succumb to his most basic nature, the nature that society tries it’s best to refine and suppress.  But when a man relies on assault to overtake a woman, he becomes a pathetic figure, weak and inept, revealing all of his vulnerability as a man.  If you need to take something by force, then you will never really have it at all.

So why did the rape and sexual harassment propaganda get out of control in the nineties?  “The theatrics of public rage over date rape are their way of restoring the old sexual rules that were shattered by my generation (Paglia, 52).”  It always scares me when women want to return to an infantile, protected structure lacking in freedom.  In the end, I don’t see that this preoccupation with fear won out.  The young twenty-something women of today don’t remember a time when they weren’t equals.  Overall, they seem to be well informed, prepared and strong.

I relate to Paglia’s warrior mentality, “Rape does not destroy you forever.  It’s like getting beaten up.  Men get beaten up all the time…  If it is a totally devastating psychological experience for a woman, then she doesn’t have a proper attitude toward sex (Paglia, 64-65).”  I have experienced sexual violence, and I would have to agree with this.  It was physically and emotionally painful, and it came from the pain my attacker had suppressed.  That is the way of nature.  A pain-free world does not exist.  We must all be trained to fight, to be fit, ready for what comes.  But through it all – take the risk of being open and free to all human experience.  Lacking in fear – but full of awareness.

           

 

 

How We Perceive Nudity

November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my evolution of what I like to call “Gypsy Jobs” my latest addition is working as a model for the art school up the hill. I have always had a fascination with Bohemian Paris, artists and their muses, Kiki de Montparnasse. So after several months of thinking about it, I finally brought in my application.

On my first day I had two back-to-back three-hour classes. Bright and early that morning, when I usually wake up, I began with an open studio, monitored by a student. There is always that initial funny feeling when you first take off your robe, like here goes nothing. They started with 10 one minute poses, then 5 ten minute poses, and 2 twenty minute poses. During the longer poses I began to hallucinate. I was staring at a speck on the blanket covering the stage. The speck started to move. I was convinced it had come to life as a bug. In the next class, I stared out the window at a tree and soon I was a heron flying through the large open center of its branches.

I didn’t feel awkward once I was on the stage, only when I was waiting to go on. The pain however was another thing. By the end of twenty minutes, even in a basic standing pose, my feet fell asleep and my legs felt stuck when I was finally able to move. I realized you can’t rest your weight on one straight leg or else you’ll hyperextend and cause an injury. Even though it’s less striking, I’ve learned to always keep both knees slightly bent.

I’ve gotten a lot of compliments since then on my stillness as a model. Having an active mind saves me. I focus on a point, do breathing-exercises to work through the pain, and then distract myself by thinking of interesting memories or ideas for my writing. Now that I model two to four times a week, it feels completely natural, and I forget that I’m not wearing any clothes. It actually feels cozy.

Last week at a long pose session I walked through the class to see their interpretations. In the drawings my weight ranged from 110 to 160. One woman was drawn to the more Rubenesque, and said she tends to draw what she is working with, as in her own body type. The men drew me much thinner than the women. I thought of our differing perceptions – how women put themselves in the females position, and men see women with rose-colored glasses.

The experience of posing got me thinking about how we interpret nudity in our society. Years ago my friend took two of us girls to a nude beach in New Jersey. It was a gorgeous place. I found it beautiful that people of all ages, shapes, and sizes were completely out there. I swam topless and hung out with an older guy in the waves, having fun. Later on at a restaurant I saw him again with his clothes on and had to look twice. He looked like a Senator or an Investment Banker, though I’d had no way to interpret him without his clothes. Now we were back in our hierarchies and I wanted to go back to the beach where we were all equals.

I had a phase when I lived in Hoboken, where I’d drink so much gin I became inspired to take off all my clothes in the confines of my apartment with friends. I guess I liked the feeling of absolute freedom. But the guys interpreted it to mean that I was ready to go. Climb on in or take a number and come back another day. I look back on my own spontaneity in amazement – a desperate need for an adrenaline rush. And it is interesting how nudity outside of the confines of an art class, a nude beach or a hospital is interpreted as sexual. But nudity is much more nuanced than that. Nudity also brings to mind our own mortality, our equality as human beings, the mystery of existence, anatomy, art, beauty, the poetry of motion and form.

Friends and family may not quite understand my job or how I can feel comfortable without clothes. My mother still asks my husband, “Are you okay with this?” But for the first time in years I am enjoying a job and looking forward to going to work. I get to learn more about something I love – art, and be in an academic environment with enormously talented people. I take romantic walks afterwards, feeling poetic, drinking coffee and eating crepes with enough time left in the day to write for a while before dinner. When I’m not at the school, I’m thinking about the next time I get to be there, creating new poses for the students.

It’s an instance where life led me to two books. The Nude Female Figure and The Nude Figure by Mark Edward Smith. They are both visual references for the artist working without a model. I am learning the range of the human form, thinking of ways to inspire the artists. And now, I find myself returning to the place where I began – painting and drawing figures just as I did when I was a kid and was obsessed with fashion illustration and portraiture.

