One day many moons ago, my Fine Art professor announced we were going to do some life drawing in the two next classes. It was going to involve nude models.
This was back in my University days. I was a freshman at the time and had picked Fine Art as one of my electives. Since I had taken five years of Fine Art in high school, this subject was a natural choice to explore during my post-secondary education.
While my teacher was telling us some of the mechanics of drawing a nude body, I was reminded of a life drawing class in grade 11 or 12. Obviously, high schools did not hire nude models for this purpose; instead, my teacher at the time, Mrs. Gebhart, chose one of us to sit on top of the table to model for this exercise.
Anyway, the University Fine Art classroom was much more impressive than the high school classroom; there were easels and tables and lots of natural light, plus plenty of room for working with clay or other materials to build sculptures as well.
For the life drawing portion of this course, the plan was this:
The models would get on top of the table in the center of the room and pose in some way. If I’m remembering this correctly, they were standing, not sitting. We were to sketch their bodies with charcoal on paper which was attached to an easel.
There was going to be a female model in the first class, and a male one in the second.
The day of the first life drawing class, we entered the classroom nervously. We didn’t know what to expect. Would the nude model already be there?
But the classroom looked the same as it always did. The prof gathered us into a central location and began preparing us on how to act, or not act, around this model.
“She is paid for this job,” she explained. “We will treat her professionally.”
I found out later that the University paid nude models $200 for posing for an hour, a relatively large sum for 1989.
So, our prof was talking to us, repeating some of the same lessons as she did last week, when suddenly, the model appeared in the doorway and stepped into the room.
She was completely naked.
We were all a bit surprised. Some people were shocked – you could hear them gasping. Even the teacher seemed a little stunned. She stopped talking in mid-sentence and turned to approach the nude girl.
“Did you not see the robe?” we heard her ask the girl quietly.
I don’t remember what her response was.
But the prof collected herself quickly, and helped the girl onto the table.
“We may as well begin,” she said and instructed the girl on how to pose for us.
Now, imagine this scenario. There are 25 first year Fine Art students, most of us probably around the ages of 18 or 19, staring at this nude girl on the table. To say we were a little unsettled would be an understatement. This wasn’t something most of us had ever had experienced before.
There was nothing else to do but to begin sketching. As these thing go, we quickly became absorbed into our activity while the prof wandered around inspecting our drawings, and giving us suggestions on technique.
Here’s the thing I remember most vividly about the model:
The girl was maybe in her early to mid 20s. She was shorter than me (so under 5’5″) and had cropped blond hair sticking out in every direction. (Don’t ask me to explain 80s hair styles 🙃 ). She was relatively skinny; I could see her rib cage sticking out a little. She was smooth in most places but natural in other places. In other words, this contemporary trend of shaving the nether region bare was not pertinent in my circles at the time, and obviously not in the model’s either.
But there was another thing that intrigued me. ( Hindsight is a curious thing, isn’t it. 😉 )
The girl was incredibly confident. Not in an arrogant way, mind you, but in a “this is what I look like, I don’t mind you admiring me” kind of way.
It was quite impressive.
You have to understand, as a teenager I was not comfortable with my body. Throughout adolescence, I struggled with a little bit of weight gain (or so I thought at the time – when I look at pictures of my teenaged self today there was nothing wrong with me in terms of my weight relative to my height). But positive self-image and self-esteem were not my forte; I was introverted, shy and felt uncomfortable in public. I also suffered from fluctuating hearing loss which isolated me even more. It was difficult to have a social life and be out with my peers learning social behaviour by watching and interacting with others. All social life began with phone calls in the 1980s, and since I couldn’t hear well on the phone, I just avoided the whole thing.
By the time I reached University though, my hearing loss ‘settled’ into a ‘functioning’ disability, meaning, I didn’t think I needed hearing aids to live my life. The fluctuation seemed to have stopped as my hormonal changes settled into adult from teenager. I felt freer, partly because I was on my own at University (no longer living at home) and partly because this godforsaken hearing loss finally stopped giving me so much trouble. I went a little bit crazy in the first couple of years of dorm life, if you must know. (Don’t ask…) 😮
But back to my story.
The nude life drawing class opened my eyes to how other people saw themselves, and what self-image was all about. I discovered new possibilities that came with the freedom of becoming an adult while living away from home and parental supervision. Dorm life was both a great, and an eye-opening experience despite some of the memories making me cringe nowadays. (Ugh…)
When that class ended, I went back to my co-ed dorm and bumped into a 3rd year student. He studied both art and philosophy and always tried to talk to me about worldly things. In hindsight, I think he had a crush on me, but he had recently gotten engaged to some obscure girl I had never seen around, and he was living in the dorm in a single room, so the entire situation was a little bit weird.
But I had told him about the nude models and he wanted to know what the experience was like.
I told him what happened with the girl. He wanted to see my sketches.
Then, he offered to help me practice.
“I would be happy to model for you so you can practice your technique,” he said.
I believe his offer was initially genuine (mostly) (ha), but you tell me how many 22 year old men (boys) wouldn’t take an opportunity to get laid at pretty much any time.
He had opened a door in my closed-off brain that led me to ponder the possibilities I was able to embark on. I mean, here I was, 19 years old, and legally an adult. I didn’t have a boyfriend and although I was fooling around with a veterinary student living just below the philosophy student’s room at the time, we weren’t dating. The philosophy student’s offer made me think about how I was completely in charge of my own decision making about pretty much every single thing in my life, and as much as he enticed me, I just couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t let him strip for me, and pose nude for my so-called practice sketching nude male bodies. (Ask me if I would do it today and I would say yes.) 😉
It wasn’t even the fiancée that bothered me (although it should have). It was the whole nudity thing. Not even my own, but his. I was…astonished that some guy I barely knew wanted to do a private ‘session’ for/with me. (lol)
I said no. But not immediately. He offered a few more times over the next few days, and the way he looked at me made me a little uncomfortable. (Today, I know what desire looks like. What I was feeling was aroused, but I didn’t know what to do with that. I was inexperienced and this was my first year living on my own…I wasn’t used to being approached by men several years older than me. Thinking back, I might have learned a thing or two with him had I taken him up on the opportunity he presented. He was a nice guy, not some asshole like the one who lived in the room below him.)
Like I said before, hindsight is a curious thing…
There was another factor impacting my decision not to practice sketching the nude philosophy student – the only nude model I’ve sketched so far was a girl; the male model was supposed to come to the next class.
Which was a whole different experience from the girl.
To be continued…