Still Lives

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

"I love the natural beauty of people," says Richard. "Older people, young people. Aside from sexuality, I think everybody has a certain natural beauty. I think the few people who don't are evil people."

A lot of models say this different perspective on beauty is good for self-esteem. Scott says, "It goes deeper into your psyche, there's an intense sense of just throwing off everything, like nudism.... I used to be terminally shy, and modeling changed that for me. So I'm overweight, my hair's falling out. So what, that's me."

"It was sort of a flattering thing. People would say, 'I'd like to do your portrait,' " says Richard. "Everybody likes to be accepted. I've known a lot of models who were alcoholics, have drug problems, had self-esteem problems. They model to be accepted."

It doesn't always work out so well. Richard remembers a life drawing class many years ago in San Antonio. The model was a longtime friend of his, a big, friendly woman, who was prone to mood swings. After the three-hour class was over, she didn't go out for coffee or do any of the regular convivial things. Her boyfriend called the next day, extremely distraught, and said she'd killed herself. Richard pulled out his drawing from the class. "You know, it was in her face," he says. "It was there, clear as a bell, her naked eyes. I always felt bad that I didn't recognize that. I guess I was just too concentrated on getting the drawing right. I gave the piece to the boyfriend. He cracked up when he looked at it. He could see it too."

Even for Tammy, modeling has a dark side.
"The artists have a huge effect on the model -- if they have a negative attitude towards you, or for some reason they get funky or they forget that you're a human being holding a pose and you're not Barbie. I can't model at Rice University, and the kids are my age. They're college kids, you know, and I'm sitting here naked being a model. There's such a difference in our lives, such a huge difference. Sometimes I look around the room and I think, "All these girls have better bodies than I do, why aren't they doing this?" And then I'm thinking, "They're in college, and I'm thinking about, wow, I get to eat today." It's on a subconscious level, almost. When I'm there, it gets to me.

"When I think of modeling -- I want to do a painting where there's this little scruffy girl, and then there's this artist and what he's painting is an angel and you can see the aura coming out from this girl. And I feel like that's how they saw me and that's how I became, because they could see me that way. But I guess I feel like that little girl when I go to Rice. And I don't feel that way at Houston Community. I try not to even model there [at Rice] anymore.

"I guess I just see all those perfect kids. It's not that I'm not perfect, I don't feel bad about myself. There's just such a huge difference. It could all be in my head. These kids could all be really down-to-earth and really cool. I've certainly met a lot of highly successful people who didn't start out that way, who started out like me. Maybe I think they're going to go somewhere with theirs, and what does it take to do this. It takes a lot, but, I don't know. Maybe it's because I have tattoos and they don't." She laughs. "I could see those kids never talking to me outside of class. It's just that place. It must be something in the air conditioning, I don't know."

The night at Chapultepec with Tammy and Scott after Ben Woitena's opening, I took a break to go to the bathroom. Chapultepec happens to have one of the best bathroom adventures in Houston, at least for women. Entering a pink door, you go up a wide flight of stairs, the walls of which have been totally matted with photos of good-timing customers. At the top of the stairs you can see out over the lush Montrose trees through an open window before going through another brightly painted door marked "Ladies" in gold letters. Inside the festive lavatory, all is red and pink, crudely painted. Spotlighted over the basin is a famous Matisse of two women lounging, one in a red dress, the other in yellow, their faces only sketchily drawn in. I've had a print of the same painting up in my bathroom -- I've long liked it because it conjures up young confident womanhood and the luxurious comfort of female best friends.

But that night, still awash in the conversation of the models, I suddenly realized -- two women posed for this. It had never occurred to me. They sat in Matisse's studio, one in a yellow dress, one in red, frozen while the gnarly master made this painting. I felt like I'd just gotten a glimpse backstage. Maybe they went out to eat afterward at the Parisian equivalent of a funky Mexican dive and talked about how uncomfortable the pose had been, about other modeling jobs, about how the artists treated them. Meanwhile, Matisse's image has become a part of the world's visual memory. How did the two models feel about it?

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