April 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
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.
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.
February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I bought Darcey Steinke’s novel Jesus Saves at a warehouse sale, I hoped that her words would speak directly to me, and they did. It’s a rare thing to find that sense of total communion with another writer. Set in a suburban malaise, Jesus Saves is about two girls. Sandy Patrick, who has been kidnapped, and Ginger, who suffers disillusionment at the crossroads between her struggling pastor father and a boyfriend intent on obliterating his own life.
Sandy Patrick escapes her brutal conditions into an imaginary world with a bear and a butterfly and a white unicorn that comes to try and save her. She protects her mind from trauma by staying far away in the land of make-believe, but in the meantime, her body is falling apart.
“The powerful scent shrunk her tiny as a figurine left under a doll house bed. He wouldn’t need the van now; he could carry her in a velvet flute case, or in his pocket, like a Barbie doll, her tiny toes brushing his leather belt, her head resting against a copper penny warmed by his groin (Steinke, 64).”
For the characters who haven’t been kidnapped by the man referred to as the troll, there is a different sort of prison. Grown women who dress like children; department stores with rooms made up of facades; fast food; and mega-church pastors who tell feel-good stories about television, sports, and success.
The shiny veneer of suburban life masks the constant sense that there is a troll lurking behind every little girl’s back. And in the avoidance, blood and gore pervade around make-believe land. Pretend becomes the only savior until the game is over. No one seems to know how to fight back. No one but Ginger, who refuses to buy into the trap – whether it’s in church or in fairytales or suburban facades.
“On Sundays, the wafers on the sterling plate and the wine in the medieval-style goblet took on an aura and import, became what they called holy, but backstage their glamour was diminished, no more important now than saltine crackers and Boone’s Farm wine. Holiness was like that, you could never trap it or examine its uncanny elements (Steinke, 75).”
When I was nine years old, we moved from a suburb of Chicago to Woodinville, Washington. Compared to our 1960’s era ranch house in the Midwest – which was nestled between the train tracks and the highway – our brand new house in the Northwest seemed like a mansion. It’s two and a half stories high with four bathrooms, a twenty-foot foyer and a pond with lush forest in the back. The house was part of a new development where all of the homes looked rather similar with small variations on layout and finish.
The community surrounded an older house tucked behind high hedges at the end of a dirt road just down from us. Attached to the corners of metal link fencing were surveillance cameras, which seemed completely bizarre in such a low-key neighborhood full of people going to jobs at Microsoft.
I only remember going down that road once in all the time Mr. Anderson lived there. A seven-year old girl at the end of our street made an attempt and received a nasty letter to her parents. In it, he demanded that they never allow her to walk down that road again, or else. But he didn’t own the road, and there was another house across from his.
Sometimes we heard shots ring out. The old couple across the street, who served us tea and displayed their knick knacks in glass cases, told us that one time Mr. Anderson’s bullet barely missed the head of an old guy eating breakfast in the nook of his kitchen. I pictured the nook as being exactly the same as ours, except maybe facing to the east instead of west. I saw the window shatter, and imagined the bullet lodged in the man’s wall – the shock on his face, the realization as he inspected the damage. There was talk of banning gunfire in the neighborhood. But I don’t remember if anything ever came of it.
I didn’t like the world of people when I was young. I enjoyed sitting in the forest at the back of the pond, hidden by one hundred-year old stumps and nurse logs, stroking my Dutch rabbit while smoking rolled up bits of newspaper. Life seemed real in the forest, in a way that it never did in school or inside the sterile house where I was under pressure to do certain things and act a certain way. The forest was the only place where I was allowed to be myself, and simply be. The rabbit listened to my diatribes against humanity for hours. Sometimes she made snorting sounds like a pig. Even though she hated people just as much as I did – truly dangerous with her sharp buckteeth – she felt safe with her soft chin and tickly whiskers nestled between my chin and collarbone.
One day I was walking along the deer trails alone, further out than I normally go. I saw Mr. Anderson in the distance with his rifle strapped across his shoulder. He was large and frightening and seemed more like a shadow than a person because I never saw his face. I sensed that he was coming right towards me. I turned and started to walk as fast as I could back to the clearing. His steps grew louder and faster as twigs broke beneath his boots.
When I made it back, I turned to look, but he was nowhere to be seen – like the mirage he always was. He represented the wild danger of what this place once was – a last frontier. Our suburban houses were whitewash over pine trees, cougars, coyotes, old farmsteads, and the Native American tribes that I still felt in the ground and the remaining trees. The present and the past were so at odds with each other that Mr. Anderson finally moved away – hopefully into the mountains where his breed was the norm. We could all breathe easier after the troll left.
