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  • I know, reading about someone being naked is not as fun (or as mortifying) as actually seeing someone naked. So this essay about my brief nude modeling career will just have to do.

    The subject of my past artists’ modeling came up in conversation with a friend the other day. I’ve been thinking back on how it helped shape my life in a way, both as artist and subject.

    When I was 15 years old, my parents entrusted me with a gift of a summer life drawing class in downtown Philadelphia at the Hussian School of Art. It was the first time I was allowed to travel downtown by myself, un-chaperoned and parent-free. This gave me my first taste of independence as a young person, and I am forever grateful for the experience.

    Every Saturday I took the PATCO Lindenwold Line (NJ to Philly subway) to Market Street/the Gallery Mall in South Philadelphia (note to Will Smith: some parents do understand). It was during this time in my life I saw my first naked person, family not included.

    I remember being stunned at seeing my first nude model, but at the same time, feeling a sense of gratified maturation. I think one of the first models was this Caucasian man who looked one step away from being homeless. I wanted to feel bad for him, but I knew he had a job (this one, at least). I remember it grossing me out that he wore his jeans without underwear. But who could blame him? It was the nature of the position.

    Another model was a very tall, muscular black man with long dreadlocks down to his belly button. While I was in awe of his dreads, I was most impressed with his very large staff. I mean, the 6 foot gnarly wooden cane he used as a balancing mechanism for contrapposto poses. I remember being really pleased with my artwork that day because I liked the way the cane mirrored the statuesque posture of the model. This began my love for repetition in art.

    Another model I remember from this class was a little old lady, whose boobs hung low to rest on her lap in sitting poses. She had to be at least 80. I don’t really remember her so much in the class as I do recognizing her fully clothed on the subway from NJ to Philadelphia about a week later. She was sitting down, and her boobs were still resting on her lap. I felt a little embarrassed recognizing her until I realized that I don’t think she was embarrassed to see me. Other than that, I guessed to myself that we had something in common – we were both Jersey Girls.

    Several years later as a freshman in college at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, I was taking some life drawing classes. During one class in particular, our model was an average looking man, Asian, maybe in his late 30’s or early 40’s. He undressed and began to pose on the models’ stool. It was then that I noticed something odd: in my innocence, I could not fully determine if I was looking at one testicle or two. I discretely turned to one of my classmates and, behind my easel without speaking, communicated to her my confusion. She immediately picked up on my reference because apparently, she too, had noticed this, um, oddity. She confirmed with a nod and smile, and I felt validated in my observation. There’s a first time for everything!

    As a student, I thoroughly enjoyed life drawing. Not only did it satisfy my base urges as an artist to connect with humanity in the most rudimentary way, life drawing made me love the human body – and in turn, made me love myself.

    So years later when I had an opportunity to be an artist’s model, I jumped at the chance. I modeled undraped (as they say in the biz) for various schools in the city: FIT, NYU Tisch School of Arts and Cooper Union.

    There was one instructor who was very serious about her work. During one of the life drawing classes in which I was a model, the instructor had mentioned to her students about how different cultures have viewed women over the ages, including those who followed matriarchal principles and included Goddesses as their deity of worship. This was right up my alley, and so I became really in tune to the teacher’s dialogue while I was posing.

    “For some people, their deity was Isis, the Egyptian Goddess of the Dead,” the teacher said, to which I blurted out, “She’s my Goddess!” Well, you could have cut the air with a knife – the instructor shot me a look of death. It was then that I learned that models never speak during sessions. Oops.

    Then there was the time at FIT, my alma mater, when I was assigned to model for a life drawing class that one of my former instructors was teaching. It was just my luck that he was my least favorite teacher in the Fine Arts department. I never forgot his constant shallow critique of my work. I welcome constructive criticism, but he critiqued with a one-sided opinion, shut off from others’ points of view (which to me, is a very strong aspect of art). And I always felt that his close-mindedness tainted my final grade. So of course I never forgot him. But that didn’t deter me from modeling in his class. My plan was to pretend I didn’t remember him, and hopefully he wouldn’t remember me. I mean, it had been seven years since I took his class, and he probably has since had hundreds of students file through his doors.

