Still Lives

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

Through the ages, modeling has held an erotic mystique. Anais Nin's erotica often featured models, her stories opening "The painter sat beside his model mixing colors while he talked about the whores that had stirred him," or "Hilda was a beautiful Parisian model who fell deeply in love with an American writer, whose work was so violent and sensual that it attracted women to him immediately." Delacroix was widely known to have casual relations with his models, and he was not considered unusual. The Parisian "Artist and Model Ball" carried all sorts of salacious overtones.

Of course, as in many supposedly licentious scenarios, there is a considerable distance between the overheated imagination and reality -- examined closely, the prurient speculation turns out to be nine parts silliness to only one part truth.

"You'd think it might be erotic," says Glassell instructor Patrick Palmer. "But you're so involved in getting the form right. It really is a still life. There really is nothing erotic about it. It becomes academic instantly. Maybe it's the lights."

"It's a disciplined relationship," says artist Charles Schorre, who taught life drawing at Rice for many years. "You have 20 people falling in love with the model. I teach respect. Be attentive, generous. I'm a prude, but I had friends who tried to make every model they ever had. They did that in the '60s."

Robin does both art and commercial modeling, and she has experienced a real difference between them.

"In glamour photography, you look right at the camera and it has that sex appeal," she says. "In art modeling, I want to maintain a kind of distance."

"Some of these men at the Art League just enjoy looking at women's nude bodies," says Gena, another model. "I've been asked a couple of times, can I take a picture of you, and I just say no. Flat out no. I'm not going to offer my services for free. I'm just not comfortable with that. There may be some, when they go home they get something of a sexual feeling from it, but I've never felt that when I'm modeling. I've never felt threatened sexually, or that I was being looked at sexually. I don't think I would have done it if I had felt that way, 'cause we're all sexual beings, but I don't feel like exploiting myself. Even though I feel somewhat alienated when I model, I don't think it has to do with the sexuality part of it."

Ben Woitena says he's had a few students, particularly religious students, who were uncomfortable with the nudity. "One woman did a male model with a cloth draped across his lap, when there wasn't a cloth. I asked her why, and she said because it was wrong. I told her no, you can't do that in here. Aesthetics has nothing to do with morality."

Tammy says that, surprisingly, in her seven years as a model, nobody has ever come on to her.

"The modeling is like being naked with your momma," she says. "When you're with the artists, it's a very pure and wonderful thing, and not sexual at all. By putting clothes on the models, it would put that sexual connotation in there.... We've never had one weirdo in the bunch. I was very much a victim a lot of times in sexual situations, just how women are treated normally. [In modeling] it was just like being a baby -- that purity and that love. I value their friendships more because it was so absent, because I know that's one place I can go and be safe.... They don't get all hung on a model any more than they would their brushes. They don't get any weird ideas about how their brushes feel, and they don't get weird on the models. Sometimes, you're like a vase."

I cannot be transferred so easily
on their large white paper pads.
Up here, away and removed from everyone...
only I can see what I really look like....
Oh, let them whisper,
I am invisible.
"From the Eyes of the Model," Gena M.

Gena has an open, honest face, her warmth and her imperfections right there, unabashed. Her hair is boyishly short. She lives in a cozy paneled garage apartment with her cats Twyla (as in Tharp) and Lily (after her first theater role, in junior high, Lily in Carnival). Her tiny, vulnerable body, her self-admitted sensitivity and difficulty functioning in the "real world," all seem integrated in an oddly inspiring way. Like Rose, she's an actress, and the two work well together, their bodies a yin and yang complement to each other. They were favorites of painter Jim Cogswell; he hasn't worked with a model since he moved to Chicago, because he hasn't found any he responds to like Rose and Gena.

Gena's first class was at the Art League, and it happened to be all men. She stripped and took a long pose for two and a half hours, with breaks. "I was a little nervous, but everybody was very pleasant, very nice. None of them looked like lecherous types or anything."

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