Arthur Miller made me do it: Life as a nude art model


When I was a 1L, I joked that I’d rather stand naked in front of strangers than get called on by Arthur Miller in Civil Procedure. I figured that if I could just do the naked-in-front-of-strangers thing once, I could do anything — even deal with Miller’s intense questions.

So in the fall of 1999, I called up the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies and put myself on their “art model” list. I started getting calls about a week after signing up, but I was way too freaked out to actually do it. I ignored the calls.

Thursday, Nov. 8, 2001

I’m a big, bad 3L. I’ve got a job lined up for next year, and I rarely go to class. I’m starting to get a little bored with this whole law school thing. A sweet-sounding professor named Paul calls and leaves a pleading message on my answering machine. He urgently needs someone to model for his life drawing class next Wednesday. Three hours of “work” in front of a class of about 20 students, completely nude. I accept without letting myself think about it.

Friday, Nov. 9

It starts to hit me.”Hello, what are you doing? You’re going to show up and take all your clothes off in front of strangers?” says the little angel voice in my head.”It’ll be fun! It’ll be an interesting experience!” says the devil on the other side. “You’re crazy! Someone will recognize you, and one day you’ll run into them in court and be embarrassed in front of the judge!” “Don’t be paranoid. Law students don’t take art classes!” “What would your mother think? At least call and cancel right now so they can find someone else!” “What are you … chicken?”I worry that I won’t be able to stand still long enough, and they’ll kick me out for being a faulty model with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. I call the TA and ask how long each pose will be. She assures me that most of them will last only five or ten minutes. Hmm.

Sunday, Nov. 11

I enlist the help of my boyfriend and a kitchen timer to practice. I’m doing fine standing still until he starts blasting “Me So Horny” — the dirty version, mind you — to make me laugh. It works. I crack up.

Then I begin to worry that I’ll be thoroughly bored while I’m standing there immobile. What am I supposed to look at? Should I stare into space? Can I make eye contact with the students or will that distract them? What am I supposed to think about?

Monday, Nov. 12

Wait just a second. How am I supposed to come up with poses? What if the professor asks me to sit in some weird pornographic pose? Will I be too cold without clothes on? (Think of how cold it gets in Austin. Now think of how much colder you’d be if you were sitting there naked.)

Wednesday, Nov. 14

Nude-art-modeling day has arrived! Oddly, my biggest dilemma is figuring out what to wear. My mind is racing: Make sure to wear normal underwear. Wear stuff that is easy to take off. Don’t wear those black athletic socks that leave marks on your calves and black fuzz on your toes.

I arrive at the Carpenter Center for the class a few minutes early and meet with Paul, the instructor. He is a sweet, older man with a charming accent and a sincere smile. I almost relax, but then I remember that this man is going to see me totally naked in ten minutes. Paul shows me the curtained-off area where I will “change” (a.k.a. strip) and apologizes for not having a more private location available. I notice that the faculty offices across the courtyard have a nice, clear view of my changing area, but I figure that the marginal difference between 20 strangers seeing me naked and a few additional random voyeurs isn’t such a big deal.

The students filter in and move their easels around, making a big circle. At the beginning of class, they review their drawings from the week before. I hover in the back and watch. I listen as they describe the “powerfully clenched buttocks” of the last model (an athletic male, judging from the sketches) and wonder what they will say about me next week. How will my body be dissected and analyzed?

I’m relieved to learn that I am not the first nude model they’ve seen. I learned in art classes in undergrad that there is usually a certain nervous tension the first day a model shows up in a drawing class. Many of these undergrads haven’t actually seen a naked person in real life before, so it’s somewhat titillating in the beginning.

Then I hear a student ask, “Are we having a model today? Is it the same guy or another guy?”

I almost pass out when the professor replies, “No, we have a young woman this time.” All the men in the class look up. I hear some guys in the back squeal, “Oh, a girl! Wow, nice surprise.”

I am, indeed, The First Naked Chick.

The other details are a bit hazy. I take my clothes off and stand in the middle of a circle of strangers. They’ve provided a low platform for me to stand on and a floor heater to keep me warm.

Then, they stare at me for three hours. The professor walks around from student to student, shouting both encouraging and criticizing comments: “Look at the model, not at your canvas!” “Deal with her as she is rather than as you think she should be!” “Draw what you see!”

The clincher: “Good lines, and look at those chunky breasts you have drawn! But really look at her — aren’t those breasts drawn a bit too big?” (The poor student looks mortified, while all I can do is smirk and feel oddly flattered that my breasts are larger-than-life in his mind.)

A female student comes up to me during the break and says she’s thrilled about having a female model this time. “I was so scared to look at the guy last week, especially his genitals,” she says. “I really couldn’t even look at that part of him, much less try to draw it.”

The oddest thing about this whole experience is the feeling of serenity that overcomes me as I stand there gazing into space. I can’t sit still for a second in real life, but this forced stillness makes me relax. The three hours pass quickly, and I’m not bored at all. It is fascinating to watch the students as they sketch furiously. And I have to admit it feels odd to be the center of attention of so many people for so long — how often do you have the full attention of 20 people for three straight hours?

As I leave, the professor turns and asks, “Is the payment all squared away?” Suddenly, I feel like a transaction. Maybe it was an amazing, crazy, random experience for me, but, to them, I was just another body.

The Aftermath

I leave the class with black feet – my soles are completely covered with charcoal dust from the studio floor. I am sweaty from nerves and the portable heaters.

But mentally, I feel wonderful. At first, I can’t quite pin it down but, as I walk through the brisk fall air, I realize exactly what I feel. It is a combination of that exhausted exhilaration you feel right after you finish an exam and the guilty excitement you felt after the first time you had sex. (It didn’t help that most of the guys in the class smiled and mumbled “thank you” as I left.)

The next day, my whole body is sore. I’d never realized that standing still could be such a good workout. My right leg, which suffered the pressure from my final 30-minute Amazon-woman-holding-a-big-stick pose, hurts the most. This nude modeling gig is definitely not easy money.

Friends who know about this episode ask me, “Wasn’t it weird?” All I can say is that it was pretty weird, but the weirdest part of all was that it wasn’t all that weird.

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