They clear-cut the forest when I was seventeen. Men climbed the trees like monkeys, and chainsaws roared for hours. They left it raw and ripped to shreds. The only thing left was muddy tracks from the trucks that hauled the trees away. Wildlife destroyed, coves and crannies and a century of growth – since the last forest fire – gone. There was a strange law that said after a clear-cut, you had to wait seven years to build a new development. But seven years came and went, and no one ever built a thing. The government came to the rescue, purchased the land and made it a forest preserve with nature trails. So now you can walk muddy trails, gazing at nondescript saplings that all look the same for miles. It’s been about eighteen years, and I’ve enjoyed watching nature take the land back.
If I was the bear, I’d head for the Cascade Mountains like Mr. Anderson should have. But the bear still hangs around and catches salmon in a nearby creek, and balances his enormous weight on the railings of back decks, stealing bird food.
“The bear sighed as if he were made out of caramel, a quivering baritone that intermingled with the prickly static moving in and out of the troll’s lungs (Steinke, 117).”
I went the opposite direction. I’m rarely ever in a place where the air feels wet and naked and the quiet hangs over you like a shroud. Somehow, I ended up right back next to a freeway in the city.
My mother drove by and saw an ambulance in front of my building and called me when she got home. “Are you okay?” Her voice wavered and I could hear the urgency in her voice. She’d worried for the last twenty miles and forty-five minutes.
“Mom, you’re so suburban. There are ambulances here all the time. At the halfway building across the way, there’s an ambulance almost every day.”
I live in a mass of humanity, and in masses, people are dying all the time. If not dying, they’re falling, breaking bones, having a stroke, or threatening to commit suicide. One man in our building had a stroke, didn’t realize it, and was so out of sorts that he only ate ice cream for a week and lost a ridiculous amount of weight.
I’m not afraid of death. I like to be reminded that life is short because it makes me work harder and love stronger. There’s only one shot to give life everything that I have, and playing it safe is just another way of being half-dead. I’m inspired by people that are fighters – the ones that never give up. Like my ninety-year old neighbor who still walks up steep hills even though her knees are bad and her bones are literally falling apart. The only reason why she’s still going is because she’s too stubborn to give up. I don’t think she gives trolls a second thought, and when you’re old, it seems, your value to trolls decreases.
If I have a child, we might read books about magical bears and hookah smoking caterpillars and flying ponies. But I won’t shelter them from reality. I’ll teach them to be strong, fully present, and ready for any twist in circumstance. I won’t sugarcoat the facts or lead them to believe that life is easy. When I was young, I thought I could map my whole life out, but it doesn’t work like that. I’m glad that it doesn’t.
Dodging trolls has made me stronger, and no matter where I go, the world is always like the forest. You have to stay alert, allow yourself to be fully tapped into your intuition, and listen for the sound of crunching leaves. In the midst of that, the world is also so beautiful that at times it’s too much to handle. A gift that could be snatched away at any moment. All we have to do in the meantime is be alive in the best way that we know how – work hard, love strong, give all.
January 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
Are you feeling the post-holiday penny pinch? Well, here’s my gift to you. Starting today, the e-book version of No End Of The Bed will be free through Sunday. Please spread the word, and spread the copies. Enjoy it!
June 9, 2013 § 2 Comments
Just a quick announcement to let you all know, my memoir ‘No End Of The Bed’ is free on kindle for five days starting today! The free sale lasts until Thursday at midnight.
If you enjoy the book, please share your customer review on Amazon. I’ve received many raves, but the customers out there need to hear it too. Thanks so much for your support!
June 8, 2013 § 4 Comments
She hits it with prep school culture, the rich bitches on Queen Anne Hill, and the entertaining foibles of a Microsoft husband who is so absent that he tries to institutionalize his wife, Bernadette, over some bizarre stories involving her interactions with the mothers at Galer Street School. In this absorbing comedy of errors, Maria Semple has a fearless sense of humor.
Unexpectedly, while reading this novel, I receive an offer to work as an art model at Microsoft. I decide to infiltrate and see for myself if Semple’s portrayal is accurate.
When the time comes, I have anxiety issues. I am used to art studios, and corporations with their neon lights and employee handbooks make my skin crawl. I wonder what it will be like. Will there be a bunch of awkward nerds? Will there be gamers who want to use their figure studies to turn me into a heroine in a video game? I have no idea, and prefer to be surprised upon arrival. A friend tells me that he was surprised on his campus visit, to see a bunch of muscled guys playing sports, more akin to the volleyball scene in Top Gun.
I arrive early to beat traffic, and sit in the parking lot for fifteen minutes eating a sandwich. Green Connectors of all shapes and sizes drive past: large busses, mini-busses, even taxis cart around elite looking individuals on their cell phones. A whole transportation system devoted entirely to Microsoft employees. When it isn’t a connector, it’s a luxury vehicle, such as a banana yellow BMW Z4 roadster (can you say mid-life crisis?). ‘Money,’ I think to myself. Something that I don’t have, but having grown up with it, it haunts me every now and then.
The campus spreads for miles between two towns, not including some other buildings located in downtown Bellevue. I get out of my car amidst a lush green landscape. Inside, the receptionist is talking to a guy who does appear to be more Top Gun than tech nerd. She talks to him for five minutes, going in circles over what to do about the mess left behind in the main room that the admins should have picked up. But being admins, they’ve gone home already. And according to Semple’s book, there might even be only two of them for this entire building.
