“The power of art and the new perspectives drawing brings are inestimable.”
— Colette Coughlin
“Pose naked? I could never do that!”
At least a dozen people responded that way to me when I told them I had posed for a group of artists in a “figure drawing” workshop focusing on body acceptance. Some of them cited body image issues — “I wouldn’t want anyone to see this body naked!” It didn’t matter to them when I explained that the workshops need models of all shapes and sizes and ages, and that first-time models are welcome. It didn’t matter to them when I explained that the workshops help people overcome body image issues, and leave you feeling empowered. They just wouldn’t hear of it. Yet, all agree that beauty is only skin deep, and that it really doesn’t matter to them how other people look . . .
Photojournalists have told me – quite proudly — over the years that the camera doesn’t lie. But, as I have come to understand recently, that statement is not entirely accurate: the camera can accentuate, and distort, things in life that most people would see as irrelevant, or barely perceive at all in daily interaction. No matter how much of an artist the photographer may be, the camera itself is an impersonal object that can only capture what is on the surface at a given moment in time, leaving lasting illusionary impressions.
So, why am I talking about photography in a post about an artists’ sketching workshop on Nude Modeling and Body Image? Because I don’t like that the camera shows the lines of time carved into my face as if they were the crevices of the Grand Canyon, but I do like the fact that the artists who sketched me in a nude modeling session did not perceive those lines to be significant enough to draw into their images of me. I wish they could do sketches for my driver’s licence, medicare card, office pass and all the other ID pics I need.
I was contacted by one of the hosts of the workshop, Colette Coughlin, through the Ottawa Naturists organization, of which I am a proud member. Regular readers know I have been writing a lot about social nudism this year, and about how it promotes body acceptance while at the same time liberating one from the many confines of the textile world. It makes sense that Colette and her workshop colleague, Paul Davidson, would turn to a naturists’ organization for nude models; we’re not shy about nudity.
Colette has been doing this for a while, in Ottawa and Montreal.
“I have been running this independently for nearly 10 years out of my personal need to draw the human body and learn to accept my body, and over time several individuals have joined to help me publicize and host the workshops,” she says.
“This is a not-for-profit venture whose goal is to honour the human body in every shape and size. It allows the artists to work with a variety of models and gives others a chance to gain modelling experience or just take the plunge once to see how they feel about themselves in front of a group of people whose main purpose is to draw their bodies, which is very different from gawking at someone’s nudity. Most models walk away from the experience feeling accepted, empowered, and just plain surprised how much more difficult it was thinking about doing it than actually doing it.”
But it’s not always about drawing for Colette and Paul: sometimes they have to do the posing when the scheduled models cancel at the last minute.
About eight to 14 artists attend each workshop at the Belgo Building in Montreal, paying a nominal $5 entrance fee that helps to cover the cost of the room rental.
Says Colette: “The artists are men and women of different ages, some are art students, but most are not, both French and English. Some come every week, others only once in awhile. A few are professional artists practising their skills, but most are amateurs who come for the pleasure of drawing the human form. We advertise by posting our little homemade flyers around college and university campuses and in art stores… the rest is word of mouth. A newly practising sexologist who challenged himself to pose for our group sometimes suggests the experience to some of his clients who have body image issues.”
But it’s not all about art for the artists. For some, it is also about personal body acceptance. I asked Colette why the artists don’t remove their clothes, too.
“If we were a naturist organization running the workshop, we would certainly consider inviting the artists to be nude as well,” Colette says.
“I think it’s important to let everyone explore at their own pace, and many people are just not ready for naturism, so our invitation, to artists AND non-artists, is simply to draw the body, to observe different bodies, to contemplate them over a three-hour period of sketching. Although it’s invisible, the power of art and the new perspectives drawing brings are inestimable. As opposed to a naturist activity, for the artists, something subtle shifts in the way they’re seeing the body rather than in the way they’re being seen… it’s a safer way to begin the process, perhaps, than taking the plunge and standing up front (modeling).
“It also happens quite often that after drawing for several sessions, people on the artist-side of the equation decide to take the plunge and request to be the model for a future session.”
I must confess that I was careful about what I ate in the two weeks leading up to my modeling session. Not that it made much of a difference: I was not transformed into Snow White by cutting sweets from my diet. Yes, I suppose there is a contradiction: I knew the artists would accept me no matter my size or appearance, but I wanted to try to look my best, anyhow.
