Mosaic Tries Something Nude
Underneath a bright light before five strangers on a Wednesday night in Taylor Hall, I lean my body on the back of an old armchair and scan the checkerboard floor – naked, still and scheming a way to get at the itch on the small of my back without breaking pose.
“You’re so pretty,” an artist named Georgia says to me from a lamp-lit easel, pulling a strand of gray hair behind her ear with a graphite-stained hand. “You’ve got such great shoulders.”
Straining to remain in my pose, I smile and attempt to concentrate on the steady hum of the space heater set in front of me, feeling vulnerable and fully conscious of each flaw of my body.
Throughout the next three hours, Georgia and four other local artists will scrutinize every nuance of my physique, sketching and painting as part of a figure drawing group that has met weekly for the last 35 years.
Each week, the group of artists meets on the second floor of Taylor Hall, often varying in size. The model, typically a student or local resident, strips down and holds a single pose for three hours of 20 minute sessions with 10 minute breaks in between.
For me, the concept of nude modeling seemed abstract. I have never stood naked in a room full of strangers, nor have I ever wanted to. The idea of posing for three hours, with virtually every inch of my body exposed was intimidating.
Yet within the past year, a growing number of my friends have posed for this class, citing their experiences as “liberating” and “formidable.”
So, I had to investigate: Is it possible to feel empowered in such a vulnerable context?
I first reached out to Rachel Coyne – a senior communications and public policy major and friend of mine. About a year ago, she told me about the class, saying it was a positive experience.
We sat on the floor of her room and talked over the incessant thump of a subwoofer banging outside her door during a recent small party at her home.
“It does feel empowering,” she said, crossing her arms and grinning. “You are naked in a room with people and they are not sexualizing you, they are just trying to capture what is physically in front of them and do it in an accurate way.”
She explained that the primary reason why the environment is so positive, is that each artist is solely there to improve their art. They are simply looking at you as a body. She said understanding this is helpful when mentally preparing to model.
“It’s less about your ego and more about, like, ‘Okay, these people are really trying to practice their art.’ I’m so happy to be a part of that.”
To further investigate, I met with my friend and fellow Mosaic reporter Rachel Curry, a senior English major here. She modeled for the class at least once a month last year.
“I liked that I was able to participate in something like that,” she said. “They were clearly objectively looking at my body as a work of art.”
Pausing to take a sip from her mug, she adjusted her glasses and sighed.
“For me, I don’t think empowering is the right word. But it was a nice relief from the daily pressures of the body,” she says. “They don’t care what your body looks like. They want to artistically draw different shapes.”
Yet as a man, it is not earth-shattering to realize that there is a certain level of agency exclusive to my gender. I can, in no way, even begin to assume an understanding of my friends’ experience.
To a certain extent, I have control over almost any palpable threat of being objectified or oversexualized. So, what does this mean for me to be looked at as a body and nothing more?
These thoughts were on my mind when I first arrived at the studio and met the small class of two women and three men, as they set up their stations. Each artist warmly greeted me and caught up with each other, creating a mood that felt familial. Some artists immediately began to study my face, highlighting certain features and envisioning how they would capture the musculature of my frame.
Then I went into a back room, took off my clothes and wrapped myself in the bedsheet they gave me after realizing I forgot a robe.
Walking out with a nervous step, draped in a faux toga, I took my place at the front of the room, dropped the sheet and posed.
As I reach the third hour, feeling more vulnerable and numb than anything else, we begin talking about the characteristics of a good model, since each of them have modeled or figure drawn dozens of times. They noted they mostly have female models volunteer for this class.
“It’s being still – we’re not used to being still as a culture,” says one artist named Lisa. “You should stay present, listen to your breathing. It’s an awareness of your body, an awareness of your presence.”
Once I finish my final 20-minute interval, I return to the back room and put my clothes back on.
In this moment, I shift from feeling emotionally numb, to solely raw – thankful for the safe space these artists established, but completely drained from keeping my guard down for three hours.