One of the most frequent dreams is that of being naked with a bunch of onlookers around. It isn’t the worst of nightmares, but it is usually regarded as unpleasant. But Kathleen Rooney would not find it so. She’s not an exhibitionist, or at least she does not get off sexually by showing herself naked to strangers. She isn’t a burlesque performer, but does get money by her nakedness. Among her other jobs (she is a published author and poet, and she teaches creative writing) she is an artist’s model. It’s a way of making a living that has its peculiarities, and in Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (University of Arkansas Press), Rooney has told us all about it. It is a personally revealing book of essays on her occupation, a memoir, and a scholarly inquiry into the history and sociology of modeling. It is, as you’d expect, poetic on many pages, but it is also funny, the work of an amused and alert writer who has a point of observation on the model’s stand that is unique and is seldom so deeply considered as Rooney has done.
She loves art, and while she does not make paintings or sculpture herself, she wanted to be around such objects. In her senior year in college, she was able to get a job at a museum gift shop in Washington D.C. She was subject to her bosses’ harassment: she was explicitly told she was hired for her looks, asked out for dates, squeezed in the cramped spaces behind the registers, interrogated about her sex life, and so on. And she would not “perform essential duties”. With unemployment looming, she replied to a “Be Part of Art!” ad for nude models at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “Being looked at and not touched or harassed sounded fine,” she says, and makes this sort of point many times in her book: “I feel safer from sexual predation in the art studio than I do when I am walking down the street.” Showing up for her first session, she thought of her former boss “… that jerk, and how I was tired of being a chicken, and I swooped the plaid cotton off my narrow shoulders and let it go. No turning back.”
She was surprised when no one gasped, recoiled, or laughed. The students at their easels were concentrating intently, but not with any criticism. She quickly settled in, improvising a pose she had seen in painting or sculpture, changing to another when the timer went off. Working as a model helped pay the bills: “The wages are generous, but in three hour increments here and there; the work is irregular and it’s tough to cobble together a traditional forty-hour-a-week schedule.” It was about twice as much per hour as she could earn in retail. Yes, she was in it for the money, but throughout the book she stresses her collaborations with artists who have turned her into paintings, sculpture, or photographs. In group sessions, she likes the thrill of “this combination of my naked vulnerability with the impossibility of my actually being touched.” Her best sessions are with individual artists she has gotten to know as friends, and there seem to be many of these. With men, there is an erotic tension within the friendship, but there has not been sex. With women, there is a sisterly feeling. “The relationship was thrilling, but always unfulfilled, and in a way that removes the pressure of a more conventional relationship. You will never sleep with or fully get to know or completely get tired of the other party, and so the relationship, though it may end, will never be really messed up. It can stay perfect, special forever.” She likes the ambivalence of nudity; prisoners or patients can have nudity imposed on them from those in power, but powerlessness is not what she feels as she models: “… as a model, you will always be safe, because you are protected, clad in your nudity; because you have power.” Each session also produces a permanent memento, especially in sculpture: “I will age, dimpling like a plucked turkey, rumpling like a punching bag. But I have left a little fossil record of my body through the years, a string of former selves, silly and brave.”
It might not seem like doing nothing naked would be much of a challenge, but Rooney’s book is excellent in explaining just how much work there is to it. Try keeping completely still yourself for twenty minutes, she asks. It’s much harder if you are standing; she has seen a model collapse while doing a standing pose (don’t lock your knees is the lesson). If you want to take a dramatic stand, do it, but if you put your hands above heart level for more than five minutes they will go numb, and breathing might even be affected. Foam wedges beneath the feet might help maintain an angle to depict agony, and pulleys and pillows also come into play. Sculptors are particularly intrusive, “… with the sculptors continually approaching the model stand to rotate you slightly so they can get a better angle, like you’re on the world’s slowest and most boring Teacup Ride. They clip you gently in their calipers, and use your limbs to steady their plumb bobs, dropping lines from your elbows, nose, and knees.” It is typical to do twenty minutes of posing alternating with five minute breaks. She loves the routine: “I am Type A to a fault. I am a planner, an anticipator, a worst-case-scenario impresario, and to me, the dependable structure of a drawing session delights my micromanagerial heart.” She reads during the breaks, stocking up on things to think about (you will find in this book references to Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Voltaire, and even Dale Carnegie), for she does much serious thinking on the stand: “Posing helps me to think, helps me to write, and is virtually the only time when I hold still and walk meditatively around the landscape of my mind; otherwise I tend to be fidgety, multitasking, preoccupied beyond compare.”
It is not surprising that photography presents the most disturbing sessions. In part, this is due to the unforgiving gaze of the camera which records for the photographer in a way that paint or clay cannot. It is hard to look good in photos. Any lines might show up, and so when she goes to one particular photo session, she describes traveling there in just her raincoat, no socks and no underwear. Traces of pressure from these might ruin a nude shoot. The creepiest session she describes is with a photographer, someone who paid well for a private session and had a mild kink of photographing small glass figurines on her private parts. It was a one-off session. She was accompanied to it by her fiancée, but all three of them knew it would be too weird to have the fiancée there for the shoot, so he went off for an hour’s coffee. “He was not a serious fine arts photographer interested in cultivating a collaborative artist-model relationship,” Rooney writes of her client; “he was an upper-middle-class amateur with money to burn, interested in burning it by taking as many nude photographs of as many young women as possible.” He was also more Woody Allen than David Hemmings (the photographer in Blow Up).
Rooney admits, “I haven’t made any single Big Self-Discovery or arrived at any exclusive Life-Changing Knowledge over the course of my art modeling career.” She certainly hasn’t provided enough justification for her mother to accept her modeling, and her failing attempts to cultivate maternal understanding are very funny. Readers won’t be so judgmental. Rooney has succeeded in describing a career most of us wouldn’t consider for a second, and demonstrating that it has been for her a process of discovering herself and discovering others. I only wish she had included some pictures of what those others, those artists, had made of her, but by the close of the book I felt thankful for all the exposure she has given.
© 2009 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.