A month ago on a Tuesday morning, I was sitting in an office. Last Tuesday morning, I was lying on my back totally naked while strangers painted me.
On the last day of February, I left my job. I was tired of the long hours, hellish commute and rising way too early for my night-owl ass. I’m still juggling several gigs but have more time for said juggling, and it’s great. What’s greater? I’m actually acknowledging that I’m a writer and performer, instead of my previous, “hey, look what I do on the side, but I’m not a REAL working artist!” attitude.
And last week, I took on yet another side gig: art modeling.
This isn’t an uncommon venture for burlesque performers, especially in a city with so many art schools and programs. The first session I booked isn’t till May (and is specific to burlesque performers and those who like to draw them), but I also branched out and got on the roster of an art academy in one of Chicago’s nicest neighborhoods. They book portrait models (so head and shoulders only) and figure models (the nekkid ones). Last Tuesday, said academy booked me for a session. Figure modeling. Five and a half hours.
Cue frantic texting with my friend Cyn, an experienced art model and fellow burly-girl, and a Google search that yielded this very helpful website. Despite my fears, though, a part of me wasn’t all that nervous. I’m around naked chicks all the time. Hell, I am one of those naked chicks! I’m a dancer and a yogi, someone who’s used to posing and holding. How hard could it be?
“So,” I asked the monitor when I got to the third floor of the beautiful old house that is now the art academy. “Are you looking for quick poses today?”
He looked at me in disbelief. “Uh, this is a single pose.”
“Oh,” I said, trying not to let my UTTER PANIC show. “So, five and a half hours of a single pose?”
By this time I’d already confidently declared that I hadn’t brought a costume, because I knew that if I did, I’d chicken out and not go all the way. Now, I’d just committed to over five hours of people staring at me naked. While I just lay there… oh God, what have I done?
At first, it was…odd, to say the least. Nothing like burlesque performing, except for the showing-skin part. And in burlesque, my nipples and crotch are covered. I’m doing something, creating a relationship with the audience. For far less than five hours.
Now I had to get used to people squinting at me. Holding paintbrushes up to my boob area. Scrutinizing, well, everything. Chatting softly on breaks, as I eavesdropped and texted another model friend, I feel like they’re talking about me!
They are, she replied. But not in the way you think.
The first few 25-minute stretches were awkward as hell. Before the first break, the monitor put masking tape around me and I was my very own crime scene. After the first break, I lay back down, frantically trying to remember if my knee was angled this way or that way, and how the hell had I positioned my hands? At one point, the monitor left the room and I thought, oh great, he’s calling another model to sub for me mid-session because I am the WORST EVER.
Also, have you ever tried to stay still for 25 minutes at a time? It’s fucking hard. Even if you’re lying on your back, surrounded by pillows, all of your limbs supported, Chicago’s best radio station playing in the background. Muscles twitch. Things cramp. You worry you’re going to fart (or maybe that’s just me). And there’s not a damn thing you can do until the timer sounds, signaling a short break. Every time something hurt, or I was thirsty, or that stupid personal-finances commercial came on again, I concentrated on my focal point — the sticker on a ceiling vent — and told myself to breathe through it.
As morning slowly inched toward afternoon, I started breathing through it easier. Yes, bits and pieces still cramped up and strangers could still see my vulva, but I was becoming more and more okay with all of it. Some of the artists — mostly retirees from the look of them — introduced themselves and thanked me for posing, congratulating me on my first job. A few tipped me after the half-hour lunch break. “You’re almost done!” an older woman cheered as we began the final stretch.
Another friend of mine had told me, “It’s so cool to see how others see you,” and as I caught a glimpse of a painting, I understood. The few projects I saw were a study in perspective: not only where the artist was situated in the room, but what he or she saw in me and of me. Plus, as someone who can’t even draw a straight line, I always admire those who can paint. And these folks were good.
“You did a really good job,” the monitor told me as I donned my robe for the last time. “When can you come back?”
Okay, I thought, maybe I’m not quite the worst model ever.
That’s not to say I missed out on my daily slice of humble pie. As I dressed in my little model alcove, I overheard another monitor giving advice on color to some of the students.
“You can use a pink, or a gold,” she instructed, “because she is VERY WHITE. She’s almost TRANSLUCENT!”
In the dressing room, I grinned. “She’s almost translucent!” would make a helluva tagline.
If you’re in the Chicago area and would like to draw the Glitterbomb, I’ll be posing for Grotesque Burlesque on Thursday, May 7 at 7 p.m. Here’s the Facebook invite — would love to see you there!