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.



  1. This is absolutely brilliant and funny and brave. I love that your fellow model was threatened by you. And how lovely to hear the models POV and recreate the whole event through both images and words. My absolute favorite line is "I forgot to be shy." Hooray, you! And I am unable to narrow done one image as my favorite. All of them are.

  2. This is delicious, the slightest bit naughty and very, very endearing! I absolutely love the illustrations. You - firs the curvy model, then a bit nude indignation! :-D

  3. Oh this is so great. You are a marvel dear one.

  4. funny story!! Brave you..I never modeled but certainly have enough goofy model stories to fill a small book!

  5. Wonderful story, from the point of view of the model! I've been behind the easel drrawing nudes a lot through art school but never modelled, in the nude anyway. Would not have had the courage. Bravo!! Oh and love the drawings!

  6. belette - It was more difficult than I expected to get this one right so I'm very gratified to know you like it. When I modeled I always felt as though I was still dressed in something cool. Does that sound strange?

    pagan sphinx - You've made me smile :-) The drawings were tough this time but I think it's because I got out of practice.

    liberality - You are so sweet to say so.

    kay - At the time I was the youngest model in Toronto. Most were pros with other specialties.

    marja-leena - It was an interesting perspective being an artist myself but viewed as an object by other artists. It kept me humble :-)

  7. Great story and I love the illustrations!

    Can we admire your image captured for eternity in any great galleries? :-)

  8. What a fantastically swanky story and I'm not saying that just 'cause I'm a perv & am still mad at my college painting prof for never enlisting a female nude.

  9. My first visit to your "other" blog and, well, it is going to go on my blogroll as soon as I finish telling you how marvelous this post is. Way too brilliant to not be seen far and wide. I loved it from beginning to end and feel like I had a trip back and away that has delighted and refreshed me.

  10. francis - I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's possible Willem deKooning painted a portrait of me but I'm not sure it's recognizable as me :-)

    randal - Why thanks. I'm sorry you just got the bowl of fruit.

    lydia - I'm so glad you came by and enjoyed the story. I started writing the Adventures a few years ago for 'phantsy' then realized they should have a home of their own.

  11. This is absolutely wonderful Susan. You did smething I would never have have had the nerve to do,

    I do love the drawings, especially of you admiring the portrait!

  12. jams - I'm happy you enjoyed it.

  13. i laughed myself silly reading this...the best thing all week and thank you, friend, i needed it...and aren't you so naughty...

  14. linda - Strangely enough, this one took me longer to write than draw. You've made me glad I took my time :-) xoxo

  15. This is wonderful! Aa usual, a colorful slice of your fascinating life. Can't believe the comments of the departing other model - but the illustration makes it believable...

    And that lack of shyness and bowling over the students reminds me of an incident in art school, where one student kept moving around the room when the model shifted her pose. When the professor finally asked him what he was doing, the model just laughed out loud and said, "He just wants to look at my tits!" The student turned about fifteen shades of red, and the rest of us laughed and clapped.

    Back then the nude model made me nervous, too, and intimidated - the more so if she were beautiful. Male models made me awkward in a different way. I was young, and very inexperienced. Now I see all those incredible shapes and curves, the bones hinted below the surface, and the amazing unique beauty of each person and I lose myself completely in the vain attempt to capture it all.

    I loved seeing this from the model's point of view for a change. I doubt I would have the guts or stamina to pose. Bravo on your adventure, and the way you tell it for us here. Many thanks!

  16. I love this! (Sorry I'm so late to read/comment.) Your storytelling and illustrations are wonderful as always.

    I had trouble with the random itch in odd places. Suddenly my elbow itched. Or I felt the need to cough. But you're right about arms up over your head and other things that create numbness before the 5 minutes are up.

    And don't assume the bridge pose? Hilarious!

  17. steve - It's an interesting exercise writing vignettes and I'm sure it's something most people could do if they felt like it. Modeling was a tough way to earn a living but my one rule was to always work at schools.. and no cameras allowed either.

    My drawing for these stories are now being shown pretty much full size and it's a tiny space to work in. I've been away from this project so long I felt quite rusty so I'm glad you enjoyed this new one.

    lisa - I know you've been caught up in other things so I'm glad you could visit at all.

    The worst I remember of modeling was the portrait and sculpture classes that went on for weeks. If my body even accidentally assumed the pose I was using for the class I'd remember the agony.

    Glad you noticed the bridge remark :-)

  18. Well susan, the first thought that came to mind is that I had to face the realization that everyone has a life, or lived a life, and the secrets they hold, that aren't really secrets at all, but the stories of their experiences, the whys and wherefores, are fascinating! The second thought is that you have a well rounded life, (Pun sort of intended, your drawings are great!)
    Yes, brave, to tread upon such a thing at a very young age. Makes me think you have been, and are, very worldly and have some other sense that allows you to do things. This I say is because I think of you doing it, and I could never do it or anything like it!
    Thanks for sharing this story about you, the girl.


