Before I went to art school, on a typical day I did not see any naked people. Or even in a typical year, for that matter. That all changed when I went to art college. Naked people were just part of the deal, and everyone was supposed to be all cool and mature about it, so I’m kind of breaking protocol here. But honestly, it’s probably inevitable that awkward moments would arise whenever you have rooms full of young students spending 3 to 6 hours a day studying adult nude models. To add to the fun, all the rules around nude-model-social-etiquette were pretty much unspoken. We were just supposed to sort of pick it up. I contend that there were unspoken rules for the models, and there were unspoken rules for the students and professors as well, all in an Art Institute environment that didn’t readily acknowledge rules or authority, which is probably why they remained unspoken.
This worked pretty well almost all of the time. No one cared or made a big deal about it. Except from time to time someone would violate the unspoken code, and awkwardness would ensue. As if Loki had snuck into the room with your grandmother and loudly pointed out that everybody was wearing clothes except for one person.
Here’s my attempt to write down the unwritten code:
Rules for Models – the idea is for the model to become like an inanimate still life object for study, so it’s bad form to break character and unnecessarily reveal any blatantly human qualities. Therefore:
1) Do not talk to the students while you are naked.
2) Do not suddenly smile or giggle for no apparent reason while you are naked. Do not turn red.
3) Do not break down and weep while you are naked.
4) Do not fart while you are naked.
5) Do not suppress a fart while you are naked, (because everyone can see what you’re doing.)
6) Do not become sexually aroused while you are naked, especially if you are male.
7) Do not date the students or professors.
As you can see, this business of nude modeling is not as easy as it might seem at first glance.
Rules for Students & Professors – for classroom purposes, the idea is to approach the model as an inanimate still life object, yet without minimizing the model’s dignity or comfort. Therefore:
1) Do not touch or hug the model while he/she is naked.
2) Do not smile or giggle for no apparent reason while studying the naked model.
3) Do not remove your clothing when the model removes his/hers.
4) Do not be chatty with the model while he/she is naked. Never raise your voice at a naked model.
5) Do not stare at the model while he/she is naked. (There is studying, and there is staring.)
6) Do not walk up to the model for a closer look while he/she is naked. Do not take photographs.
7) Do not ask the model on a date while he/she is naked. Do not date the model.
For those readers who attended Art School, I ask you, am I making these up? Have I missed anything?
Following are a few of my small adventures from hanging out with naked people:
The outspoken model: My first remembrance of nude-model-code-violation was during a painting elective class during my sophomore year. This was the day it dawned on me that if a person was very clever, and was willing to sit naked for hours in front of people, she could actually get paid to get a very expensive art education. That is apparently exactly what this particular model was doing. I remember during her breaks she would walk around the room and talk with the students about their paintings. (She did this while in her robe, so as not to violate code – RFM#1.)
One morning, while in character as the inanimate naked focal point, she did the unthinkable. I should mention that this particular cavernous studio had high brick walls, and a concrete floor, making the room an echo chamber. In the hushed environment of a painting class you could hear dredlocks growing. The instructor, Michael Walling, was quietly directing a student when a high, feminine voice echoed through the studio, contradicting him. At first no one was sure from where the voice had come. But then it became apparent that not only had the model spoken while naked, she had actually taken issue with the art professor, starkly exhibiting the full-blown human qualities of intelligence, free will, and independent thought. No one moved. Would the professor actually engage in verbal intercourse with the model while she was naked? Would the earth stop and begin rotating backwards? But this was Michael Walling. After a moment of dreadful silence, he diffused the situation with his famous tongue-in-cheek grin, saying, “Carol, (pause for effect)…models should be seen and not heard.”
Carol – blatant violator of the unspoken code.
(from an old student sketchbook, by the author.)
The no-show model: One day I showed up at class, late as usual, and was surprised to see a female upperclassman naked on the modeling stand. She nervously made eye contact with me when I came in. The situation seemed a bit strange since she always wore clothes around campus. After a few minutes another female upperclassman passed by the doorway, froze mid-stride, and slowly backed up, looking in at the model, who apparently was a friend of hers. She poked her head in and said, in a concerned, hushed voice, (as if none of us could hear,) “What are you doing?” The model whispered back, “Heather didn’t show up, so I thought I should sit in for her.” Even more quietly the friend said, “You don’t have to do that!” I gathered that the woman modeling was the newbie student work-study model coordinator. When the model didn’t show, she felt obliged to “cover” for her. Kind of like when a waitress doesn’t show and the manager waits a few tables, only naked. This episode suggested the possibility that even cool, artsy, upperclassmen were way cooler with studying nude models than with actually being one.
The no-show instructor: If the above episode blew the cover on enlightened nonchalance, this next episode pretty much obliterated any pretense of enlightenment. This situation gave rise to possibly the most awkward and conflicted 3 hours of my art school experience. On this particular day there was some confusion about the calendar – it must’ve been right before the holidays, or something. Nobody seemed sure whether or not class was “on”, so I went, just in case. Only 3 of us showed up, along with the model. No instructor. The female student then left, leaving me and one other guy, plus the model, (whom I hadn’t seen before.) Just to connect the dots for you here, we were 2 young male students, and one young female model. She offered to proceed with class and we agreed. She self-consciously gets naked and the other guy takes over, posing her in an incredibly stupid pose – he has her face the wall with her back directly to us, with one leg up on a chair. So she can’t see us at all while we’re drawing her naked. Later, at break time, she leaves the room and he turns to me and says, (in a tacit admission that it was a stupid pose,) “I just wanted to pose her so I could get a really good look at her ass.” (Guys sometimes say things like this to each other under the assumption that we’re all one big fraternity of assholes.) I said nothing.
