In the first or second class, we had our first live model. I knew the class was going to have live models, because there was a modelling fee to take the class. When the students walked in, she was talking to the teacher and wearing a bathrobe. I thought, "is she going to ...?"
Then class started, and she disrobed to pose.
No one had told me the class was going to have nude models. Which made sense, because the class had no prerequisites and I'm sure no one in the art department wanted students to enroll just so they could spend three hours a week ogling naked women and getting course credit for it. ("College really is awesome!")
The thought that we might have nude models had crossed my mind, but not very seriously. The actuality floored me.
We were all very mature about it. No one tittered, or joked, or ogled, or indeed made any acknowledgement whatsoever that there was anything remotely unusual about this at all. We sat and we drew and when we stared, it was in the same way that we stared at still life subjects.
But in my mind, it did not feel at all like drawing a still life subject.
It wasn't erotic. In fact, back then I thought I was straight -- there were only four people I'd ever been sexually attracted to and all of them were male.
Yet it was intimate. I felt humbled, honored, priveleged, amazed. Aware that this wasn't normal, but that a specific set of circumstances had arisen that allowed us to say that it was acceptable and appropriate.
I thought she was beautiful.
She was beautiful, with coffee-and-cream skin and supple muscles that showed in the subtle shadows and highlights on her body. I remember watching the teacher draw her face and thinking "you're doing a terrible job of it, she's so much more beautiful than that."
Yet she wasn't that beautiful. But she was my first model and I wanted to repay that trust by drawing her well, by capturing that sense of wonder and amazement and beauty in my simple charcoal renderings. I tried very hard to capture what I saw, which was light and shadow and curve and line and awe.
The awe was not the least important part.
She wasn't the only model we had over the course of the semester, but she came for several more classes. We had seven or eight different models. Four or five were lovely young women, two athletic and fit, the others merely slim. The ones with muscle were more interesting to draw, more complex. Two were young men who only came once each: reasonably attractive but not strikingly handsome. One was a sixty-ish man; I remember cringing inwardly when he disrobed. I wonder now if it would still bother me, or if I am old enough now not to care that his body was not young and slim like all the others.
We did not discuss in class that the models were nude, but I talked about it with my friends. One of the things that amazed me about drawing from models was that I could do so much better with a live reference. A photograph is better than nothing, but a photo doesn't capture all the nuances that you can get from a live model.
A funny thing happened then: my friends started volunteering to pose for me. Nude.
I only asked one of them, a female friend I'd known for a year or two. She was happy to model, first clothed and later nude.
After that, I didn't have to ask anyone: they all offered. And because then as now almost all of my friends were male, everyone who offered was male. Over the course of a couple of years, I had five different male friends who posed live for me at one time or another. A couple of them were artists themselves.
I never posed in return. I can't, now, remember why -- whether I never offered, or whether I offered but no one took me up on it.
But I remember a magic to it that I can't describe. It was neat. To be trusted. To be breaking this taboo that wasn't really a taboo, not in this circumstance.
But that was still what made it special: that the taboo existed. If I lived in a country of nudists, drawing nudes would still be just as artistically challenging and interesting. But it would no longer be an act of the same intimacy, not with the same intensity.
Sometimes I think that is half the point to certain taboos. Not because violating the taboo is bad, in itself. But because breaking it ought to have weight, ought to be made special and magical.
Not to make sure that the taboo is always maintained, but to make sure that when it is, the wonder and awe of it is appreciated. Is making it taboo in the first place the only way to be sure of that? I don't know.