Many of the first naked bodies I saw were adult, varied in fitness and age. Luck and interest brought me to a public high school where we drew from life. Life drawing is a record of concentration that flattens judgement and connects eye to hand, hand to subject. At the same time, live models - as opposed to bowls of apples - make their vulnerability known with their tremors, heartbeats and blinking. For myself and my teenage classmates, these bodies awakened our sensitivities without activating our anxieties. Drawing was an uninstructed period of observation, a peaceful break in the alarm bells and chaos of adolescence. Our drawings rendered the weight of a person’s side, the looseness where an ear had been stretched and the earring abandoned and the tremble in athletes’ headstands. An older man’s missing toe gave poignancy to his standing poses. Two best friends modelling together inspired confidence. A beautiful, naked ex-classmate was reduced to the weight and light we only had the afternoon to record. We learned instinctively to press harder with our pens not where we saw shadow but in those places where we saw vitality: fingertips, eyes and genitals. We learned the potential of making marks alongside the potential of what unadorned bodies can do and how they can go.
Twin pleasures and twin agonies: seeing and being seen, being a woman, being a man.
Children's glee for ornament and movement often gets called unselfconsciousness. I think it’s an intense and human pride, a desire to be seen. When I was little, I liked dancing and self-selected glamour objects (strings of rhinestones, a hat with a black velvet cabbage rose appliqué, miniskirts). When puberty came around, I shrank into a hoodie to my knees. Once sexualized, I lost my exhibitionism. Ordinary sexual cruelty had me manoeuvring to witness, rather than be witnessed. I wanted the power I believed I saw in pubescent boys, looking out from the tunnels of their sweaters, making dirty jokes from safe distances. Because of their arrogance, I believed I would find the power of witness in a shaved head, a deep-pocketed hoodie with a monastic walk to match. When I arranged myself this way, I stopped receiving girl attention but started receiving gay attention. Shoved and kissed and called a fag, I dug around for anonymity. Finding it, I felt like an impostor, then found coiled within myself some danger, the danger men had offered me with their come-ons and assaults. I found my desires, and they were scary. As an adult, the clothing and posture that add up to gender can still be a double bind of submission and the shame of power.
Growing up is learning to love fashioning the self. Twin pleasures and twin agonies: seeing and being seen, being a woman, being a man. In my thirties, I still can’t make a private decision about these poles, vacillating in search of some impossible compromise that adds up to pure love. And I still get the most relief from them in nakedness, where the body that was once supposed to predict my personality is available just as it is - crouching like a Neanderthal or coiling like a snake. Being naked is living in the junkyard of gendered power, playing with tools that do something different from what you might expect.
By the time I reached the age of majority, I loved drawing enough to model myself. I began at a weekly drawing night. The first time I tried, I was surprised to break out in full-body hives I’ve never seen before or since, but I adapted quickly. My years of drawing encouraged me into the novel shapes and expressiveness I wanted to see. When an instructor told me he preferred to draw someone with more mass, I tried big open poses, spreading my legs like a zombie, extending an arm past its natural length like a baller while the other got flung back in space, insisting on myself as huge. I would watch very large models curl themselves into tight spheres, renderable in three strokes, another demonstration of the flexibility of scale. In the drawing room, I moved my body as I wished, free from expectations of conformity or seduction.
From childcare to service to the office, I’ve never had any clothed work where I wasn’t made guilty for thinking my own thoughts. A life model, on the other hand, limbs draped over the scaffold, is expected to exist in dreaming.
The art history I was learning became embodied. Models lean and torque to their left, then collapse to their right. The falls and grazes you see in baroque paintings come from ways of holding still drama, releasing muscles. The contrapposto or three-quarter turn pose idealized in agonized sculptures of dying nymphs or desperate sailors, up through Wangechi Mutu’s mermaids or Kent Monkman’s tableaux, may be less about contrivances of drama than the comfortable distribution of sustained weight.
Generally, there’s nothing archivable or exhibitable about the drawings produced in a life session. A model’s body is material for practice, flying through hundreds of poses in an afternoon, generating enough newsprint to bury the classroom floor with the indecipherable alphabets of gesture. Sometimes, a class is more languid, where the model sits or nods off as they’re painted for a small study to prop against a studio wall. Most artists who work from life are students, using observation as practice. The atmosphere has the silent concentration of a chess tournament or meditation group. A life class is about practicing focus on the form in front of you, moving at the whims of the timer and the body observed. It’s a staple of art education, stated as an opportunity to try anachronistic techniques on what’s meant to be a generic form. Really, it is an exercise in the stamina involved in a creative life, with a typical session lasting three silent hours to leave the artists with a cramped hand and a pile of papers. A life model is one of the janitors of the art world, twirling around the broom handle propping them up while they whisk themselves in and out of schools, studios and living rooms on daily contracts. Doing naked somersaults, models are typically unprotected by the unions or insurance that safeguard teachers reciting century-old lessons, or just moving around the room.
The gestures for an animation class need stamina from the model too. They are as physical a labour as any I’ve done. Injury, menstruation, and illness are hard to predict or succumb to in a job where models are scheduled sporadically to give students a diversity of bodies to refer to. What makes this labour worthwhile is the freedom of thought. From childcare to service to the office, I’ve never had any clothed work where I wasn’t made guilty for thinking my own thoughts. A life model, on the other hand, limbs draped over the scaffold, is expected to exist in dreaming. Even tumbling around like an infant, holding one toe between thumb and forefinger for two minutes, the model is more than permitted - is expected - to exude dreaming, to help the concentration of the artists practicing. Ultimately dreaming with your eyes open is being in control over ones’ own thoughts, beyond the demands of work, even as your body executes some peripheral vision.
When I go to other jobs, I wear an outfit. When I go to a party, or dinner with my boyfriend, I wear an outfit. The pleasure there is all barbed. It restricts me to tyranny of the social order even when placed under the delicate subversions of role reversals, the funny details that fashion offers, these jokes that prove the lies of our fixed natures.
Learning physicality from life drawing as a virgin taught me some nuance around identity. Seeing a body as a line to be followed, however distant from or familiar to one's own, is a different proposition than seeing a body as competition or reward. A drawing class where virgins practice their powers of observation on a range of confident bodies is as likely a deterrent as any I can think of to self-mutilation or a teen eating disorder. Now, being seen as a line to be followed, I experience relief in the gesture, a barefoot dance where any judgement - of my woman-looking body moving like a trucker, of bruises or traces of sunburn, of faintness or trembling - comes from someone who paid to render said cavorting. I have only found a similar ecstasy at Toronto’s nude beach, Hanlan’s, where I read myself as a body generally undesirable in a gay cruising ground, but a body acceptable with my apple, book or swim, a body freed from the gaze by its nudity.
Even in reverie, I feel the tension of others, the bending, the lengthening, the generosity, their heads lowering and raising like drinking birds. In spite of everything, putting on my clothes at the end grants me a different kind of relief; the relief of stepping out of presence and into the social. Being dressed is, ironically, much more exhibitionistic. Dressed, I am available for the work of living life alongside others, rather than for myself.