When the model returned, the situation was so awkward that I couldn’t figure out how to act. There was no longer any pretense of art-making going on. But she didn’t know that. I didn’t want to blow his cover in front of her because I thought it might embarrass her. At the same time I felt like he was making me a party to his assholiness. But I didn’t feel like I could leave because that would leave her alone with him, which would possibly be even more awkward for her. So I stayed and finished the class. In the comment section below, I would like to hear what you would have done in my situation.
The male model who shaved: Everything. Leaving not so much as a happy trail. We can only guess why. Perhaps he didn’t want anyone to miss anything.
The small world: One day at church, the wife of…let’s say…”a prominent leader” in the church started asking me about art school. Eventually she asked me if I ever worked with a model named Cassandra. I answered that, yes, she was probably my favorite model. The woman then revealed that Cassandra was her husband’s sister, but that he was kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. (She asked me not to tell anyone, which is why I’m speaking in generalities.) Thereafter, it was always pretty distracting for me in church because every time he’d get up front I couldn’t stop thinking, “Wow, I can really see the resemblance!” This just goes to show that if you’re ever speaking in front of a group of people, and they’re smiling at you and nodding their heads, you don’t necessarily know what they’re thinking.
The formerly unembarrassed model: Most of the models were female. There were so few male models that we could conveniently refer to them as the old guy, the black guy, and the scrawny guy. As in, “I hope it’s not the old guy today.” (For a time the old guy was also known as the orange guy, but that’s not part of this story.) This story is about the scrawny guy. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I have to admit that I was generally suspicious of the male models. This is because I’m a guy, and thus I’m well aware of the natural male tendency toward narcissism and exhibitionism even when no money is involved. The scrawny guy was my age, and his scrawny body was not fun or interesting to draw. Eventually, I stopped seeing him around. Models came and went, after all.
Here I must stop and explain one of my weird hobbies. During High School I had become interested in comparative cult theology. It helped me in working out my own beliefs. I actually used to drive to the St. Louis airport and hang out there, hoping to engage the donation-seeking Hare Krishna devotees in conversation. In an ironic twist they eventually started avoiding me, even as the airport commuters were avoiding them. When I got to Kansas City, I found the uptown neighborhood of the Art Institute to be cult heaven! Just across the street there was a Unitarian Church and an RLDS headquarters. Two blocks away on Main was a Scientology Church, and Unity on the Plaza was just down the street (where I once picketed.) Back toward downtown on Main there was a big New Age bookstore, and a Christian Science Church. Also, in the early 80s there were still “Moonies” out and about, with whom I had some interesting interaction. But my favorite cult was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They actually came close to sucking me in when I was in High School, and I had done a fair amount of study around their theology.
As an art student I lived in a big old 3 story house on Warwick blvd with 6 other art students. One day the doorbell rang. I answered and was delighted to see 2 Jehovah’s Witnesses, so of course I invited them in to talk. One of them looked familiar. Suddenly it dawned on me that it was the scrawny guy! (I was unaccustomed to seeing him in a suit and tie.) When he saw that I recognized him there was that brief micro-expression of embarrassment. The lead guy began to introduce us, but I shook the scrawny guy’s hand (touching him for the first time – RFS&P #1,) and said, “Yes, we’ve met…Richard, right?” The lead guy seemed surprised that we’d met. Apparently Richard hadn’t told his mentor that he’d previously spent hours sitting around as a buck-naked focal point in front of clothed, co-ed pagans. Only a supernatural feat of willpower and compassion prevented me from grabbing one of my sketchbooks and saying, “…See? I have a ton of drawings of Richard. Would you like one?” Or, “Here’s what Richard looks like naked, in case you were wondering!” But I didn’t blow his cover, as the JWs can be a pretty legalistic bunch. It’s interesting that the ensuing conversation was the only time I’ve ever had two JWs openly disagree with each other. For my theologically bent readers, my question was, “Does the Bible teach that good works are a condition in order to be saved, or a response to having been saved? It was the scrawny guy who insisted on the former.
From left to right: 1) The Old Guy/Orange Guy
2) Cassandra (not her real name)
3) The Scrawny Guy (not his real name)
It’s funny how perspectives can change. Despite my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, growing up I had my suspicions that naked people existed. When I reached puberty, this suspicion became a hope. Then, my Art Institute experience confirmed beyond all doubt the existence of naked people, and yet I have since come to believe that clothing is generally a good idea, making life less complicated for the most part. In fact, there are many people out there who probably ought to wear even more clothes, as a small kindness to the rest of us. I notice that many of these people shop at Walmart. But regardless of your opinion, or where you shop, this peculiar, uniquely human convention of wearing (or not wearing) clothing helps to keep life fascinating for us all.
(For more Art Institute adventures, click here.)