Being a live model is a delicate dance between exposure and trust.
I took my first pose on the stage with one knee bent to my chest, the other leg jutting out to the side. My arm lay across the top of my foot and my back contorted to better show the muscles. A new sort of insecurity crept up my spine as I was forced to contemplate my blemishes exposed to the class, my own shriveled imperfection staring me in the face.
“We love imperfections,” Bobbi Miller had told me when I first walked in. All I could think of was, “I should have showered.”
In the brightly lit room, Miller, Spark Malachowski and Mark Nowlin saw each errant hair poking off my belly. They caught pockmarks, scars, and moles. In front of their eyes and sketchpads, I was completely exposed, but modesty would have been the only contributor to discomfort.
The best models get lost in thought, Spark said. What plays inside their heads is accentuated in still gestures expressing some sort of feeling.
“Most models don’t do that,” she said. “You have to be comfortable in your body.”
Malachowski leads the Barbara Trentham Life Drawing class from 6 to 9 p.m. each Wednesday at the Center for the Arts. The $10 admission grants the amateur artist a ticket into an intimate world beyond judgment or sexuality.
“Figure drawing is part of classical training,” Malachowski said, “and you can’t have an art school without it. This is the key to training.”
Throughout the three-hour ordeal, models strike a series of poses. The session begins hastily, holding a succession of two-minute positions as the artists warm up. As the evening continues, the stances stretch out to five minutes, ten, fifteen and then three final thirty-minutes stretches.
Two minutes is enough to break the initial ice. Wishing I could have smoked a cigarette lounged back in post-coital ease, instead I assumed warrior position with the muscles in my lower back, arms and neck strained. Next, I crouched shortly until my legs began to shake. My toes were numb after two minutes, but I tried to move myself purposefully and not disturb the artists meditating in their work.
“You have to have this training, ability to work with the human body,” Miller said. “It’s not, in essence, a still life.”
Yet the analysis is the same. The artists pore over the disparities between you and last week’s subject, reveling in the new challenge, yet never looking at a model as a mannequin to be thrown away into some forgotten corner afterward.
While I exposed myself to this small crew, they saw me for who I am, not what I was to them that night, putty to be sculpted or some streaker.
“It’s important for artists at all levels to fraternize with other people,” Miller said.
When she first arrived in Teton County, some fifteen years ago, this group was the first Miller sought out, a gathering of amateur artists dedicated to improving their work through practice.
“I met people who became good friends,” Miller said.
Leukemia took group member Trentham in the summer of 2013, but for years, she was a student of the Art Association and a champion of the figure drawing class. Malachowski continues to use her tub of pastels to this day.
Art Association Development Director Alison Brush remembers seeing Trentham every week in class when she was in Jackson instead of her homes in Chicago or Hollywood.
“She was dedicated to really helping other people learn,” Brush said, “learn to draw, learn to paint, especially young people.”
When she died an endowment in her name was formed and earmarked to support the life drawing class.
The drawing studio’s atmosphere evolved quickly into an easy rapport between Malachowski, Miller and myself. Nowlin left early. We spoke and laughed and joked.
“Do you always write naked?” Malachowski asked at one point while I jotted in a notebook between poses.
The outside world seemed to evaporate around our intimacy as a secret alliance was formed: me in my vulnerability and they the keepers of my secrets. The feeling lasted until my coworker came into the room to depict the scene for this article. Images West photographer Price Chambers moved quietly through the scene, careful not to shoot any R-rated images or detract from what had been building over the previous two hours, but the bubble of artistic trust noticeably burst.
Malachowski crumpled up a sketch she had drawn in blue, and started anew with an orange pastel.
“The colors are very intuitive,” Malachowski said.
Discordant emotions come with the territory. Misty Stieber’s experiences change with the students. She has been a figure model since November.
“It goes from classy to trashy in a heartbeat,” she said. “Spread eagle doesn’t have to be sexual. … It doesn’t have to be sexual until you see that person licking their lips.”
But any pervert in the crowd would miss the point of the class.
“One gentleman said, ‘You have the most perfect nipples,’ ” she said. “If someone were to say that to me at a bar, that would be one thing. He said it matter-of-factly. It didn’t mean anything more than what he meant.”
Therein lies the difference between art and pornography, an intention to depict beauty, not cheapen it. The class is an exercise in catharsis, observation and connection with the models.
“Here,” Malachowski said, “you really do look at them, and you look at them closely.” .