Still Lives

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

But despite her freewheeling, "I gotta be me" approach, she was taken aback when her Dreem-Katz friend, the late Kenny Joe Spivey, told her that he and his partner were modeling nude for art classes.

"I said, 'You guys are what!?' And they said, 'You should do this, it's not bad money.' And I said, 'Uh-uh, I don't get naked in front of anybody, hell no, what are you talking about?' I used to go in the closet and undress [when I was] with my husband."

But Rose decided to think of modeling like acting. Indeed, her first time out she was as nervous as if it were a Broadway audition. Now, seven years later, she's one of the queens of Houston modeling, her bounteous "woman-size" body giving students a contrast to the normal run of young, dancer-esque forms.

"See, the artists don't want Playboy bunnies," she says, warming to her subject. "They've told us that a lot. I ask the instructors with these kids, "Have you told them who's coming here? Do they know what they're getting?" 'Oh yes, they're excited, Rose. I've told them you're coming and explained that we have all different body shapes here and we're not running a porno school, and we want every body type there is.' "

To reach the art lab at UH-Downtown, I take the elevator up to the 11th floor and what looks to be a maintenance level leading to the roof. Instructor and painter Floyd Newsum lets me in through glass double doors, taped over with butcher paper to shield against curious eyes. Inside, Rose is reigning triumphant, her brightly lit, large white body lying on an elevated couch, the timid students her audience. "We don't care what Floyd thinks," she kids with the class as she shifts around, trying to find a comfortable position for her 40-minute pose. Floyd laughs good-naturedly, saying, "Rose, she's independent, and she's going to tell you her views."

Rose has spread a flowered comforter over the sofa. On the cassette player Barbra Streisand sings "If I Loved You." Making jokes and reading a UH newsletter through half-glasses, Rose looks utterly comfortable and at home. Most of the students are beginners, shy but earnest at this intriguing new endeavor. After the timer dings and Rose puts on her black terry robe, all walk around to look at the results.

"Who is this old lady y'all are drawing?!" Rose laments exaggeratedly, her days as a character actress coming to the fore. "It's awful. I'm going to cry." She smiles reassuringly.

Rose likes working with the nascent artists. Friendly and extroverted, she's a natural-born teacher. She knows it might be initially awkward for some, since she may well be as old as their grandmothers, so she strives to set everyone at ease.

Ironically, it's her own daughters and grandkids whom Rose has found the least understanding. A few years ago she sent one daughter some snapshots taken at a Glassell opening; they show Rose standing proudly (and clothed) beside various paintings for which she had been the model.

"I sent them and said, 'This is what I do... I wanted to share this with you and Anthony [Rose's grandson]. This is sort of fun, kind of nice, and I'm thinking that maybe you want to see them and see what I do.' "

Rose says all this very lightly. She often tells her stories with mock dialogue, acting her conversation, so to speak.

" 'Oh, my God,' " she says, slipping into an outraged-daughter voice. " 'Oh, I wouldn't let Anthony see them, I put them away.'

"I said, "What are you talking about?"
" 'Oh, mother! What do you think? This is your grandson. You don't send him pictures like that.' "

She shakes her head to get rid of the unpleasant memory.
"So if you're not educated, if you're not sophisticated about everything in general, then you're going to put me down for what I do. They feel like you're just a slut. To get up there and get naked. They've seen paintings of nudes but that was a hundred years ago, that has nothing to do with me or them. Okay, that's art and that's pretty, but they don't know these people. I know they think everybody looking at me is thinking, "Oh, I want to jump her bones," or "Ooo, she looks awful, who'd want to?" or "Why'd she take her clothes off?" I'm sure something like that is going on in their heads, but if it is, I don't care. I'm thinking that the artists are like doctors, they're dissecting me. They're taking me one part at a time to paint, and putting it into the big picture. They're not looking at me as a sexual object. See, I had to turn that in my head, too. I used to think in the beginning that a few people would be thinking that, but I've totally erased that. They've got nudie magazines if they want that."

"I understood you wanted me to pose for you."
"For the moment it is not a model I need."
-- Delta of Venus, "The Model," Anais Nin

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