Still Lives

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

Everything seemed fine until she walked around during one of the breaks and realized nobody was drawing her body. "Everyone was doing portraits," she said, laughing. "That was my first experience."

Gena persevered, despite her disconcerting initiation, and has become one of Houston's better-known models. One photograph of her by George Krause has been shown at the Museum of Fine Arts and toured around the world. The stark black-and-white image shows Gena in her small bathroom, towel wrapped around her head, stepping out of a dry bathtub, hand clutching the shower curtain.

"It's not a flattering photograph," Gena says, "it's just very weird-looking. But people have recognized me from it. I've had people say, "I saw you at the museum." Because of [Krause's] name and who he is, I was flattered that I was hanging in his show.... But although I look at my body on a regular basis, it looks alien in a photograph -- "That's me, wow.' "

Indeed, in the past year, Gena has begun to feel alienated from modeling in general.

"I felt like an object to some degree," she says. "Not just with George, but every time I modeled. I felt a little removed from myself, like I would sort of float away and look down." As a result, she has decided to ease out of modeling, concentrate more on her own painting. Her work is dream-like, Surrealist, like that of Yves Tanguy or Dorothea Tanning, mostly with elongated young female figures engaged in various cryptic activities.

"The character, I guess, is always me. It's always pale, thin, a lot of times nude, a lot of times in a surreal environment. A lot of times a woman's interacting with an animal. It has a somewhat pleasant tone, and somewhat foreboding. I'm somewhat of a dark type of person and I'm able to express that. I'm very happy because I'm able to express all these different parts of me. Whereas when I'm modeling, these people don't really know me and may not really want to know me. And I guess that always bothers me, that somebody doesn't really care about who I am. Although I remember telling some other models, "Don't worry about it, it's just a job." But I know really to myself that it bothers me if I'm not treated specially."

The Omni Hotel is holding a reception for a show of Ben Woitena's work, and Tammy and I go together. I pick her up (she never learned to drive, she says, because she doesn't want to risk hurting anybody); when we arrive at the Omni, women in velvet evening gowns are being ushered through the glass and gold entrance by the doormen. "Boy," Tammy murmurs to me. We both look under-dressed -- not your grunge-artist affair at all.

We wander around the terraced lobby, a little lost, until we find Ben's outgoing assistant, Richard Fielden, who is both a sculptor and a model. A former commercial art director, Richard started modeling at age 14 for his big sister and has continued on and off for the past 40 years. Richard knows most of the models in Houston and serves as an informal model referral service. He says a surprising variety of people model; he knows a policeman, a minister, businessmen, a former nun, a West U mother-and-daughter team, an accountant, lots of lawyers, actresses, dancers, housewives.

Tammy is greeted warmly by several River Oaks-ish women who know her from Ben's class. We run into another fellow model, Scott Yoast, and the three of us leave the opening to go eat Mexican food at Chapultepec and talk about the joys and pains of modeling.

"It makes you very cranky sometimes," Tammy says. "They wear jackets and then crank the A/C up." The first time Tammy modeled for Charles Schorre -- who likes unusual, "motion" poses -- she fainted. She had just finished an hour modeling for Ben Woitena and went straight to Schorre's class, where he wanted her to pose flapping her arms. Tammy laughs in the telling. "There I was, standing there with nothing on, flapping my arms, and I just couldn't take it. I fainted." Another time she fell asleep during a pose, only to wake up and find she'd been drooling on herself and the whole class was standing around laughing.

"I model an average of once a year with poison ivy," Scott says, grinning. "Once I caught my pecker on the metal edge of the grass catcher on my lawn mower. It swelled up like a casaba melon, and I had to model that way." It sounds awful, but we all crack up.

"Were you mowing the lawn naked?" Tammy asks incredulously. Scott says no, but we still can't quite picture the mechanics of this mishap.

Speaking of penises, what do you do when you get an erection?
"Show off," Scott says.
"Smile," Tammy says.

"Sometimes when I'm [posing] with a female model, it's natural," Scott says. "It's not going anywhere.... As an artist, I like drawing an erection sometimes. It's part of nature."

Scott is an easygoing, good-natured fellow. He was reserved about being nude until he went to a Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes, an annual re-enactment of the '60s that includes plenty of nudity. Now quite the opposite of shy, Scott is even a nudist, as is Richard.

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