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"I am absolutely dependent on my model ... They are the main theme of my work." -- Henri Matisse

Tammy is leaning against the wall, head thrown back to expose her elongated Brancusi neck, one foot propped up, not clothed in a stitch, unless you count her many lush tattoos -- draped over her shoulder, encircling her wrist and ankle, even demurely nestled in her pubic hair. She is the object of beauty in the room. Four dour artists sit arrayed before her, looking blankly at her sinuous body, then frowning down at their newsprint pads, nudging in a charcoal shading under a breast, making a sweep of back rounding into buttocks. It's a matter of attending and not attending. The grimacing artists do not notice that Tammy is crying. Frozen in her pose, she cannot wipe the tears away, so they silently slide down her angular face and plunk onto her graceful, smooth, almost adolescent body.

In her seven years of modeling for nearly every art school and class in Houston, Tammy has cried many a time. She's cried because of boyfriends -- coming to model bruised at times in the past. She's cried because of hard times. But mostly she's cried because she's so ... grateful.

It may sound odd to be grateful to be allowed to stand stock still for hours on end with no clothes on for a group of temperamental artists, knowing that when your work is done, you'll likely not get any recognition. But for many models, modeling is itself an art. And they are proud to contribute to Art in a larger sense.

"Kafka said art is like prayer," says Richard Fielden, who is both an artist and a model. "We're reaching out to find some grace. The model wants to be the answer. We all want to be part of the solution. It's very gratifying if somebody does something wonderful of you. It doesn't matter if it looks like you. The model is like the sunset."

Like chess, modeling looks easy. But posing motionless over half-hour stretches for hours on end can be grueling. Backaches, sprained necks, sore limbs, all are common complaints among models. One model had to have foot surgery after a long-term sculpting pose. Tammy says she once lost the feeling in her left calf for six months. One model fell off the modeling stand and put his foot through a glass door. One sat on a bee.

Occupational hazards notwithstanding, models are used all over town. At the schools -- UH, Rice, HCC, Glassell, the Art Institute -- at the Art League, the Watercolor Society, by informal groups who chip in together for a model, as well as by individual artists. Houston has no "model market," such as Montparnasse Avenue became in 19th-century Paris; every Monday morning, the French art academies hired stand-in Madonnas, cherubs, mythological heroes or classical warriors. Instead, Houston artists and art instructors rely on an informal network with a core of regulars, although none of the models are really able to get enough steady work to support themselves.

"Some are students, former art-school students who have grown up, West University women -- and some people we get you wonder how they make it through life," says Deborah Gomez, who until recently handled the models' applications at the Glassell School of Art.

"I think people are a little prejudiced against artists' models -- in fact I was ashamed of it at first," says model Ann H. "But then I became proud of it, it became an art. What changed my mind was Frida [Kahlo]. All those artists who also model -- I thought, they wouldn't be ashamed. I'll never be accepted as a regular person, so I may as well be me."

Artists' models have long been mysterious to those outside the art world; they belong to a subculture that many do not even realize still exists. The lives of famous artists are heavily documented, but those of models are generally confined to legend or rumor: John Sargent and "Madame X," Andrew Wyeth and the sequestered Helga, Leonardo da Vinci and La Gioconda (model for the Mona Lisa). Models are the raw beauty, in the flesh, the stuff of which eternal beauty is crafted. Often literally on a pedestal, the model is the muse incarnate, the muse for hire at $8.50 an hour.

Modeling isn't your standard day gig -- "facing my fears naked in front of a bunch of people looking at me," as Tammy says, laughing. Although the $8.50 an hour has saved her from homelessness and all that goes with it for a young kid on the Montrose streets, for her, like most models, it's more than a buck -- perhaps for Tammy more than anybody else in Houston. Some call her Houston"s best model.

"I normally have to pose models," says sculptor Ben Woitena, who has long used Tammy for his classes. "Everything Tammy does ... she could sit down and we could use that. There's an inherent grace to her. No matter what she does, she's graceful."

"When Tammy's in a pose, you just can't take your eyes off her," says Richard Fielden. "Those long legs. She's graceful. You think, I wish I could capture that. Her body is like cursive writing. She just has an instinct for what works."

"At a recent Glassell lab, Tammy sat up there giggling and she had everybody in the class giggling for no reason," says artist and model Scott Yoast. "The model has to establish that kind of rapport with the students. I can't do it, it's just one of those mystical things. You either have it or you don't. I model and the students are out there. I tend to keep a distance, physically and psychologically. With Tammy, there's some kind of psychic connection. It's more than just a physical skill or ability. I'm still strictly an individual when I model. Tammy becomes one with the artist."

