Monday evening at ten of seven, I finish my dinner at Rocky dining hall, walk down Witherspoon Street to the Arts Council of Princeton, and make my way to the theater on the second floor. Minutes later I stand in the center of the room on a podium, naked, with the eyes of a dozen middle-aged strangers trained on me.
“Did you bring a robe?” the supervisor had asked me. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. When I’d thought before about modeling for this figure drawing class, I had been too preoccupied by the nakedness of the thing to really consider clothing. Still, now that he mentioned it, walking up to the platform and dropping a robe had a certain decorum that striding naked from the dressing room lacked. I was already nervous and the last thing I wanted was to worry about doing well. How can you mess up nude modeling? All you do is be.
“Um… I’ll see,” I mumbled, and retreated to the dressing room, and cast about purposelessly for a minute. I emerged holding my grey Patagonia fleece wrapped sideways around my waist, one sleeve hanging down absurdly.
“All right, Mr. Wallack, this will be the first five minute pose”.
Named and nude, with any hope of anonymity dispelled, I placed my jacket by the side of the podium and assumed a pose twisted at the waist settled my gaze on the floor in front of me. It was an unnerving choice for a first pose; unable to move and unable to return their gaze, I felt set upon by the many faces looking at me. While I exercise regularly and generally feel good about my body, this was far more scrutiny than I was used to. From a stereo in the corner, “Clair de Lune” played with maddening tranquility. I felt my face flush with sudden embarrassment.
I think the closest situation most people experience to this is having a physical. Being examined by a doctor makes you oddly vulnerable. You wait passively, sitting nearly naked on a wax paper covered table, and the doctor walks in wearing both clothes and a robe, and proceeds to poke and prod you and place the stethoscope fresh from the refrigerator onto your chest, all the while asking you these pointed questions. Do you maintain a healthy diet? Do you exercise regularly? Do you smoke or drink? This has always struck me as very bad communication.
There was a similar unevenness here, except that instead of one doctor, there was a whole flock of artists encircling me, watching me from every angle. At least there were no questions.
Finally, the bell on the supervisor’s egg timer rang, and I relaxed. Five minutes. There were still nearly three hours left.
But it did get easier. With each pose, I became a little more comfortable on the podium and was able to devote thought to a little more than avoiding eye contact with the artists. Pop culture understands the human body in almost exclusively sexual terms. This is probably pretty unhealthy, and certainly gives us a very narrow notion of what human beauty can be. After getting over my initial nervousness, it was strangely refreshing to experience nakedness in such a matter-of-fact way. This is just me, without sex or shame or aggression.
The artists tossed around the terms “figure drawing class,” and “life drawing class” interchangeably, but I found that the latter is the more fitting of the two. At some essential level, life is motion and tension—an assertion against entropy. Think of a beating heart. It moves through time and space proclaiming: I am here, I am here, I am here. The paradox in the case of a life drawing class is that all this vitality has to be conveyed in stillness: four dimensions flattened onto three. This might not really affect how the artists operate, but to me it was very clear that the tension and motion were still there, manifest internally on the level of tendons and muscle fibers. After twenty minutes in various poses, my crossed legs fell asleep, my raised arms protested, my twisted neck strained. It was a strange version of yoga at a glacial pace to the sound of a dozen scratching pens and pencils.
By second half of the class, I sat on the podium between sets—fleece still wrapped around my waist by instinct—chatting with the artists about school and their jobs and where they’re from.
And then, just as I am again at ease in my own skin, it is ten o’clock and the class is over. Having sat and stood through the hours of stillness and slowness, I step off the platform and go back to the dressing room. I reemerge to say goodbye to the supervisor who stays back, putting away easels and rearranging the theater for the next day’s events. I walk back up Witherspoon and through the Fitz-Randolph gates onto campus, a fully clothed college student.