When I am finally instructed to introduce myself, it turns out that this guy is the one I will be working for. The receptionist gets nervous about me going in through the thick glass doors without a hall pass. She makes a fuss over the fact that I will ride on through with my employer’s card. Then she says, “Absolutely no photography in this building. And you are not allowed on the second floor due to the nature of the work they’re doing here.”
Totally out of my element. I live my life the way I do to never be exposed to people like her or places like that.
We go in, where a few friendly guys are early. One lives in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the other lives in the neighborhood where I live now. The guy who runs the space arrives, and immediately takes out a camera to take pictures of the event. Feeling a little like the receptionist, I ask to not be included in the photos. It’s a model thing, even though corporate policy requires me to be partially clothed. As soon as I see the guys bunking the no photos rule, I decide to take some pictures too. This is my spy mission after all, and the receptionist has gone home.
About thirty people show up. The drawing time is meant to inspire creativity, leading to greater innovation. Most of them have never done figure drawing before. Art materials are in full supply, and at 6 o-clock, four different types of pizza arrive. Around the corner there are fridges stocked with free soda (though I don’t drink the stuff), and most extraordinary: a 3-D printer. The machine competes for attention throughout the evening, as interns draw designs on the computer and watch as their plastic creations are spit out.
The populace makes the space seem more like a college campus than a corporation. Only a few older people show up, and the rest are interns. Did I mention how friendly they all are? Creepily so. I imagine them going home and telling their spouses that they had to work late, when in actuality they were figure drawing and having a pizza party.
I talk to a girl who tells me she’s never met someone who lives the type of life I lead. It seems bizarre when she says to me, “It’s just so great that you’re pursuing writing.” As though I just started doing this a year ago. I feel old, just then. I’ve been tugging at my dream for fifteen years. Here this girl is just out of college, owns a house and a car, and is set up for life thanks to this giant corporate utopia.
What most pleases me, is posing for people who have never experienced figure drawing before. Their work appears to be at the grade school level, which is completely endearing given their technical genius minds. I can feel their brains straining to work in a different way. Fostering creativity to increase their output of top-secret ideas.
I suddenly don’t feel so out of my league. I wear the same sort of clothes as everyone else (before undressing). And unlike Bee (the daughter in Bernadette), my iPhone isn’t shocking. In fact, almost everyone has one. At first I feel guilty for pulling mine out, until I look around.
“Outdoorsy Dad: (Getting defensive because everyone there is lusting for an iPhone, but there’s a rumor that if Ballmer sees you with one, you’ll get shitcanned. Even though this hasn’t been proven, it hasn’t been disproven either) (Semple, 125).”
On my break, I look up at the hallowed second floor, wondering what the hell is up there. I stand there, enjoying my status as “the dangerous outsider.”
I saw Maria Semple a few months ago at Town Hall. Her infiltration of Microsoft consisted of a guided tour, and she does an excellent job at summing up the lifestyle in her book. That night, we were seated behind her daughter (who is much younger than Bee). Throughout the interview, she was more interested in turning her head to make eye contact with Poppy, than in fielding questions from Nancy Pearl. Of course, it was slightly awkward that Nancy Pearl fit Semple’s description of the typical Seattle woman to a T.
“Remember when the feds busted in on that Mormon polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle (Semple, 128).”
Through writing the book, Maria (a transplant from L.A. who wrote for TV) ends up falling in love with Seattle. How can you not? It takes a while, but this place can really claim you. I tend to get stuck in my action-packed neighborhood, though the surrounding areas are extraordinary with mountains and water everywhere you look.
“The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless (Semple, 325).”
Similar to the dramas in the book, I’ve had wrestling matches with blackberry bushes that were attempting to overtake evergreen trees – resulting in bloody arms and sore muscles. It’s kind of amazing to experience nature stomping on your plans, and threatening to be in charge. I’ve become addicted to that sky that Semple raves about. She describes it perfectly. It’s never stagnant, not even in the dead of summer. There are days, walking home, where people rush down the hill just to capture the sky with their cameras. But you can never capture that wide over-reaching arc of the sky.
Where was I again? Corporate life – where nothing is exactly natural. I had a friend who worked at Amazon. He said he watched as people turned into the shapes of their chairs. Eventually they got divorced so they could marry a fellow co-worker. You can bring your dog to work, and walk around the office in your socks. It’s just like being at home, and people never want to leave.
As much as I have trouble understanding it, without all of these people creating innovation and changing the landscape of our lives, we wouldn’t have the tools to be successful as artists, writers, entrepreneurs, whatever independent pursuit it may be. Though Amazon has put hundreds of indie bookstores out of business, I wouldn’t be a published author without them. In one second I grimace at the catastrophe, in the next, I owe them one. It’s one big board game of Monopoly.