    At this point in the anecdote, you might be saying to yourself, “Uh oh, I know where this is going.” But oh, you are sadly mistaken. There’s a twist.

    The beginning of the class went off without a hitch. I modeled like I normally had during many previous classes with other instructors at other schools. During one of my five minute rests, the instructor came up to me and said, “You look so familiar.” I brushed it off with an “Oh?” and tried to leave it at that.

    “I think I had you in one of my past classes. Are you sure we don’t know each other?” I assured him I had never seen him before. He finally let the subject rest and tended to whatever teachers tend to during class. He stepped out of the room for a minute or two, and then came back. But this time he had a friend. Another instructor came in to “observe” the class.

    So I resumed modeling after my rest. Then the 20 minute class break eventually approached. I put my robe back on and took a swig of my bottled water, relaxing on the models’ platform. The other instructor came up to me. Sporting an unkempt beard, he was scrawny and beady-eyed.

    “Hi,” he addressed me with a disturbing stare, indicative of his forthcoming creepiness.

    “Hi,” I said pleasantly, not expecting anything more than a greeting. After all, he was a professional.

    But he stayed by my side and stared. Then he continued. “I think you are soooooo beautiful. You are the most beautiful model I have ever seen.” Ick. The creepiness factor just soared. This was unfair. While class wasn’t an unsafe atmosphere during break (students were still lingering), this put me in an uncomfortable position. I had no place to go – class was only half over, and I was totally naked underneath this robe.

    “Thanks,” I retorted, half-pretending what he said was a compliment. Then I quickly turned my head away and took another swig of water. I did not continue the conversation. Luckily, he got the point and retreated. He soon afterwards apologized for saying that to me. I think I ignored him. He eventually left the room and class resumed shortly afterward.

    Don’t get me wrong – most of the life drawing teachers I encountered were warm and inviting, and highly professional. I truly enjoyed being an artists’ model. I just chalk that bizarre encounter up to a couple of unprofessional creeps. Luckily in my experience, they are the exception to the rule. But it did lead me to wonder, what are these two dorks basing their grading on? Hmmm…

    Back then in my mid-20’s I had much shorter hair, so with its texture, my hairstyle sometimes took on a soft Afro-like appearance. So in another class where I modeled, I remember briefly being compared to Horeshak of Welcome Back Kotter by a male student under his breath. Um, I can hear you.

    My favorite modeling experience by far when I posed for a few life drawing classes at the Cooper Union Saturday Outreach Program, a full scholarship program for high school students in downtown NYC. This class harkened back to the days when I was a teen taking those first life drawing classes a decade earlier. The instructors were young college students of the Fine Arts program at Cooper Union, and I think it was a volunteer position.

    In one Outreach class in particular, there were two instructors and me, the model (plus about 25 students, most of them 15-17 year olds). The dynamic of the class was so different than that of the more formal fine arts classes that I had been used to working. The students all looked like deer in headlights. I knew that feeling. They were about to see a naked stranger before them, and boy did they look nervous. But I didn’t feel bad for them, because I knew they were talented and there for a reason. I was delighted when the teachers began to address the class, whimsically introducing themselves, helping to break the tension. But then the instructors surprised me by asking me to introduce myself. Wow – given my past experience in trying to join in on the conversation in a previously aforementioned class, I was stunned, but happy to oblige.

    I told them about how I was once a kid who took my first life drawing class at age 15, not unlike them. And how I had been nervous on my first day as a student. And then I told them the story about the old lady model whom I saw later on the train. They got a kick out of it, and everyone seemed to relax. I felt so pleased. When I disrobed, they all kept their composure and acted very mature for the rest of the class. The whole experience made me consider teaching art.

    Overall, being an undraped model was such a freeing experience. And by this time in my life, I felt comfortable naked, so it was of no issue to me. I think the challenge is staying absolutely still for 20 minutes at a time. Sometimes in odd positions. But there is something very exhausting about being someone else’s muse and not being the expressive artist yourself.

    I think if I were to be an artist’s model today, it would only be for one artist, and not a class. I can’t imagine what it’s like today with all these camera phones lurking around! At least I’m only in art.
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