Human Guinea Pig

Naked and the Dread

I pose nude for students. Will the art world ever be the same?

Download MP3 audio of the author reading this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

An hour into my first class as a nude art model, the instructor told me to get into a pose I could hold for 20 minutes. I was on a platform in the middle of the room; about 10 students, two of them male, stood around me in a semicircle. I got down on my knees, put my forearms on the floor, and rested my head on my clasped hands. One of the men called out “Great pose!” with such enthusiasm that for the first time in that session I felt really, really naked.

I recently spent two classes as a model at Washington, D.C.’s, Corcoran College of Art and Design. This was an activity that perfectly fulfilled the Human Guinea Pig mandate: to humiliate myself doing things normal people are curious about but too normal to do themselves. After I left a message at the school indicating my availability, the model coordinator, S., called me for a preliminary interview. It turned out to be no problem that I’d never modeled before—as long as I was willing to be nude for my maiden voyage.

S. invited me for an in-person interview, where she quickly approved me then gave some crucial advice. She said I should bring a bathrobe to class to wear during breaks. “You don’t want to be—” here she cupped her hands midchest, “hanging out.”

I had met the two essential model requirements:

1) I owned a bathrobe.

2) I was willing to take it off.

She consulted her schedule. She penciled me in for one teacher then nixed it: “No. One of the models told me this instructor likes the models to walk around and interact with the students.” Geez, was I supposed to sidle up to a young artist and say, “Is that a paintbrush in your pocket?” She considered another class, made up of freshmen, but said it was better to let experienced models deal with new students early in the semester.

I filled out the employment application, which asked for three references, although it didn’t specify if these had to be people who had seen me naked. I was also given a list of guidelines, which included my right to ask that the heat be turned up and my obligation to “use proper hygiene at all times.” S. settled on an evening class, consisting largely of adult-education students. I would be paid $15 an hour. I wondered why it was so hard to find and keep models. It sounded like the ideal job: earning almost three times the minimum wage just to sit on your rump.

On the appointed night I arrived early, after going through what I realized was the silly-under-the-circumstances ritual of wondering what to wear. I changed into my bathrobe in the restroom and waited in class while the students arrived. I was relieved to see they were almost all women between the ages of 20 and 60—although, disturbingly, one was a teenage boy. The instructor, M., told me to start with 10 one-minute poses. I asked if she had any particular poses in mind. She shook her head, “I never tell models what to do.”

Here is the distinction between naked and nude. Naked is when you step out of the shower before you’ve put on your bathrobe. Nude is when you drop your bathrobe in front of a roomful of art students. As I undid the sash to my bathrobe, I had the fleeting thought that I could say, “I don’t know what I was thinking,” then grab my clothes and run. But I opened the sash, took off my robe, and stepped up on the platform.

I stood there, suppressing a strong desire to giggle (fortunately, the students suppressed their giggles, too) as I tried to think of appropriate poses—something neither sultry nor stiff. I began doing yogalike twists, but with my being undressed and all, I was afraid it had the feeling of yoga porn.

It was easier, I discovered, than parading around in my bathing suit and high heels for my adventure as Mrs. Washington, D.C. There I was trying to convince people that my corseted and padded body had allure. Here I was just a bunch of spheres (OK, deflated spheres) and angles in space. It felt like that dream in which find yourself in class naked—you know things aren’t right, but there you are, so you try to act insouciant and give the impression you always meant to show up without any clothes. During a break I put on my robe and looked at the drawings. In some portraits I was lithe and limber; in others I had an enormous belly and haunches and looked rather like Bufo marinus, the giant toad.

M. had me move on to a series of longer poses, and I was starting to be relaxed about the whole thing when a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap and carrying a 6-foot-long canvas arrived. He found a place at the edge of the circle with a view of my backside, propped up his canvas, and complimented my pose.

Time passed quickly as I listened to M. critique the students. One universal problem was that my breasts tended to wander around the sketch pad. M. frequently pointed out how people were misplacing them. “You’ve got her left breast here, but if you look at her it’s really over there.” I was also distracted by the middle-aged man. While the other students drew me in pencil or chalk, he attacked his canvas furiously with paint and numerous brushes, which sounded like he was sanding an old dresser.