Artists of all ages are honored to be able to work from a live model and respect the opportunity. I get the sense that they are grateful for the model’s bravery. And in the stillness of a pose my mind is in motion, building ideas and images, undisturbed, in perfect meditation.

Patti Smith Lays It Bare

October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night I was driven to finish Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, before going out to see Annie Clark aka St. Vincent play at the Neptune.  The book’s ending left me sad and stoic, barely able to look forward to the show.  But I was blown away by Annie’s performance.  I never expected she would have the raw emotion of Patti Smith, gritty and truthful, losing herself in a cover of an obscure punk band.  We need more of that energy out there – real poets who internalize the pain of the world and magically transform it into beautiful art.

In the book Patti shares the development of two struggling artists.  She leaves home and moves to New York with nothing, but when she gets there, she finds Robert Mapplethorpe.  All they have is their dreams, but as they become devoted to each other they manage to survive and build a life on their combined skills.  Their dedication survives Mapplethorpe coming to terms with his homosexuality, and their differing lifestyles as Robert climbs up into high society and Patti chooses the raw environs of rock’n’roll.  They remain until his death interchangeable artist and muse.

Patti Smith to me is synonymous with CBGB’s.  New York lost one more inch of its soul when CBGB’s closed and turned into a trendy John Varvatos boutique.  The boutique celebrates the grit and history of the venue without any of the grit left behind.  Now it’s all shiny and new with expensive clothes to give you that ‘rock star look.’  The dressing room is built over the stairway that once led to the most disgusting bathroom, magnificent in its filth.  Before it closed, the entire venue was a mutation, a continuing saga of live music.

I was fortunate enough to perform there just weeks before CB’s closed. It was before I began turning poems into music for the mandolin.  I was belly dancing for a percussion group, though with the addition of a keyboardist, our set was transforming into a jazz aural landscape.  I always danced barefoot, but the guys in the bands we came with thought the stage was too disgusting.  It had layers and layers of shit on the floor, built up over time.  Blood, sweat, broken bottles, sticky boos and who knows what else.  “I hope you got a tetanus shot.”

I loved experiencing the energy of the bands that had been on each stage, and felt that my bare feet brought me closer to those that had passed before. Despite everyone’s fears, CBGB’s ended up being the greatest bare foot stage experience.  As I danced I felt Patti Smith, the Ramones, Lou Reed, Joan Jett, the Talking Heads, Blondie.  It made me feel I could touch their success.  As though after our set I would step off the stage, put on some shoes and walk in their footsteps.  Surviving on hot dogs and lentils didn’t matter so much after that.

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“I can’t believe I just performed on that stage,” I said to a guy at the bar.

“Well, you didn’t play an instrument!”

What an ass.  I turned away from him and gave the bartender my drink ticket.  Playing an instrument is easy in comparison to dancing onstage. Though I did not play music through my hands, my entire body was an instrument.  Like visual sound, I was showing the audience how music moves. From then on our group performed one song where we all joined in a drum circle, building the beat into a crescendo that came tumbling to a halt right after it’s peak.  It was a kick to surprise people as I sat down with the drum – no one could say I was just some fluff dancer.

In a review of our show at CB’s, the writer compared me to the last belly dancer he’d seen at the venue – a woman who stripped back in the seventies.  He claimed my performance was G-rated in comparison, as though I was only there for his titillation. I felt misunderstood and interpreted as an objectified female.  To top it off, after reading the review, the percussionist asked me to wear a skirt with some slits up the side.  I was the lone belly dancer in a universe of men and their opinions.  Despite all of that, every show was a new adventure that I enjoyed immensely.  I bonded with many new people, and as my stage persona changed I went from being called “the belly dancer” to “Joan Baez.”

I no longer perform as a dancer or a musician because I lost the passion for it.  Performing was not the same when I moved back to Seattle.  I never felt a sense of community and support.  Instead of people working together to create something amazing, it is every man for himself.  My skin isn’t thick enough to withstand all the empty venues and people who don’t give a shit about the music.  At my very last gig, I got in a fight with the musician I was sharing a bill with.  He was determined to talk as loud as possible over my set and it was impossible to hear the music.  Through years of being onstage, I never encountered a more offensive musician.  And as I’ve gotten older, I have grown more sensitive and outspoken.

Instead, I like to remember the time I got up to play for a full house, and I saw two girls in the back who were about to leave.  As I began to play, they turned around and were riveted by my song – a poem about the limits of love. They felt what I had written and they knew it for themselves.  It was so intimate, as though there was no one else in the room.  I gave them every word like drops of blood, and by the end there was a tear in my eye.

Being onstage gave me motivation, discipline, confidence.  I learned to take my abilities much more seriously.  Just like Patti, I didn’t know I would ever turn my poetry into music and sing on stage.  But submitting to the flow of creativity, you release yourself to whatever will come.

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