Still Lives

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

Once we're done, Scott and I head over to Lawndale to look at Laura Letinsky's photography show "Venus Inferred." Letinsky solicited volunteer couples to model in sexual situations. Scott posed with fellow art model Dawn Nutley. Her husband, Gary, also models occasionally, but for some reason did not do the Letinsky shoot. Scott tells me that he and Dawn were on the verge of intercourse when Laura ran out of film. "She said she ran out of film," I say. "She stopped just a minute too soon in my book," Scott says, smiling in his laid-back, game-for-anything way.

Hung in the small gallery at Lawndale, Letinsky's images show rather disconcerted couples in various stages of lovemaking, from bra removal (that one is of Letinsky herself) to what looks like it could be the whole nine yards. The men in particular look uneasy. And there on the right wall, midway down, is Scott, Dawn face down on top, his eyes peering over her shoulder, his penis projecting between her legs up against the crack of her buttocks.

"There you are," I say.
"Yes, there I am," Scott laughs. "In all my glory." He doesn't say much, but he doesn't seem to mind when I tell an art student that Scott is one of the models. "Oh wow," the student says. "I'm supposed to write a report about the show."

I feel surprisingly unaffected by the sexual imagery, neither embarrassed nor titillated. Perhaps I'm still under the influence of that distance that came on me while modeling.

"They could have retouched Dawn a little," Scott says, referring to a red eruption on her right cheek.

"That's the point, isn't it?" I say. "To show lovemaking as it really is, pimples and smells and all."

"I guess," he says. I chance upon a description of Scott's photo in the brochure essay and read it to him: "The angry red of an inflamed buttock-pimple will parody the nearby heat of the erect penis." He grins and shrugs. I've noticed he likes more "beautiful" art.

"Is it disconcerting to see yourself in flagrante on the wall like that?" I ask.

"Oh," he says with unstudied casualness, "I'm not uptight about much."

When I was little," Tammy says, "these angels came to me and told me it was going to be rough, but it's going to be good."

Back when Tammy was going through her dark phase, half-living on the Montrose streets, she was given refuge by Tiger John and his dad, Dragon Mike, a father-son tattoo team whose Westheimer storefront has long been a Montrose icon. Soon thereafter, Tammy got her first tattoo, a wristband with peace signs and other fantastical symbols woven into it.

"It entertains me," she says. "Think -- when I'm sitting somewhere bored, I can just look down at my wrist." She holds up her unadorned wrist. "This other one is boring."

From there, Tammy got a wide band around her right foot woven out of spiritual emblems, most taken from Richard Bach books, "so I'll always walk in the right path in my beliefs." She has a large wreath of tropical flowers draped over her right shoulder and falling to her waist. Within the garland you can discern a fairy ("to watch my back"), and a large elaborate phoenix symbolizing the Tammy that rose from her own ashes. Other, smaller tattoos are scattered across her body.

"It's the proudest thing I own," she says. "Other women have their Mercedes or their furs." Eventually, she says, she'd like to have 60 percent of her body covered.

"One purpose those tattoos serve, they are a statement," says Ben Woitena. "The most recent one is designed to come below a blouse. If an employer wasn't willing to accept that, she wasn't willing to work for them. Most folks in business think of tattoos like they think of jazz musicians."

Although Tammy's tattoos are beautiful, like Tammy herself, they have a certain "if people don't like me, they can leave me alone" quality -- an easy, unaggressive independence.

"It says a lot about me," Tammy says, "so people will treat me a certain way right off the bat -- if you're not open-minded, I don't want to hang with you anyway. So it's a quick way to weed out the bad people."

When Tammy started modeling, she was chubby. In the drawings, she says, "I kept looking like a little Buddha doll. I had that big belly, you know." Modeling transformed how she thought about herself.

"I never felt comfortable with my body," she says. "I was fat and I was clumsy. [When I modeled] I was able to be graceful. [Artists] gave me a different idea of beauty. Their idea of beauty is so broad and so real. It's not limited to this bizarre image of this thin, anorexic girl."

Around the art studios, "Penthouse" has become a code word for all that is bland and superficial in the conception of beauty. "I want to see some eternal values here," says John Hilliard, a longtime Glassell student and staple of the art scene. "When we have these Penthouse-looking models, I just get these dumb-blond drawings."

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