Whenever we see a man or woman with toned muscles and high cheekbones, we marvel at the form.
To have “good genes” is considered a gift, and many of us spend our free time attempting to mold our bodies to an idealistic standard. Our self-worth is often derived from how others perceive us, and the most obvious perceptions are visual.
We are all walking works of art, but that is not how most of us feel.
Most of us look in the mirror and notice our beer belly or an acne-riddled face. We only see the hair we wish was thicker, the nose that is way too big or the arms that are just too small.
Why can’t we just be what we wish to be? Well, because this is how the “beautiful” people feel as well.
Insecurity is a disease running rampant in our culture. And maybe, insecurity is not the right word.
Perhaps, “shame” is more accurate.
We are taught at a young age that nudity is vulgar and that our bodies should be hidden. To expose your flesh in a Judeo-Christian culture is a sin. The first act of sin in the bible is when Adam and Eve notice they are naked and feel shame. And according to the American Religious Identification Survey, 76% of Americans claim to be Christian (but, of course, you don’t have to be a Christian to feel ashamed).
It is in the zeitgeist of America.
Another influence that permeates our culture is that of the ancient Greeks. Their perceptions of nudity were antithetical to the Judeo-Christian ethos. Not only were the Greeks unashamed; they celebrated nudity. To them, it was the state of perfection in which all men and women naturally reside.
I was raised Christian, but I tend to feel more like an ancient Greek in this respect. I admire the forms of men and women in an esthetic way that is separate from sexuality. I feel shame is something to be cast aside in our journey to fully realize ourselves. But, that doesn’t mean I am entirely comfortable with my body.
I wish I was more this and less that, and like everybody else – I want to be perceived as beautiful. I guess you could say I want to be considered a work of art.
So, that’s why I became one.
I know that sounds narcissistic and maybe it is, but only in comparison to the collective bashfulness of our American identity.
I want to transcend identity and become an experience.
With that in mind, I sought out the experience of nude modeling for a figure drawing class.
At first I tried to go through the front door by contacting universities, meet-up groups, and other art organizations, but to no avail. My lack of experience was a deal breaker, or maybe they didn’t want a journalist stinking up their classes. Either way, I fell back on the community of artists that I am so lucky to be associated with.
It is by grace or determination that I have found myself surrounded by talented people who are willing to share their resources. After a few inquiries, I met up with a model named Felissia Mae. Felissia is a full-time art model and one of the best in the city of Chicago.
When I asked her how she became a nude art model, her eyes lit up. She loves telling her story.
Felissia is a burner, like myself, meaning she attends the Burning Man art festival in Nevada. This poses some difficulties for any student because the Burn takes place the first week of the school year. But this did not deter Felissia from seeking out the experience she longed for.
She simply wrote a letter to her professors explaining why she would be absent the first week and made arrangements to make up the work.
Upon her return from Burning Man in 2007, she was approached by one of her professors. The professor explained that he knew what happened out at Burning Man and that this led him to believe that Felissia was an open-minded person. His model for a figure drawing class had bailed, and he needed a replacement.
Would she help him out and pose nude in front of a classroom filled with her peers?
Felissia was at a point in her life where she was saying “yes” to everything (within reason) and agreed to be the nude art model for this session and has been doing it ever since. She makes enough money to pay the bills and can structure her life how she wants.
Most importantly, she loves what she does.
She agreed to help me out and invited me to come to a gig with her. We made the plans, and I thanked her for helping me accomplish my goal of becoming a nude art model. Now I just had to show up and get naked in front of some strangers.
No big deal.
On the night of the gig, she picked me up and we headed north to Skokie. On the way, we talked about how some people keep art at a distance. By doing this, they are saying that art is something that trained professionals make, and not what we are all capable of creating.
As the conversation continued, I thought about the experience ahead. I was about to become a muse for these artists. That is a very intimate thing, to inspire an artist. At least I hoped I would inspire.
My heart rate quickened as I realized I was about to pose in the nude for strangers. I am not a model – so on top of whatever insecurities I may have, I would also be expected to hold interesting poses for a determined amount of time.
I tried to put aside the anxiety and just enjoy myself.
We walked in and everyone went through the introductions. To my surprise, they were all Russian. It was a small group of three people. They were a little hesitant of me since I was a newbie, but they were all congenial.
