Sunday, February 24, 2013

I’m Pretty Sure There’s A Lot More to Life Than Being Really, Really, Ridiculously Good Looking

I’ve taken up modeling. 

You may stop guffawing at any time. I’m doing it for the money. Seriously. I’m doing it as research. Let me explain. See, this all started out as an idea to lend a greater air of believability to the book I’m working on. One of the characters is a life model. Another character is an artist. 

While I was in Oregon delving into this new fictional world and spending my last vestiges of cash on food, wine, and coffee I thought it might be smart to get a part time job. So I called the local art center and asked if they needed any life models. The pay wasn’t great but nine bucks an hour was more than I was making staring out the window at the bus stop people, and I figured the experience would give me firsthand insight into the whole art scene. The art center girl told me that I could fill out an application, mark down references, and send a head shot and they’d get back to me. 

They did. Three months later after I’d moved from Oregon to Texas.

“Are you still interested in the job?” she asked when she called.

“I am, but I’m in Texas now,” I said.

“Well, if you come back and are still interested let us know.”

“I will.”

And that was that. 

Then I go to the local life drawing session in Small Town America with my sister-in-law and draw. After the session, I tell the coordinator that I am available to model if they need a fresh face, and talk with the model about how she’d gotten started and ask her how I could maybe inch into the field in Austin. 

“Send me an email with a short bio and a photo and I’ll forward it to the groups I work with,” she tells me magnanimously.

A week later I have six sessions lined up to model for and am thinking, in my youngest brother’s words, that soon “the money will be rolling in.” We’ll get to Canada in no time. I’ll be footloose again soon. The world will wait for me.

There is a strange disconnect in modeling for the local life drawing group on Tuesday night and then going to work at the chicken farm the rest of the week. I feel like I am a split personality–-only this time not with the characters in my head, but with my jobs. My life is so weird right now, I think.

The following Friday, a week after my last chicken farm stint (my chicken farm job is temporary and on an as needed basis), Marie takes me into Austin and drops me off at the Art Center. I’m going to be doing a two week pose. This means sitting in the same position for three hours this Friday and three hours the next. The coordinator had told me to “please bring several outfits for us to choose from---anything you like to wear and that makes you look good.”

Shit! I’d thought, and then raided Marie’s closet to find clothes that fit those two requirements.

Bag in hand, I get to the studio in time for the coordinator to pick out an outfit and to settle on a pose. She selects a square wooden box for me to sit on, adds a colorful scarf of her own to the gray skirt (Marie’s) and the form fitting black shirt (mine) that she’d chosen from my bag of choices and then has me sit in various forms—left leg over right, right over left, legs outstretched, one leg bent, one leg out, arms crossed, holding a cup, not holding a cup. She’s looking for something that looks casual, natural, and not overly posed.

Artists arrive and begin setting up easels, paper, canvases, squeezing out oil paint, setting up water for acrylics, choosing brushes, evaluating my position, squinting at the lights, suggesting contrasts and shadows.

“What do you think, guys?” the coordinator asks the artists. “How does that look?”

They evaluate me again and suggest some minute shifts of hand and light. When it’s all arranged the coordinator sets the timer and I freeze into a statue’s stillness.

Working for money is hard. Sitting still in twenty-five to thirty minute chunks is also hard. My left foot--the leg crossed over my right thigh near the knee--falls asleep about twenty minutes in. My right wrist protests with sharp localized pain the hanging weight of the glass, handled jar dangling from my fingers. My gaze, focused on a blue square of tape holding up a note on the wall near the door, is half-blinded, half-blurred by the harsh light striking me from the tall lamp set up on my right. Am I blinking too much?

I had no clue eight months ago when I was suffering through the ten day Vipassana course that I’d be later using the sitting techniques I learned there in order to pose as a life model. With the singsong tone of Goenka’s voice I think, Anicca, anicca, anicca which is the Buddhist notion of impermanence. Pain is temporary. Things rise and they fall. Sensations come and they go. Pain is temporary, as the sport’s maxim goes, Pride is forever. I’m thinking in clichés, I think first, and then, oh the crazy things we do for money.

