Still Lives

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

"At a recent Glassell lab, Tammy sat up there giggling and she had everybody in the class giggling for no reason," says artist and model Scott Yoast. "The model has to establish that kind of rapport with the students. I can't do it, it's just one of those mystical things. You either have it or you don't. I model and the students are out there. I tend to keep a distance, physically and psychologically. With Tammy, there's some kind of psychic connection. It's more than just a physical skill or ability. I'm still strictly an individual when I model. Tammy becomes one with the artist."

When I first met Tammy, she was wearing a red floor-length skirt with gold threads, a black scoop-neck leotard top, and a sinuous length of velvet around her long neck. When I said I liked her exotic garb, she deflected the compliment, saying it was just because at the art-supply store where she worked, she was required to keep all her tattoos covered. Despite her precautions, an errant wreath of flowers crept from her garments and climbed up her collarbone. Her glasses obscured what might have seemed a too-easy beauty. When she pushed her feathery blond hair back from her face, the gesture was more impatient than vain. She is both earnest and shy; her voice is wispy, although it gets less so as she relaxes into conversation.

Twenty-six years old, Tammy comes from a blue-collar background and was homeless and using drugs when she heard about modeling from her neighbor Breezie. Tammy thought she was too shy and incompetent to get a normal job. But she did think she could hold still.

The first time is almost always awkward. Tammy, then 19, had filled out an application at Glassell, the glass-brick school across from the Museum of Fine Arts; she was called back to talk with instructor Robert McCoy. She arrived, only to find McCoy's class in progress, and to her surprise, they expected her to be the model. No preparation, just strip and climb onto the stand while they aimed the naked lights at her bare body.

"I thought he'd talk to me," Tammy says, "but he said, 'Get up there and model.' "

"Tammy struck me as so young and innocent," says Deborah Gomez, remembering Tammy after that first class, "so quiet and demure."

As Tammy proved to be reliable -- no-show models are a common nuisance -- other Glassell instructors started to call her up, most notably Woitena. Unlike life drawing, Woitena's sculpture classes use the same model in the same pose for three weeks at a time. However, the sculpture students were so taken with Tammy that when her three weeks were up, they asked to keep her on.

"At the time, she was real destitute," Woitena says. "I'd keep her two months out of the semester. My classes wanted her because she was good. Normally I use five to six models in a semester, but I'd use Tammy and maybe one or two others."

The class began to adopt Tammy.
"It was a cold winter and they gave me shoes," Tammy says. "I was always wearing thongs. People would ask me, 'Why are you wearing thongs?' " Tammy makes a "duh" gesture and laughs. " 'Why do you think? I always wear thongs in icy weather.' And they bought me these shoes. That hurt at first -- that you're so low, people are buying you shoes. That's like poor kids you read about in books, and now you're one of those kids."

It was a pair of black moccasins. After that, the class, mostly women of some means, began to dig around in the back of their closets and clothe their naked model.

"I had this picture of me in my mind," Tammy says. "Me standing up on that stage, nothing on, and they saw all these possibilities that I didn't see. They almost made me a part of their artwork -- like with a piece of stone or wood, you have to get the beauty out of it."

The moccasin giver's husband teased his wife that she was playing Henry Higgins to Tammy's Eliza Doolittle. "It was like that," Tammy says. "I wrote her a note a year later thanking her, saying it was like My Fair Lady."

Rose described herself on her modeling application form as a "mature, full-figured woman!! Also an actress." I'd glimpsed her earlier at a life drawing class at Glassell. She'd glanced up sharply, as do most models when a stranger encroaches upon their protected territory. Frozen in position, they are powerless to cover their nudity or even to ask, who are you and do you belong here.

I also remembered Rose from her acting around town, especially with the Dreem-Katz Company, a campy, risque troupe. Years later, I can still recall Rose's torch song: "I'm a drunk without his Ripple, I'm a babe without his nipple, woe is me."

Although Rose was married to a conservative oil executive for 15 years ("Right-wingers, Republicans... bah!" she mutters), she divorced him and has supported her free-spirited ways for the last two decades with what she calls "jobettes": working in a Village furniture shop, babysitting, delivering flowers on Valentine's Day, dog training, art framing, office organization, hypertension studies at Methodist Hospital -- plus her acting. She had a real estate license until the Realtor she was working through took it away; he complained that she only came in when she didn't have anything better to do. "You're right," she told him. "I do come in here when I have nothing else to do. That's your life, but it isn't mine." And now that Social Security covers the rent, Rose reports excitedly, she is especially carefree.

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