Still Lives

The muse for hire at $8.50 an hour: unveiling the naked truths of Houston's art models

"I am absolutely dependent on my model ... They are the main theme of my work." -- Henri Matisse

Tammy is leaning against the wall, head thrown back to expose her elongated Brancusi neck, one foot propped up, not clothed in a stitch, unless you count her many lush tattoos -- draped over her shoulder, encircling her wrist and ankle, even demurely nestled in her pubic hair. She is the object of beauty in the room. Four dour artists sit arrayed before her, looking blankly at her sinuous body, then frowning down at their newsprint pads, nudging in a charcoal shading under a breast, making a sweep of back rounding into buttocks. It's a matter of attending and not attending. The grimacing artists do not notice that Tammy is crying. Frozen in her pose, she cannot wipe the tears away, so they silently slide down her angular face and plunk onto her graceful, smooth, almost adolescent body.

In her seven years of modeling for nearly every art school and class in Houston, Tammy has cried many a time. She's cried because of boyfriends -- coming to model bruised at times in the past. She's cried because of hard times. But mostly she's cried because she's so ... grateful.

It may sound odd to be grateful to be allowed to stand stock still for hours on end with no clothes on for a group of temperamental artists, knowing that when your work is done, you'll likely not get any recognition. But for many models, modeling is itself an art. And they are proud to contribute to Art in a larger sense.

"Kafka said art is like prayer," says Richard Fielden, who is both an artist and a model. "We're reaching out to find some grace. The model wants to be the answer. We all want to be part of the solution. It's very gratifying if somebody does something wonderful of you. It doesn't matter if it looks like you. The model is like the sunset."

Like chess, modeling looks easy. But posing motionless over half-hour stretches for hours on end can be grueling. Backaches, sprained necks, sore limbs, all are common complaints among models. One model had to have foot surgery after a long-term sculpting pose. Tammy says she once lost the feeling in her left calf for six months. One model fell off the modeling stand and put his foot through a glass door. One sat on a bee.

Occupational hazards notwithstanding, models are used all over town. At the schools -- UH, Rice, HCC, Glassell, the Art Institute -- at the Art League, the Watercolor Society, by informal groups who chip in together for a model, as well as by individual artists. Houston has no "model market," such as Montparnasse Avenue became in 19th-century Paris; every Monday morning, the French art academies hired stand-in Madonnas, cherubs, mythological heroes or classical warriors. Instead, Houston artists and art instructors rely on an informal network with a core of regulars, although none of the models are really able to get enough steady work to support themselves.

"Some are students, former art-school students who have grown up, West University women -- and some people we get you wonder how they make it through life," says Deborah Gomez, who until recently handled the models' applications at the Glassell School of Art.

"I think people are a little prejudiced against artists' models -- in fact I was ashamed of it at first," says model Ann H. "But then I became proud of it, it became an art. What changed my mind was Frida [Kahlo]. All those artists who also model -- I thought, they wouldn't be ashamed. I'll never be accepted as a regular person, so I may as well be me."

Artists' models have long been mysterious to those outside the art world; they belong to a subculture that many do not even realize still exists. The lives of famous artists are heavily documented, but those of models are generally confined to legend or rumor: John Sargent and "Madame X," Andrew Wyeth and the sequestered Helga, Leonardo da Vinci and La Gioconda (model for the Mona Lisa). Models are the raw beauty, in the flesh, the stuff of which eternal beauty is crafted. Often literally on a pedestal, the model is the muse incarnate, the muse for hire at $8.50 an hour.

Modeling isn't your standard day gig -- "facing my fears naked in front of a bunch of people looking at me," as Tammy says, laughing. Although the $8.50 an hour has saved her from homelessness and all that goes with it for a young kid on the Montrose streets, for her, like most models, it's more than a buck -- perhaps for Tammy more than anybody else in Houston. Some call her Houston"s best model.

"I normally have to pose models," says sculptor Ben Woitena, who has long used Tammy for his classes. "Everything Tammy does ... she could sit down and we could use that. There's an inherent grace to her. No matter what she does, she's graceful."

"When Tammy's in a pose, you just can't take your eyes off her," says Richard Fielden. "Those long legs. She's graceful. You think, I wish I could capture that. Her body is like cursive writing. She just has an instinct for what works."

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