I don’t move. The artists adjust their positions, stand up to take a step back and see their work from a different perspective, turn a circle to break the gaze and come back to it fresh, leave the room to answer a phone call, get up to stretch. I see the movements but keep my focus directed on the blue square of tape. I continue to not move. And not move.

The timer goes off just in time, just when I think I can’t hold the pose any longer--I’ll drop the glass, my foot will fall off, it has to have been at least thirty minutes by now--but I can’t move yet. I have to wait for the coordinator to tape the position of my foot so that I can get back into the same pose after the eight minute break.

She does so with a painstaking slowness.

Finally, I’m free to move. And I do, stretching out my wrists, sliding off the box, and turning to step off the platform.

I step right off into nothingness. What the heck? My leg gives and I stumble, roll my ankle, squish the top of my foot into the cement floor and try for balance.

“Are you okay?” a few voices ask.

I step again, only to realize my foot is so completely dead asleep I can’t hold my weight. Somehow I manage to steady myself, avoid knocking anything over or falling on my face. I sit on the edge of the platform and try to look like I’m cool, I meant to do that. “I’m fine, thanks!” That’s gonna leave a mark, I think.

Sure enough, I get an egg sized knot on the top of my foot almost immediately. I walk it off. The artists eat their snacks, add background touches to their paintings, go outside for a smoke and sit and chat with each other.

I sip on the shake I’ve brought to tide me over until lunch, have some water, and walk around looking at the beginnings of their work. This modeling stuff is hard.
I’m learning quickly though; discovering the poses that are more bearable being held for extended periods, remembering to wait and make sure all body parts are awake before moving and/or setting weight on them, finding an interesting spot to fixate my gaze upon, discovering how to think, plot, watch, plan and exist without moving my eyes (this is harder than it sounds), listening and observing the artists without looking at them or seeming like anything more than the object that I am, only considering the moment at hand and not the fact that I have to sit in that painful pose five more times today.

Modeling is Vipassana.

Hell can be endured if you know there’s an end point. I make it through the entire session and as soon as I’m able to I get ice for my poor, swollen foot.  

I model Tuesday night and figure out my artist character’s motivation, Wednesday afternoon I wonder if I can make my way to Canada by modeling for sessions across the U.S., Thursday morning I scratch out a character from my work in progress, and Friday afternoon I use my own music with the permission of the artists (“Does anybody here hate the Beatles?”) timing the twenty-five minutes segments by the songs that have played. Something In the Way She Moves comes on over the speakers and I laugh. Inside. Because this modeling business is all about Something in the Way She Doesn’t Move.

And I’m damn good at it.

The portraits take shape. Some of the artists make me look beautiful and it startles me. Some emphasize the parts of me that I consider my flaws; all those parts that make me uniquely me. Some only barely capture a likeness. Some paint, some sketch, some only do portraits and others do full body studies.

“You have a great nose,” one of the ladies tells me during a break while I’m resting (cautiously) on the edge of the platform.

“I’ve always thought it was too big,” I tell her with a smile, remembering the fantastic old lady I’d met at the coffee shop where I worked during high school. Her name was Birdie, she came in with her daughter for sweets and coffee every couple of weeks, and she once told me that she’d die to have a Roman nose like mine. At that point in my life I’d have traded with her in a heartbeat.

“Small, cute noses are boring to draw,” the artist says.

I can’t do anything but agree, at least from a painterly point of view. When the break is over I take my spot on the wooden box once again, turn my gaze to the blue tape, and wait to see how soon my foot will fall asleep. 

Over the days, I utilize all the injury treatment methods I’ve learned from a long history of sport activities and realize that, after all of it, my foot might be broken, but at least I’m getting paid twice as much per hour as a model than I get paid as a chicken farmer. My time might be spent as much in transit to and from Austin, and I might be getting exhausted from being constantly studied, looked at, drawn and painted, but it’s also a temporary, come-and-go job, and next week I can settle back into 
my writing life.

Because in the end, it’s not the money I want, it’s the time to write and live that I work for.

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