  19. spadoman - What can I say but that this was among the least of the more questionable choices I've made in my life. In the long run there are benefits to be gained from taking chances even if they don't all turn out as we'd hoped. Wisdom isn't sold by the bottle so far as I know :-)

  20. i came by for a bedtime story several days ago and didn't say hello .... daft as a brush! a friend who hails from Germany tells a story of her first visit to a doctor in Canada. the practice at home was less concerned with modesty. rather than wait till he had discretely exited, she began to disrobe for her exam while the dr. was in the office. he fled the room in panic... and was most uncomfortable that she didn't wear the stylish little gown they had provided. she couldn't believe what prudes we are.

  21. .... and i've come to take you so for granted, i didn't even thank you for yet another most entertaining story and images.

  22. gfid - I'm glad you caught the story. It's been too long since the last one and I'll try to do better.

    I loved the story about your friend. Naked is indeed a better choice than those paper gowns that leave your bum exposed.

  23. Susan, seems like I've been commenting all over the place on your blog posts...but this posting of an artist's picture-story of the "Model Life"-grin!
    is SO well arranged, I was mesmerized!

    So I have over-stayed my welcome here, positively. Wishing you PEACE and good health from me,
    Steve E

  24. steve e - I'm totally delighted you've been by to visit and have stayed long enough to let me know. The art class was one experience I couldn't leave out.

    Never worry about out staying your welcome, the lights are always on around here and there's tea and cookies on the sideboard.

    Best wishes.

  25. you are braver than i. meeting that girl in the coatroom would have freaked me out.

  26. sera - Oh, I was freaked out but I really wanted to go to Europe.

  27. Hi Susan - got a visit from a crow the other day, could have been ... guess who, haha! Well, thanks for the visit.
    I see you are still being creative, I mean you still shape things with words and by pen. Good for you, I am a bit envious because all I think I am doing right now - is staying alive. Not a bad thing altogether, sometimes eventful, but not rich luscious ambrosia (does that really exist)?
    I also know the scene of nude modeling from both sides. The only thing that I appreciate higher than the human body is the human mind.
    But I got lazy as of late. I sit in the train and read humans mind, make up a biography and let them live in that. I should write a fictional book with a slight slant towards reality, but I just don´t have the energy. As for nudes, I am lazy there as well. I grab my camera instead of clay. Metaphor, not real - a vanishing illusion. But better than a fruit bowl, that´s for sure. I never figured out what captured some lost souls to paint "still lifes" in the first place. You eat that stuff, you don´t paint it! I mean, a flower, to paint a flower I do understand. That is sort of a Zen exercise, to capture the innocence. Fruit are never innocent, they are burdened with decay, eat them before they rot.
    The luscious skin, smile and curves of a woman can be enticing, but the bigger challenge is to draw a well composed male. I tried and failed, I am not Michelangelo who spit out David one weekend a while ago.
    Look crow, I have zero inhibitions to touch the untouchable - but it must make some kind of sense within the whole context. First, it must bring you one step further towards recognition, the clarity of what the world is all about. Nothing else will suffice.
    Hey you, keep up the good work - Lukas.

  28. zee - Nice to hear from you again too. Yes, Crow does get around and you never know what disguise he'll be sporting - sometimes he even looks like a regular bird.

    Writing and drawing never really come easy to me but sometimes I'm compelled. Being more skilled and talented would be beneficial but we have to work with what we have. I had a hard enough time dealing with art schools in the distant past so I'm not going back. You're right that still lifes are extremely boring and I loved your comparison of flowers to fruit. You still have a genius with analogies.

    I've never been good at drawing the male figure either but I don't really fret about it. I also prefer not to draw cars, buildings, machines, and monsters which definitely cuts into the number of things I'm able to describe in images. It can be very frustrating to see things I can't portray but life is for learning and there's always more work and hope for better things.

    Thanks for the good words.

  29. It seems we are pretty much contemporaries, and when you mention the Slade, I wonder if you meant London? Not that I was an art student, but if I had been, I’d have been glad to discover that you looked more like your self-depiction here than those excruciating daubs of DeKooning!

  30. vincent - I've seen your comments at Francis's blog. Yes, it would appear we're contemporaries. Welcome to Adventures.

    Yes, I did mean the Slade in London during the mid-60's and, yes, I looked a lot more like my own depictions than any portrait DeKooning may have painted of my the youthful and supple body.

  31. Oh, I was just busy with trying to cheat Death when you posted this one, and therefore missed it.

    I am glad you gave it a link. Wonderful. I enjoy the story behind that has not been written yet, or that I also missed. Lovely, Susan. Thank you.

    1. Hi Sean. You've made me extra glad I posted a link to this one particularly since I hadn't read it again myself in a long while. You may have inspired me to take on a few more I never did get around to writing.

      I'm very glad you cheated Death. May you keep dodging for a long time to come.