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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Seeing, Stealing

Every other week or so in my drawing class we get live models. They sit on a platform under the light of a large lamp. They doze off sometimes to the sound of classical music in the background then snap out of it at one of the teacher’s jokes. There are more than a dozen of students in the class and we stare at the models relentlessly for three hours (with breaks) and copy down their faces, their bone structures, the blocks of light and shadow on their flesh. I’m distracted by their enlarged pores, by moles and wrinkles and sagging skin, by all the humanness of their faces. I’m distracted by the fact that I’m looking so closely at them, that I can see so intimately into the face of a stranger.

Curiously, the live models we’ve had so far were both middle-aged people, in their fifties and sixties. The woman is black and has beautiful Toni Morrison-like dreadlocks, white at the roots, blond the rest of the length to her shoulders. Her face had so much character: high cheekbones and forehead, thin high eyebrows, a full determined mouth. She models for a living. She has a confident manner but speaks a bit shyly. The man has white hair and during a pose told the class that he’d just had his eyes done: his eyelids were lifted to make his eyes more visible. I noticed a thin, bloody scar above his ear, no doubt the result of the cosmetic surgery. He is retired, but he models almost full-time; that Thursday he had an eleven-hour day, our three-hour class and two more four-hour classes at a design school in Laguna Beach. He looked rather pale but chillingly calm. I got the impression that being stared at for so many hours didn’t bother him at all.

It bothers me, however, to stare at them, though I try not to think of it very much. I know the models are paid well for their work – and it is work, despite appearances; to be still for hours, unable even to read or to people-watch, requires an effort that I could never pull off – but I still think of what they do as service. They give of themselves something that cannot be easily reimbursed with money. Most likely they don’t think about it this way; most likely to them modeling is a convenient way to earn money. But that doesn’t mean that we, the people drawing them, don’t take away from them an essential, though infinitesimal, part of themselves. That’s why I could not stand there myself on that raised platform, with so many pairs of eyes fixed on me, no matter how much money I would be paid for it. We are fundamentally visual creatures; our eyes are instruments of possession.

I’ve read recently an article about the relationship between Henri Matisse and his models, and how essential it was for him to find models who possessed the qualities of body and mind that would enable him to capture on the canvas exactly the feeling or thought that moved obscurely inside his mind like a spirit above primordial waters. It is not a frivolous job, not an easy one, to model. You have to be willing to leave something of yourself behind over and over; you have to let the artist steal a part of your spirit from you. Of course most of us in the drawing class, still struggling with basic shapes, haven’t yet learned to steal the right things yet.


Blogger Persephone said...

Wow. I mean, wow. This is just a stunning piece of work and an amazing insight. I agree completely with you, both in not being able to let someone stare at me in that way (I get nervous when my husband looks at me, let alone strangers) and in your observation that the artist takes something from the model. Really beautiful writing here. I'm impressed.

February 03, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Thank you.

February 04, 2006  

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