In Front of the Easel
When I agreed to pose for the eight-hour session, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
By Alina Shaikh, University of Toronto
Imagine you’re a college student, short on funds and high on loans, wandering aimlessly through the city in search of a birthday present for your favorite person.
Your friend calls you up and mutters something about a “flaky sketch model,” and it sounds like he’s panicking. Eventually he gets to the point—he needed model for an art class; could I fill in? The money was good, the art is prized and the students are desperate for their marks, so I said yes and took the offer with hardly any idea of what I was getting myself into.
I told myself that if I wasn’t comfortable with the area, I would politely decline and be on my way, but it turns out downtown Toronto is pretty hard to say no to. Most studios are almost exact replicas of local dance spaces, yoga classes, fencing areas—whatever you would use to describe a creepily empty room just waiting for a shady drug deal to go sour in. But no. When class starts, the easels and charcoal are picked out of the cabinets, the windows are opened, the stage is set and the space transforms.
It’s an odd juxtaposition between the outward minimalism and the inner decadence of an artist’s mind, its space thrumming with the manifold possibilities they can showcase simply by drawing a crease in the fold of your clothes differently.
It’s not all silk robes and lecherous stares though, even when lying around the set in nothing at all. In fact, the nude models here are a few of the most confident, easygoing people I’ve ever met. The whole disrobing “process” isn’t so much a process as it is “becoming one” with the artwork, as they say. Whether you’re merging your identity to the canvas or not, I think the key point here is that the body isn’t necessarily a sexual object. Are there provocative poses in some classes? Sure. Does the theme center on the erotic from time to time? You bet. But there are nude models posing for the fucking “plant” theme too, and is anyone really going to argue for the sexual aspect of that one?
I chose a different path, and went with the clothed portions of the theme “morning.” The variety of oversized options on the rack were honestly jarring, dwarfing every model that so much as steps close to the XXL gowns they’d love to feature. I ending up wearing a slouchy white button-down that must’ve been made for some sort of shirtdress trend back in 2012. I was expecting to get up on the platform and sit and stare at the ceiling for a few hours, but all dreams must end. I was enthusiastically introduced by the instructor, and got to see some of the students’ pieces before the stage was even set up, allowing me to meet people and have quality conversations about the neck stretches I should practice beforehand.
The four two-hour increments of classes honestly just involved holding a cup of coffee (which got cold, thanks Canada) and staring at the window to create highlights in the wisps of hair outside of my bun. There was no makeup, no formal props—just a mug from the instructor’s apartment and a variety of spine-numbing poses to prep for my eight hours of daydreaming.
The directors are more focused on the shadows and creases in your clothes than anything else, as there was a major fuss (around half an hour or so) of maneuvering my shirtdress to get those wrinkles and flexes of muscle here and there. It seemed like quite a legitimate struggle, as the students started adding in tidbits of advice like “tuck in the rolled sleeve to the right” and “try to breathe shallower, or we’ll all get shit grades.” Yeah, I started hyperventilating as soon as I heard that one. It was worth it.
Although I’m trying to dismiss the sensual assumptions people have about art modeling, one stereotype hits the point right on the mark. Smoking’s a big thing in the art world, and more specifically, for models. I’m not gonna try to defend myself by doing the whole “but everyone was doing it, mom,” so I’ll just say this: If there’s no food, no drinks, low cell battery and a huge waiting period for the next class, you bet I’m gonna take a few drags off a free cigarette.
Note: I maintain the stance of “try everything once,” especially to any/all free opportunities college kids have nowadays.
I don’t think this includes becoming a chain-smoker. This should probably be avoided for multiple reasons.
Smoking notwithstanding, I spent twelve hours with a group of beautiful strangers that weirdly resembled Greek gods, and had the time of my life doing it. The modeling was like a switch, the way I was immediately accepted into the group as “one of the models,” even if I was only prepped to do an eight-hour session by the instructor. The dressing room was packed with different textures and styles of clothes, even various periods of dress, when I just assumed it was all oversized and drapey fabrics or nothing at all. I realized I assumed a lot of things about this line of work, and ultimately learned to take a risk now and then and to discover things for myself. Mostly, I realized how unrelated the gig was to the “exhibitionism” label people like to throw on it.
Sitting down, tilting your head and angling your jaw for eight hours? Why not. Making connections with your local artist and model community, along with receiving multiple tattoo gift cards they just need to give away because of their profession? Hell yeah.