When I first met Tammy, she was wearing a red floor-length skirt with gold threads, a black scoop-neck leotard top, and a sinuous length of velvet around her long neck. When I said I liked her exotic garb, she deflected the compliment, saying it was just because at the art-supply store where she worked, she was required to keep all her tattoos covered. Despite her precautions, an errant wreath of flowers crept from her garments and climbed up her collarbone. Her glasses obscured what might have seemed a too-easy beauty. When she pushed her feathery blond hair back from her face, the gesture was more impatient than vain. She is both earnest and shy; her voice is wispy, although it gets less so as she relaxes into conversation.

Twenty-six years old, Tammy comes from a blue-collar background and was homeless and using drugs when she heard about modeling from her neighbor Breezie. Tammy thought she was too shy and incompetent to get a normal job. But she did think she could hold still.

The first time is almost always awkward. Tammy, then 19, had filled out an application at Glassell, the glass-brick school across from the Museum of Fine Arts; she was called back to talk with instructor Robert McCoy. She arrived, only to find McCoy's class in progress, and to her surprise, they expected her to be the model. No preparation, just strip and climb onto the stand while they aimed the naked lights at her bare body.

"I thought he'd talk to me," Tammy says, "but he said, 'Get up there and model.' "

"Tammy struck me as so young and innocent," says Deborah Gomez, remembering Tammy after that first class, "so quiet and demure."

As Tammy proved to be reliable -- no-show models are a common nuisance -- other Glassell instructors started to call her up, most notably Woitena. Unlike life drawing, Woitena's sculpture classes use the same model in the same pose for three weeks at a time. However, the sculpture students were so taken with Tammy that when her three weeks were up, they asked to keep her on.

"At the time, she was real destitute," Woitena says. "I'd keep her two months out of the semester. My classes wanted her because she was good. Normally I use five to six models in a semester, but I'd use Tammy and maybe one or two others."

The class began to adopt Tammy.
"It was a cold winter and they gave me shoes," Tammy says. "I was always wearing thongs. People would ask me, 'Why are you wearing thongs?' " Tammy makes a "duh" gesture and laughs. " 'Why do you think? I always wear thongs in icy weather.' And they bought me these shoes. That hurt at first -- that you're so low, people are buying you shoes. That's like poor kids you read about in books, and now you're one of those kids."

It was a pair of black moccasins. After that, the class, mostly women of some means, began to dig around in the back of their closets and clothe their naked model.

"I had this picture of me in my mind," Tammy says. "Me standing up on that stage, nothing on, and they saw all these possibilities that I didn't see. They almost made me a part of their artwork -- like with a piece of stone or wood, you have to get the beauty out of it."

The moccasin giver's husband teased his wife that she was playing Henry Higgins to Tammy's Eliza Doolittle. "It was like that," Tammy says. "I wrote her a note a year later thanking her, saying it was like My Fair Lady."

Rose described herself on her modeling application form as a "mature, full-figured woman!! Also an actress." I'd glimpsed her earlier at a life drawing class at Glassell. She'd glanced up sharply, as do most models when a stranger encroaches upon their protected territory. Frozen in position, they are powerless to cover their nudity or even to ask, who are you and do you belong here.

I also remembered Rose from her acting around town, especially with the Dreem-Katz Company, a campy, risque troupe. Years later, I can still recall Rose's torch song: "I'm a drunk without his Ripple, I'm a babe without his nipple, woe is me."

Although Rose was married to a conservative oil executive for 15 years ("Right-wingers, Republicans... bah!" she mutters), she divorced him and has supported her free-spirited ways for the last two decades with what she calls "jobettes": working in a Village furniture shop, babysitting, delivering flowers on Valentine's Day, dog training, art framing, office organization, hypertension studies at Methodist Hospital -- plus her acting. She had a real estate license until the Realtor she was working through took it away; he complained that she only came in when she didn't have anything better to do. "You're right," she told him. "I do come in here when I have nothing else to do. That's your life, but it isn't mine." And now that Social Security covers the rent, Rose reports excitedly, she is especially carefree.

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

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."

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.

"I met a fighter pilot over at a friend's house," Scott says, "and he said he couldn't do it [model]. That made me feel good."

