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.