Saturday, August 18, 2007

Model Power

That it was an honour to be Sickert's model I had no doubt.Nevertheless, I had sufficient experience of this form of service to look forward to the next few hours without enthusiasm. I was standing; I had no book, my legs would ache abdominably after a time; it would be a long business and thoroughly uncomfortable. Vanessa Bell

Painting human subjects is a polarized experience for me; I paint non-models, people who are not professional models, as well as very experienced (professional) models. The non-models come to drawing sessions at the Richmond Art Center. I hire non-models, usually laborers seeking work near a hardware store not far from my house. I forget a third category: family members, and I think of them as a separate category because most have posed for me several times and are therefore more experienced ("When is my break?,"demanded my then nine-year-old niece).

The non-models are usually Latino men and women. Most have no idea of what modeling entails, but are happy to sit and get paid for it, as the work they normally do is very hard work. Just like professional models, they are very accomodating, too much perhaps, to the point where I must help them find positions that are easier to hold for the contracted time. Most have never sat for such a long time without an activity to pursue, and they tend to underestimate what it will take to keep their mind entertained for such long periods of time (we do have breaks every half an hour). I chat to keep their mind engaged and alert, or they fall asleep otherwise. They are tired from the previous workday, and in the case of women, a full workday plus childcare. I do not hold multiple sessions. I paint for as long as we can both can handle it (about four hours), then they sign the release, get paid, and leave.

The professional models in our drawing class do not need directions. Naked, they choose their own poses. Most are quite athlectic and have a repertoire organized by duration in their mind: "Well, I can stay like this for 30 minutes." Completely silent, their minds stay alert by unknown artifices, yet their personalities shine through. A few may look at you but change their gaze when you return the look. Some seem to be going through a personal inventory, their eyes dancing. Others are in a private world, not focused on anything in the room. Several are art students or artists, and others have modeled for so long that their interest in what is being drawn or painted is minimal at best. When they do discuss your art, they do so with both the jargon and ease of someone very familiar with the process: "That's very good work for a 15 minute foreshortened pose."

Non-models may not be familiar with the artist construct, but they are extremely curious about what goes on behind the pad or canvas, taking a look every time they have a break, and feeling free, for the most part, to comment on its progress in a non-evaluative manner: "Ah, I see you got to my hair but it's not finished, right?" They are comfortable asking questions about my life, artistic or more personal. "So why did you get divorced?" or "Why are you an artist?" are favorites. Over the course of our session, they will also share parts of their own life (usually before inmigrating) with me. Men and women alike feel free to share pictures of loved ones, or discuss their current troubles at work. I in turn feel free to answer most of their questions.

At the drawing class during breaks, we may speak with the model. Conversation, both with models and classmates, is mostly limited to three subjects: professional plans, travel, and programmatic changes at our art center. A personal revelation might consist of mentioning the existence of a husband or wife, or becoming specific about what we do for a living. In keeping with the fact that most of us are over forty, only over a long period of knowing one another are more specific subjects explored, e.g. "How long have you been painting?"

At the drawing class, the limits are set by the environment and traditional expectations. I can relax and focus purely on painting. In my studio, I must direct the experience much more than if I worked with a professional model. In some ways this is more tiring and expensive, yet I find the exchange I have with non-models an important part of the process. I have found the conversations essential to my understanding of the undocumented workers; without them my paintings would have a different quality, they certainly would feel more anonymous. As an example, I have my drawing class paintings. Yet these same paintings done in art class help me develop the technical freedom and ease that I try to invoke in my other work.

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