“My willy just shrivelled right up.” It takes courage to strip off in front of a room full of people, but life models are baring it all in the name of art. Their funny, surprising and often enriching experiences have given them a new perspective on their own body, and taught them to overcome shyness and shame. Words by Louise Benson
Picture this. You’re naked in a room full of clothed people, who are all staring at you intently. It might sound like a nightmare scenario, but at life drawing classes across the UK, nude models are stripping off for up to 200 participants at a time—all in the name of art. Life drawing, named for the study from life of the human figure, has grown in popularity in recent years, with classes taking place everywhere from nightclub venues like the Village Underground to the Royal Academy and National Gallery, alongside local community centres, schools and adult education centres.
Life drawing encourages creative expression in a sociable atmosphere, where phones are put to one side for a few hours, and classes can offer respite from the distractions of modern life amidst a likeminded community. Life models are increasingly in demand, and teachers will often seek a range of body types for their students to study. Models range from eighteen to upwards of seventy years old. While life modelling is well paid, it is rare to pursue it as a full-time career, and most will work on evenings and weekends.
“When I reached fifty, I was looking to do something that was a bit out of the ordinary,” Sarah Lowndes, now fifty-five, recalls. She posed on Folkestone beach for American photographer Spencer Tunick, best known for his nude mass photographic events. Here she met a number of body painting models and life models, and soon became involved in the community. With their encouragement she began to life model, and has gone on to model regularly at the Mall Galleries in London and the Royal Academy of Arts.
Lowndes has continued her career as a building surveyor while making space for her new passion after-hours. “Fifty is a big landmark in your life, and I have found something that I really love doing. I like seeing the artworks that people produce, I like talking to the artists, I collect all their drawings and put them up on my Instagram. It really gives me a lot back emotionally, and I’ve gone from just working for one group once a fortnight to doing it three or four nights a week. It has really changed my life quite dramatically.”
For Boyko Grigorov, who teaches disabled students to use assisted technology in his day job, his involvement in the scene has had a similarly transformative effect later in life. He is soon to celebrate his seventieth birthday. “It’s a great relaxer and a great way to unwind, I meet great people and I have fun. I don’t see it as work.” Grigorov’s first experience as a life model was in his native Bulgaria as a student during the 1970s. “My then-girlfriend was a student at the art academy, and she got me into it. I had the face of a brave man but it was not easy. It was difficult at the start but I got used to that.”
He resumed modelling in London over thirty years later, working at venues such as the Mall Galleries and the National Gallery. “If you imagine fifty or sixty people turn up on a miserable evening, cold and rainy, after a long day at work, they go onto a room and they spend two or three hours drawing instead of going home and sitting on the sofa. It’s fun for everyone, for the artists and the models.”
Not all models take to the work so instinctively. “It was basically exactly as nerve-racking as you would imagine it,” Angus MacDonald, who had his first experience of life modelling aged nineteen while at university, remembers. “I don’t think I’m any more or less exhibitionist than the average person. When I came in I could tell that the room was really cold, but with a few space heaters pointed at me. My willy just shrivelled right up, and I was like, okay, this is not ideal.” Male life models are less common than their female counterparts, a disparity that can partly be put down to gendered expectations of “male” versus “female” creative pursuits. There is also a residual shyness around depictions of the male nude form, and it only takes a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre to see that the naked female form dominates throughout art history.
“I also get underarm sweat from nerves, so I’m in this dressing gown that’s not mine, my willy’s shrivelled up, and I have this slightly pungent sweat,” MacDonald, now twenty-nine, wryly continues. “Then, before you know it, they’re telling you to take the gown off. And what are you going to do, not take it off?” It did get easier, although he recalls the “reveal moment” as a recurring source of anxiety. “After that, it’s just a case of letting the situation take over. You just zone out; it’s quite meditative. I really remember the scratching of charcoal on paper—it’s like a whisper.”
Original publication 27 January, 2020
Posted on NatCorn 17th March 2021
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