Lest anyone think I’m making some hyperbolic crass joke towards the end there, that was actually an inquiry made of me when art modeling at a salon/workshop type deal out in Jersey. I declined, not really seeing what new conceptual ground would be broken in the world of art with a heteronormative retread of Mapplethorpe’s work. Or lacking any desire to hop on the amyl-night-train to ease whatever discomfort would be involved in helping the guy fail to become the Next Big Thing.
Art modeling seemed to be something that was always at least on the periphery of my world. As an art student there were days spent endlessly drawing and painting them, from 1 minute gestures to fully rendered portraits that expended over several classes. Many of my classmates giggled nervously over having to draw them early on and sneeringly speculated on what sorts of people were willing to do this and where the school found them. I remember noting how many of my classmates censored themselves, leaving large black smudges of charcoal where the models’ genitals would have been drawn. It somehow seemed even “dirtier” that way than on the drawings that I or the few other students who simply drew what they saw—like those vacuous black smears would suck you in to a world of puritanical American shame and repression. We were supposed to be learning to render what we saw, why should this part of the exercise be any more uncomfortable than drawing an ear or an elbow?
On the other end of the spectrum were the models themselves, who I occasionally overheard talking to one another, and understood some of them were also artists or dancers. I would come to learn that there were artists in all disciplines (though not necessarily all economic strata) who regarded art modeling as one of any number of odd jobs one could take to get by between freelance gigs or sales of work. (Catering, flyering, and cigarette surveys also made that list in the past, but Kim Cattrell didn’t come on the radio talking about those things.) At the time I was growing increasingly frustrated with biking the distance between the pizza place I worked at part time in Spanish Harlem–a job I’d held before starting art school & moving to student housing downtown–and fighting with my snooty, not-very-art-schoolish roommates who objected to my bringing my ugly paint-scraped $5 used bike into the dorm. Art modeling didn’t seem like anything they’d even consider. Which goaded me all the more to quietly approach a robing-up, post-op woman in her early 30’s as the rest of my classmates crowded around the slop sinks to clean brushes after class, and ask who I needed to talk to to make this my new job.
That was my introduction to this line of work, and it’s something I’d flitted back and forth from over the years, usually as mentioned, when there was no creative work to be had and yet another attempt to work a “normal” job nosedived into some “atypical perception”/medication side-effect based disaster or another. There were the schools, where I was one of many art models of all ages, shapes and sizes to be part of educating students in the ways of draftsmanship. As a plus, I found that on the other side of the drawing board my own work improved, my lines and shading grew more confident as I would look at another model and be able to understand the way the weight and tension of the poses felt. Instructors noted these improvements, but were tactful enough not to share where my newly found insights were coming from.
Then there were the more private drawing groups and salons, the ones not done through schools. These could occur anywhere from community centers to cleared spaces in cluttered art studios, to posh,velvet-curtained exclusive spaces where old guys sipped bourbon, listened to jazz records, and reminisced about any number of amazing things to a New York history-phile. (I traded in those bookings though for my first tattoo soon enough, the coordinator was rather dismayed, but I viewed all this as rather transitory until I became an Art Star in my own right, so what did I care?)
Another salon had me wondering how exactly I could conceal the knife in my purse on my body (don’t answer that) given that it was in a cat piss drenched basement studio that looked more like a set out of Dexter, if that had been on at the time, but nothing happened there.
Still, I’ve heard stories from others who were not so lucky as to have nothing happen, perhaps not in the place I just described, but in other settings both private and academic. And I’ve certainly heard enough propositions, like the one above, cloaked under the guise of “we’re doing this for art!” While I don’t wish to condemn life drawing as a whole, I do think it’s important for anyone interested in getting into this line of work to be aware that there is an underbelly of folks who think any type of violation of boundary is acceptable if they label it “art”. That you’ll encounter the occasional few who see this not as an exercise in art, but as some sort of stepping stone into the fashion modeling or film industry (here’s a poker-tell: do they refer to themselves as an “art model” or simply a “model”?), and there are people looking to cash in on that confusion with high glamour and the confusion with art, muddled sorts who would have you believe they are the next Man Ray meshed with Richard Kern trying to convince people to do shots that will end up in no other gallery than a personal spank-bank.
So what’s my bottom line, other than pointing out a lot of shit some people want to pretend is not there? CONSENT. As always. An art model should never have to feel pressured to take a pose or engage in any other activity they are not comfortable with. Art may be a driving force for a lot of what I do, but it doesn’t need to be a magic word to convince anyone to do anything they’d rather not be doing.