Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The naked truth

All this time away from the hustle-bustle of corporate ladder climbing has made me re-evaluate my priorities. Before I dive back into the world of trying to convince people to buy things they don’t need, go places they’ve already been, and use things they don’t want, I’ve decided I need to create something all my own. With that in mind, I’ve determined that I need an outlet for my underutilized creative energy, so I’m going to take an art class.

I like to think that I have just enough artistic ability to allow me to appreciate that which I can never create. Nevertheless, every so often I try to keep the right half of my brain stimulated (or is it the left? I always forget.) by taking some sort of art class like drawing or painting or film.

I’d like to try another figure painting class, but I guess I’m still a little gun shy from the last time I dealt with a live model. It was a few years ago, before I moved to Chicago. Although I had never even taken a life drawing class before, I decided to jump right to the head of the class and take a figure painting course I saw listed in the local art school’s continuing education program.

Almost immediately, I began to rethink that decision as the instructor asked everyone to go around the room and discuss why they were taking her class. Nine out of the ten people in class were either full-time art students, or art teachers eager to get some highly coveted studio time.

I had never worked with a live model before, at least not one that was, you know, naked, so I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. Do they walk into the room naked? Do they come in fully clothed and then slowly strip while we wait? Am I supposed to make eye contact? How much do I tip? Is it inappropriate for me to smoke a cigarette and drink Harvey's Bristol Cream? Fortunately, the first model came in wearing a robe, and then waited for the instructor to set up the chair in the right position while she told her how to pose.

During this class, I learned that there is a severe shortage of male models willing to pose nude, which I guess surprised me a little. This means that the ones who do pose nude have acquired a pseudo-celebrity status in the art world. Everyone in the biz knows their names and availability.

I happened to take this class during the Nude Male Model Drought of 1999, so there was really only one guy on the scene. I’ll call him Ray because I blocked his real name out, along with most other memories of that class. But I do recall that Ray was severely balding, but completely disguised that fact by growing the back of his hair really long, in a sort of homage to Hulk Hogan. Other than that, he was just a regular looking guy with a pot belly, which actually made for a fairly interesting subject matter.

So where, then, is the problem? Well, the class started promptly at 6:00pm every Thursday, and I worked about 30 minutes away. I rarely was able to leave work with enough time to go home, change, get my art supplies, and make a peanut butter sandwich to last me until 9:00pm when the class let out. By the time I would race into class, all the prime spots to set up a canvas had long been staked out by the other students. This meant that the only spot that was consistently available was facing the model dead-on.

Ray had a tendency to choose poses that involved sitting back in his chair, putting one leg up on a block, and the other leg straight out. If you were one of the shrewd students who was able to establish a side view, this pose made for a highly interesting composition. If, on the other hand, you were relegated to my undesirable real estate, the pose left something to be desired. It was kind of, well, dirty.

I know, I know – grow up, Jenny! The human body is a beautiful art form that has been celebrated through paintings for centuries. I get all that, but there was just something a little creepy about having to spend three hours looking at this guy in his naked nudeness. I didn’t like the way he was so comfortable sitting there spread-eagle, all unclothed like that.

I mean, come on, even Adam had the decency to sport a fig leaf. In my opinion, being uncomfortable in one’s own skin is important. It sparks our instinct to put on clothes. It serves as a self-preservation sort of reflex, kind of like pulling your hand away from an open flame. You don’t have to think about it – you just do it. Shame is good, and really the only thing that separates us from the animals.

But really, worse than having to paint Ray in rather unflattering poses for three hours a week was what happened during the breaks. He would step off the platform, drape his robe loosely over his nakedness, and walk around to look at our progress.

There is something uniquely unsettling about touching up a painting of a nude creepy man while said nude creepy man is hovering over your shoulder saying things like, “Wow – interesting composition” or “I really appreciate the bold strokes you use.”


But after a 10-week long class, I must admit that I did come away with a much stronger appreciation for the human form, and a pretty solid understanding of color theory. Unfortunately, I also came away with six nude paintings of some strange nude man in random nude poses.

I stored these paintings in a pile in the back of a closet for a few years, and frankly, had forgotten all about them until I started packing to move to Chicago two years ago. When I found them, I was suddenly faced with an agonizing dilemma – do they stay or do they go?

Here were my options:

A. Take the paintings with me to Chicago, possibly allowing a bunch of grunting, sweaty movers to think that I’m obsessed with some bald pot-bellied naked man.

B. Throw the paintings away, possibly allowing a bunch of grunting, sweaty garbage men to think that I’m obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.

C. Destroy the paintings, possibly allowing some nosy neighbor to peek in my window, witness me slashing up the canvasses, and think that I’m dangerously obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.

D. Hang the paintings on my wall in Chicago, possibly admitting to myself that I’m obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.

So I did the only thing a reasonable person could do in this situation: I hid the paintings in the attic of my old house, slipping them behind a stack of old drywall and insulation. Now the next tenants can find them and think that my old landlord was obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.