At the break I again looked at the portraits. It was flattering to be the object of so much attention. One was a feet-first foreshortened view, another an examination of my shoulder, arm, and neck. Then I got to the man’s canvas. There he had painted a luminous, opalescent, emerald-hued portrait of my ass. I wanted to buy it, but I said nothing. One of the rules was that I was not to comment on the students’ work unless asked.

I agreed to model at another class about a month later—this one was during the day, so it would be comprised of undergraduates. By this point in the year they were inured to the sight of naked bodies, the way medical students get used to cadavers. Shortly before the class the model coordinator let me know there would be another model posing with me. I said that was fine but worried that we might be moving into Howard Stern territory.

Over Thanksgiving, when I discussed with my brother-in-law my upcoming adventure with the other model, he raised a horrifying possibility.

“Wiener?” he asked.

The question loomed on the appointed day. The teacher was tall with long white hair and a goatee—think of Donald Sutherland in Pride & Prejudice. As the students—eight young women and two young men—took their places around the platform, I hung around in my bathrobe waiting for the other model to arrive.

No wiener, I was relieved to see. C. was in her late 20s, gamine and slender. I was less relieved when we took off our robes. She slid out of her yellow silk Chinese wrap, revealing how young and gravity-defiant she was. As I pulled off my bulky pink terrycloth robe, I consoled myself that we’d make a nice contrast for the students.

This teacher was more directive, telling us how to pose. He asked me to sit on a cushion—it was stained and spattered and he suggested I throw my robe over it—and place my hands on my thighs. He placed C. behind me. I was positioned directly in front of one of the male students. He stared at me, then held up a pencil, moved it back and forth and squinted at me with one eye shut. It was just like a cartoon of an artist at work. I wanted to call out, “Where’s your beret?”

C. and I posed for 20 minutes as the teacher went from student to student. “You see, there are two triangles,” he said to one and pointed to my legs. He took a long ruler and placed it along my limbs, telling the students to be aware of my proportions. During the break, I looked at the drawings. Since the teacher put C. and me near to but facing away from each other, we looked like an alienated couple. The students captured this and our bodies. You could title all the joint portraits of us, Perky and Droopy Have a Fight.

While we waited for our next pose, C. popped a soda. I asked where I could get a drink and C. directed me to the student lounge downstairs. I was strangely troubled at the thought of wandering the building. It’s one thing to be nude in an art class, it’s another to walk around a school in your bathrobe.

Then the teacher put us in position for our next pose. I was starting to resent this: I felt robbed of my own artistic vision. He had C. stand on the floor and prop one leg on the platform while I stood on the platform and leaned against the wall with my arms crossed. I tried not to take offense that the second male student, instead of drawing us, did a portrait of a doorknob. Twenty minutes went by, then 30. My left knee was locked and throbbing and the blood was pooling in my feet. The repetitive European techno music the teacher put on only added to my anxiety about when I would be released.

I couldn’t stand it anymore and asked for a break.

The drawings were wonderfully varied. The young man in front me did a light pencil sketch, while the young woman next to him created a chiaroscuro of my torso. C. and I talked during the break. She is an aspiring filmmaker who saw an ad for modeling on Craigslist. “It’s so much better than working at Starbucks or an electronics store, and it pays better, too,” she said.

But the role of artist’s model has a troubled history. Modeling for Pablo Picasso (which also included being his lover) tended to lead to breakdown or suicide. When Pierre Bonnard dropped one model for another, the first one killed herself. He married the next one, but he painted her lying in the bathtub so often, she must have turned into a prune. As an old man, Henri Matisse started painting his wife’s young nurse. His wife got jealous and tried to get rid of the nurse, who promptly shot herself (although not fatally). Madame Matisse ended up leaving and the young model staying. Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo, was the model for every female in all his paintings. This was too intense. He often slapped her around, and she retaliated by biting him.

I decided to get out before any of these fates befell me. Although I wonder if I should have tried to buy that painting of my rear end in green. I would look perfect over the mantelpiece.