The first series of poses would be held for five minutes. Felissia and I decided to switch back and forth.
She went first. I watched her drop her robe and take a standing pose. Her confidence radiated. Clearly she was a pro. I chose not to draw, wanting to take in the experience. I watched the artists frantically sketch on paper supported by wooden easels.
I found myself looking at Felissia and admiring the contours of her body, and yet I felt that if I looked too long I was being rude. I studied the room.
Sculptures rest on shelves. The ceiling was twenty feet high. And beige drapes covered the windows.
Next it was my turn. I disrobed and took a random pose. I found myself thinking silly thoughts about the size of my penis and the bulge of my belly. I thought it was unfortunate that it was so cold in the room.
Not very flattering, but what the hell did it matter? That kind of locker room self-doubt had no place here. There was no sexual energy in this room. This was about the human form becoming art.
We both struck a couple more quick poses before going into the longer postures. When Felissia took her twenty-five minute pose, I grabbed a sketchpad and started to draw. I did this partially because I wanted to have the experience of being the artist as well as the model, but also because I didn’t feel comfortable staring at her for a half an hour.
I suppose that good little Christian boy inside me was coming out.
I struggled to stay still during my twenty-five minute pose. In order to keep my spirit high, I compared the experience to running and meditating.
In running, you just have to keep going.
In meditating, you try to hold the position and not give in to the urges to scratch an itch, or scream at the top of your lungs.
The difference in this case is that I had to keep going for the artists.
We took a break before our last pose. We ate some cookies and drank a glass of wine. The artists complimented us on our technique, and I helped an older lady figure out something on her tablet. I looked around at the art and was pleased to see that I didn’t look like a caricature of myself. I had tried to handle the situation with grace and the artists had repaid me by drawing me gracefully.
Our last pose was together. She stood. I thought it would be more dynamic, and easier, if I lay back in a reclining position. After about one minute my arm went numb. After five minutes, my neck started to ache. The pain increased as the minutes crawled by. I tried not to let my face show my discomfort. Felissia had mentioned that your thoughts show up on the page. Think angry thoughts and the artist will draw your anger.
The pain increased as the minutes crawled by. I tried not to let my face show my discomfort. Felissia had mentioned that your thoughts show up on the page. Think angry thoughts and the artist will draw your anger.
The alarm went off, and we were done. We got dressed and spoke with the artists a little more. I thanked them for allowing me to come into their session, and they thanked me for modeling. The artist whose studio it was asked for my number and said he would like to have me back.
I was flattered.
On the way back home Felissia and I compared notes. I told her about trying not to show my pain and that maybe I should have chose better poses. She said that she still has times where she picks a pose she thinks will be easy and then struggles to make it through.
She asked if I would do it again. I said that in theory I would, but that my wife wasn’t too keen on the idea.
My wife understands that I am an adventurer and open to all kinds of experiences, but she thinks this particular adventure was a little too intimate. We discussed how it was purely professional, but she pointed out that you cannot take intimacy out of nudity.
I suppose she is right. All nudity is intimate, but it is not necessarily sexual, or shameful. I can say with honesty that I was not thinking of sex during my poses (or when Felissia was posing). Her body is beautiful, and I wanted to appear attractive, but none of this was a trigger for sexual arousal. As with all things, it was about the intention.
The intention was to become art.
The intention was to expose myself, not just physically, but emotionally. When these artists were talking in Russian, I was concerned that they were judging me. I wanted them to think I was handsome, and the act of putting myself out there took a certain amount of courage. I know that posing nude is not comparable to running into a burning building, but I feel like I broke through a cultural barrier.
I let go of the shame that is so pervasive in our society. Even when my mind flickered with the fear that I wasn’t doing a suitable job, or that I don’t have the ideal body type for this kind of thing, I found myself feeling liberated.
The human body is beautiful. No one is denying that.
But if that’s the case, then why do we feel like we are failing to meet some standard of perfection?
I didn’t say that some human bodies are beautiful. All of us are remarkable, and if we could just learn to expose ourselves, and appreciate the artistry of each moment, then maybe we would stop judging ourselves, and each other, just enough so that our shame could go to the wayside, and our vibrancy could shine through.
(Photo courtesy of Tony Alter)