I looked forward to the session, and I did some research on nude poses. There are four basic poses – standing, sitting, reclining and semi-reclining – and I was expected to do variations on each of them. There would be about 20 poses in all over a three-hour period, ranging from short ones at 3 minutes and 5 minutes apiece to 10-minute and 20-minute poses.
Colette suggested I not plan any poses in advance, and just “wing it” during the session. But I wanted to have some planned poses, so I researched some of the classical poses on an art school site, and decided to use a few of them. I also wanted to add a modern touch to some poses, reflecting our obsession with cellphones and texting and laptops – and even the digital camera, with me taking a picture of the artists while they sketched me.
Among my other props: an Irish whistle for a cross-legged pose, an apple for my version of Eve, and sunglasses and spiky platform sandals for a few “glamor girl” poses . . .
Yes, I planned to have fun with this, because one can do that in these workshops. The model is given free rein – or free reign, if you will, unlike other workshops where nude models are told which positions to take. You can be as creative as you like, and there really isn’t a wrong pose, because the artists will sketch you in any position you take.
The time finally arrived for my nude modeling debut, and there was not a butterfly to be felt in my tummy. I credit my experiences in social nudism settings with the Ottawa Naturists for that – I have no inhibitions about showing my naked body, even in a room full of clothed strangers where I am the only nude person.
To digress for a paragraph: Perhaps I am a bit of an exhibitionist – and that could be the subject of a post by itself. But I think anyone who wants to do any sort of modeling, clothed or not, is an exhibitionist to a certain degree, as are most performers and anyone – female and male – who adds a bit of sex appeal to their daily attire. Yes, indeed, the world is a stage, and we are all performers . . .
The studio itself, which is often used for dance rehearsals, has a large mirror leaning against the wall, perfect for the artists who could get different perspectives from my poses. There were about 14 artists seated on folding chairs in a semi-circle before me. A mat, blanket and cushions were laid out on the floor in front of the mirror for me, and there was also a folding chair. It was warm and comfortable.
Paul Davidson led the workshop, indicating the time limit for each pose and setting a timer.
I undressed behind a curtain in one corner of the room, and stepped out confidently.
Behold . . . la Jillian . . .
We started with a series of three-minute poses, to get warmed up. I decided to go with a planned full-length position for the first one – standing in aforementioned spiky heels with arms stretched above my head, fingertips touching — to show the full scope of my body. The next pose was the opposite: I crouched in a ball to show just how little I could be. That wasn’t a planned pose – the idea for it came to me while I was doing the first pose. In fact, many of my pose ideas during the session were conceived while I was staring into space above and beyond the artists in preceding poses.
Next, barefoot, I sequed into a praying position . . . Jillian before the altar.
Indeed, moving smoothly and quickly between poses was expected of me in this workshop. Which had some disadvantages: there was no time to second-guess my poses – and there are a few I will not repeat when I do more sessions with this group. And I wish I had been a little more expressive with my hands; again, next time.
I had no trouble holding any of my poses. The most difficult was, perhaps, a 20-minute “glamor girl” pose, which you can see depicted very well by Colette in the drawing at the end of this post. But I came out of the session thinking I could maintain poses for much longer than 20 minutes, and that I would be open to doing some commercial model posing – this workshop was voluntary — if the opportunity ever arose.
The last pose I did – for five minutes — was deliberately the most provocative one. I’ve been second-guessing myself since, thinking the next time I do this, I will end with a meditational position or something more graceful. But I wanted to pay tribute to my rock ‘n’ roll influences, and to two of the people who have particularly inspired me not so much with their music but with their defiance of convention. I thought about what Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin might have done to end a session like this one. So, sitting on a chair with body facing the artists, I spread my spiky-heeled legs wide open and looked over my shoulder out the window, defiantly . . .
Riders on the storm . . .
When the session was finished, the artists applauded me. It was one of several rounds of applause they gave me throughout the event. They were very appreciative. Some gave me copies of sketches — I have posted some of them here in a separate gallery. I also took photos of some of the sketches they didn’t want to part with, and have included some of them in the gallery. I am touched by the idea that some artists have sketches of me . . . will they one day be hanging in the National Gallery of Canada?
I am grateful for the experience, and empowered by it. In short, it was a blast! I’ve promised to return, if they will have me.
Yes, a model is born . . .
If you are in the Montreal area and are interested in nude modeling for this workshop or would like to attend as an artist, please feel free to contact Colette Coughlin at email@example.com
A gallery of images from my session has been added. Look for them at the top of the page, or click on this link.