Monday, August 22, 2011

the rider

She was eight years old and utterly smitten by her love of horses. Imagining herself perched atop a magnificent creature with mane and tail flying as they cantered over hill and dale, she clutched the two dollar bills she'd saved and approached the paddock where people were mounting up for a trail ride. The bored man who lifted her up onto the large brown horse after taking her money must have thought one of the other adults was her parent. Her toes barely touching the old wooden stirrups,  she found herself at the end of the line of riders as the gate opened.

Up until then her only experience of horse riding had been on the back of a pony who was led around a patch of fairground. Now here she was excited and somewhat terrified from her vantage point so high above the ground. She waved to her surprised parents as she rode proudly past the picnic spot where they'd been chatting with other families while the kids played. It appeared their daughter wasn't on the swings after all.

Clutching the reins tightly, she kept the horse's head high slowing his pace as they climbed the hill to the top of the trail. When they arrived at the summit the great beast decided he felt like grazing and, since a horse's head and neck are far stronger and more determined than the grip of an eight year old girl, graze he did. Meanwhile she held tightly to the pommel and saw the line of trail riders were now far in the distance and just entering some woods. About two seconds later the horse realized the same thing.

He didn't really rear up or buck like you'd see at a rodeo but what he did do was enough to unseat her. A fall can be nasty but not generally serious for a smallish child, especially if she lands on grass. However, in this case her left foot slipped through the stirrup at the moment the horse decided it was time he caught up with his friends. The trail had been ridden in the same way for years so the path was a narrow and rather deep channel that kept her head and shoulder very close to his back hooves as he galloped along. Twisting her upper body as best she could she kept out of the way long enough for one of the trail guides to have seen what was happening and race back to stop her horse.

Luckily, she was all right once she'd been helped up and dusted off. Although the guide offered to walk her back to her parents in the main picnic ground she wanted to finish the ride. He helped her back into the saddle, adjusted the stirrups to a comfortable spot, and stayed close by from then on. There were even a couple of places where they raced with each other on the way back to the stables.

An hour or so later she was back with her parents in time for ice cream.
Her mother never mentioned the state of her dress.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

tiny steps

I was probably about three when I began running away. Now don't imagine it was because I was badly treated because nothing could be less true, but right from the moment my parents removed the leash that was standard equipment in those days it was very difficult for them to keep me in one place. Of course, I don't remember much about being three any more than any of you would but there were always the stories and those vivid picture memories I've carried around since infancy.

When I was very young we lived in a little house on a street called Corporation Road in Gillingham, Kent. That's in England and the 'G' is soft. Down at the end of that street was a place known as the Strand, a big beach park on the River Medway not far from where it meets the sea. There was a huge salt water swimming pool, an ice cream shop, big boat swings, a band stand, and, best of all for me, a little steam driven train. I think it was a steam train but I may be wrong about that. I do remember the beach where I built sand castles with my father.

But I was talking about my tendency to slip away. I had no brothers or sisters, there was no television in 1949, and I was too young to know how to read. What I did have was a great deal of curiosity and a tendency to get bored with my dolls. This is one of the stories:

Our back garden had a wall and a hedge and a gate with a big lock. I must have been a very good climber.

Outside the gate was a long alley that lead straight down to the Strand. I knew my way.

I went to the little station and got on the train. I had no money but that didn't seem to matter. All the other children went home but I kept riding the train. The man driving it knew someone would come looking for me eventually. They did. I don't know if they had to pay for fifty trips around the Strand.

Times were different.

Monday, February 28, 2011

the art class

The first time I walked into an art class I arrived as the main event. The details of why in the early 1960's I'd decided to work as an artist's model are irrelevant, so I'll leave it at the fact I needed money for the plane fare to Europe and nobody was going to give it to me. College? Fine. London? No.

All it had taken to get that first job was a phone call and my mother's permission ('Well, all right if your nice friend Emma is doing it but don't tell you father').

At 17, not many people had seen me naked and, although I wasn't particularly shy,  Toronto in the early '60's was still very much locked into the '50's. It's no wonder I was a bit nervous as I walked from the streetcar stop to the converted factory where the open evening drawing class was being held. When I found the little cloakroom the models used for changing there was someone there preparing to leave. The conversation went much like this:

Her: 'So, who's your pimp?'
Me: 'I beg your pardon?'
Her: 'Who do you work for? Who got you the job?'
Me: 'Nobody. I just called the school.'
Her: 'Well, I better not see you on the corner of Jarvis and Queen later.'

Not in the least unhappy to see her flounce out, I quickly changed into the lounging outfit I'd bought a few days earlier and went out to find the classroom. I stuck close to the wall as I sidled up to the studio's back entrance and peered through at the artists who were arriving with their gear and setting up. The modeling stand, nothing but a bare platform raised about 2 feet above the floor, looked very exposed and was already surrounded by people. Late arrivals looked peevishly at those who'd appropriated a favorite position and more people kept crowding in behind.

Just as I was wondering if I could quietly slip away one of the students noticed my slinky outfit, determined I was the model, and said they were ready to start. There was no instructor so it was time for me to figure out what to do for the next three hours as I walked over to the platform. I asked the woman who'd spoken to me what the usual procedure was and was told 5 minute poses so everyone could loosen up followed by longer poses as they settled in to work on more complex drawings.

Not for the first time in my life, or for nearly the last as it's turned out, I stepped up onto the stand and wondered how the heck I got myself involved in such a strange situation. Everybody else had their clothes on and was waiting for me to remove mine so they could draw pictures of me instead of a bowl of fruit. Oh well..

Once I was unzipped and stripped, the only thing I could think to do was to act out stop motion plays and count seconds in my head between one pose and the next. After a little while I got so caught up in the imagined stories I forgot to be shy. I also learned a few things as the posing times grew longer than 5 minutes ie, don't stand on one foot, don't put your hands higher than your shoulders, and whatever else you do, don't assume that bridge position you learned last week in calisthenics class. After an hour had gone by without a break one of the students called out it was time for a rest.

I'd become quite curious about how their work was going and was eager to make a little tour of the pictures in progress. One man in particular had been working on the same drawing ever since the class had begun so I was especially interested to see what he'd been doing. By then I was feeling very comfortable in my skin and the idea that there was a big difference between looking at someone naked on a modeling stand and having them stand beside you simply didn't occur to me.

I hopped off the platform and walked up behind the artist who was still adding finishing touches to the picture he'd been busy with for over an hour. I was imagining I'd see something wonderful, perhaps a study like one by Toulouse-Lautrec or Monet. He was very focused and didn't hear my approach but when I saw his drawing had made me look like the Venus of Willendorf I must have gasped. When he turned around to see a breast staring into his face he retreated faster than the wheels of his stool would go, tipped over backwards and knocked over the easel of the artist behind him. It was kind of like dominoes.

I used those moments of confusion to slip back into my lounge suit and no more was said about the matter. I'd learned something else. Never assume you're going to like the way someone else portrays your appearance.


Between my own classes and other jobs, I continued working at that school and several others while I earned enough money to travel. Although the work was grueling, I was good at it and learned almost as much from the opposite side of the drawing board as from the charcoal to the paper side. I got a real job in London but also took classes at the Slade and the School of Art, working as a model to pay the fees and meeting lots of very interesting people. As time went by more and more students were willing to take off their clothes and mount the modeling stands. The '60's had begun.