"In modeling, there's a certain amount of exposure on both sides," Tammy says. "Not only am I naked, I'm exposing myself. These people are so kind to me, but had we not walked through those doors, we'd never have run into each other. I never would have been invited to Ben's show. Those people don't go to the Circle K."

At first, Scott found the models aloof. "But then they found out I was modeling, [and] they were friendly. Sort of like a brotherhood or sisterhood."

"And you share that physical suffering," Tammy says. "You're hurting in front of these people. You have that in common, which I don't think artists understand."

"I think artists have their own separation from the models," says Scott. "They're intimidated by the models, by the nudity. When you're up there on the modeling stand, they treat you like an object, but once you come down, they clam up. The male students are the most intimidated."

"I wonder if they feel like they're staring at naked people?" Tammy says.
"One artist," Scott says, "Manet, I think -- said he looks at an apple differently if he's going to paint it than if he's going to eat it."

That Saturday I find Scott and Tammy in the sculpture room at Glassell, where Tammy is posing for a marble piece of Scott's. About as long as a man's forearm, the cool white sculpture is just beginning to show the forms of three women, all modeled on Tammy. Tammy takes a break, wraps herself in a rose-print sarong and squats on her modeling stand to smoke.

"This is my favorite room in the world. Seems like I've spent a lot of time here," Tammy says.

"Whenever I come in this room, I get the urge to take off my clothes," Scott says.

Compared with the other warehouse-size studio classrooms at Glassell, the sculpture room is intimate. Light comes in through two glass-brick walls and falls on the many sculptures. The clay works in progress stand covered with garbage bags to keep them from drying out. Tammy pulls away a plastic covering and finds a flat relief of herself. Two crude heads of Richard Fielden stare down from some utility shelves. Below him is another Tammy, and a model I don't recognize.

"That's Elise," Scott says. "And next to her is Nellie." Going around the room, Tammy and Scott are able to identify almost all the models. The artists of the pieces are not mentioned. We find a half-dozen or so Tammys.

"There are Tammys all over Houston," Scott says. "Just like Kiki was for the artists in Paris." Surely a member of the models' Hall of Fame, the Parisian model Kiki posed for most of the artists of the Movable Feast era, most especially Man Ray (who was one of her lovers), and came to symbolize the joie de vivre of the Montparnasse demi-monde of the 1920s. "Chaim Soutine broke up his furniture so Kiki wouldn't get cold," Scott continues. "They wouldn't do that for me. But for Tammy they would."

Scott asked me if I'd like to model for him. He had a 622-pound hunk of limestone he'd been saving. He demonstrated the pose -- seated, legs pulled up, hand reaching across waist to cup breast, head down. Would I do it? Oh, what the hell, sure.

We meet in the Glassell sculpture room, its plastic sheet blocking the view from the larger work area. Scott shows me the pose in his sculpture book. I nod, but I'm nervous. Is he ready for me to take my clothes off? I want to seem ready, but not do it too early and stand around naked. He sketches some lines, figuring out how he's going to fit the form -- my form, that is -- onto the block of stone. A middle-aged sculpture student wanders in. Now? Should I take them off now? I don't know if the etiquette permits my stripping while the woman is still present.

I pull my loose dress over my head, the woman still in the room, and suddenly I'm not there. Dress over the head, Ann leaves the room. My head is still here, the cognizant, attending, detail-noting brain of Ann. And body of Ann, with its breast and plane of thigh and curve of belly, is in plain sight below, but damned if it doesn't feel unattached to me. As Scott requests an arm higher, a leg tucked in more, I can arrange it with dispassion, like moving decorative items around on a coffeetable. Plain and simple, I vamoose. My body must be wooden, although Scott is only taking photographs to sketch out the lines on the stone. The long poses will come later, as he gets into the substantial chiseling and the detail work. He says one or two hours a week for a month should do it. He takes photos from different angles -- behind me, standing on a chair looking down. I can't hear the camera clicking, is he done? I move my head to look. No, he's taking another photo. Bad model. It's harder than I thought not to move. It all feels uncertain and tenuous.

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."

"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?

I returned to our table.
"The artists validated my existence," Tammy says, "my being here on earth -- and I didn't feel that before. I didn't feel right about even being alive and they said, yeah Tammy, you've got a right to exist, and their artwork showed me I can even celebrate it.

"To be invited into someone's love -- that's what they love to do, their art -- to be invited into that, it's such an honor. Like last night I modeled, and today I'm still thinking, 'How did I get so lucky?'

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