Breaking The Rules
Why I Decided to Pose Nude at 55
Older women are considered invisible. So I decided to push back.
The class was held in the back room of an art gallery in the trendiest part of the Bowery in New York City. It was a Wednesday evening and the neighborhood was just waking up. I was giddy as I passed freshy fresh young indigenous punks and hipsters on Delancey Street. I looked like an older uptown tourist but I had a secret.
Google Maps directed me to make a left on Allen Street and shortly thereafter announced that I had reached my destination. I stood for a moment and then said to myself, You’re doing this. I breathed deeply and entered the gallery. It was stark, long, narrow and cold. Very cold. The bright white walls were lined with a smattering of large colorful paintings that included one of a very large pink penis and another that was a woman’s asshole spread wide. Don’t look. Don’t think. I walked with confidence to meet Tom, a handsome young Brit behind a counter at the other end of the gallery. He was the artist who booked me, and his friendly demeanor warmed the room right up.
I met Tom through Scott, my first boss after college, who I recently reconnected with thanks to the wonders of Facebook. Twenty-five or so years prior (who’s counting?) he was a television producer and I was his assistant. Now I was the television producer and he was retired and on the board of a very prestigious New York graduate school of art. We met at the Tribeca campus and he gave me an avuncular tour of the school and beamed with pride as he introduced me to the earnest, idealistic art students who shared their work with me. Scott explained that the first year of school revolves exclusively around figure drawing and in one of the classrooms the students were sketching a nude model.
“I would like to do that,” I said to Scott. He chuckled. I impressed upon him that I was serious. While it had not been on my midlife bucket list (I’m actually quite modest), I explained that I thought it would be an amazing experience to become a physical part of visual art. I believed it would be fascinating to see how different artists interpreted me and my body. I also thought it could be an ideal act of self-empowerment for a postmenopausal woman who has been told by society to become invisible. (That’s why there are no Marvel movies made with us as heroes!) I got excited, which, for those who know me, is easy. Scott blushed and said okay.
A few weeks later Scott emailed me to say that one of the school’s graduates was looking for a model for a sketching workshop; was I interested? Of course I was! I’m never just talk! To calm my nerves, I told myself that modeling nude for art students is not something silly but a feminist act. Artists don’t objectify. They find beauty in every brush stroke; there is no imperfection.
While my friends believed I might actually do something like this — even though I’m so modest that I turn my back to change in a gym locker room — they wondered if someone who fidgets like I do could sit still and be quiet for a long period of time.
Now, Tom tells me to change into my robe in the downstairs bathroom and to meet him in the back room. I do. In the bathroom, I try again to turn my brain off, as it keeps recycling the phrase: What the fuck am I doing? In the back room, Tom and I chat while we wait for the artists to arrive. I continue to wonder if this is a good idea as I realize that in a few minutes the robe will be gone and I will be sitting here nude. But Tom is kind, tells me he has a girlfriend, and sets up a heater. “The first few seconds are the hardest,” he says. “Don’t think about it.”
Six additional painters — two female and four male twenty-something postgraduate school artists who “draw from life” — arrive. This is their practice, a service the gallery offers. We introduce ourselves and I chat them up and learn that many have grown up in suburban New Jersey in towns similar to the one where I raised my kids who are probably their age. Don’t think about that, I tell myself.
They take their seats and open up their pads. Tom says to me, “It’s time.”
In that moment of judgment, I think to myself, it’s only awkward if you make it that way, so I exhale hard and fast as I attempt to channel my inner “still life” … “be the pear,” or in my case, the carrot. I remove my robe, stand up and ask Tom, like my actors question me when I direct, “Where and how would you like me to stand?”
I assume the first pose, an easy one, sitting in a chair. This isn’t hard. I find a place to lock my eyes: the holey jeans of one of the artists (hope he doesn’t mind my staring), and then just do it. I transcend. I am no longer me, but “art subject.” Tom tells me in a gentle tone that this first pose will last ten minutes and that we can break it into two five-minute increments. As someone who never wants to back down from a challenge, I say, “I can do ten.” And I do.
Tom plays a weird BBC station off of an app, which is distracting, but I don’t complain. I wonder if this is the artist’s version of new-age, canned spa music. While they sketch, they chat freely about art exhibits (that the MOMA is no longer free to non-city residents), music, movies, their addiction to their cell phones, and the pluses and minuses of doing acid (the way artists do). One from the suburban town next to mine shares a story about the bad trip he had at the Met that backfired as he tripped on the people rather than the art. I wonder if any of my friends are friends with his parents, I think. Then, Stop. I enjoy being the naked fly on the wall, but it is hard not to engage. They mention a band called Tool, that I gather is super hipster. Note to self: Google “Tool.”
At times I want to break out of the pose and look over their shoulders, but think, That would be weird. I am tempted to invite all of the kids to my next party as I tend to do when I meet interesting strangers, but stop myself by thinking, Would that be weird?
I remain perfectly still for two hours, doing several sitting and standing ten and 20-minute long poses. They are shocked it is my first time. As my arm leans frozen against the wall, I bask in this validation. It is strangely easy for me. I take short breaks and am ready for the next pose. Put me in Coach. Twenty minutes. No problem.
While in a pose, I recall how Tom, to ease my vulnerability, says that there is a lot of power in being a model, so my mind goes to one of my favorite contemplations: power dynamics. Do I have power? Or do they? I find myself vacillating between the two. Am I their muse, their goddess worthy of immortalizing, am I their… wait… what is her name from Titanic, oh… shoot… you know… or am I nothing more than their submissive statue slave?
The two-hour session ends. “That went fast.” I put my clothes back on and ask if I can take photographs of their work. They throw their sketchbooks down on the floor and step aside, as is the ritual at the end of class, and I peruse them. While I know they only sketched in short increments, I still imagined the drawings would be very literal, lifelike. I worried that if I moved just a smidge I would mess up their work. Indeed, they are only sketches — but some are very real and show incredible talent. I am wowed.
Now fully clothed again, my vulnerable ego kicks in. I realize I only want to memorialize the sketches that I perceive to be the most flattering.
As I leave the gallery, I feel this strange “I can do anything” kind of liberation. I just faced a huge fear and survived. I kicked a taboo as well — feeling just a little bit naughty about being naked in front of strangers who are the age of my children. What will I do next? As I pass the pink penis and giant asshole all I can think about is the model who had to hold that pose for a very, very long time.