Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Nun Walks into the Room

     OK, so I'm lying there naked, and a nun comes into the room. No, not a dream. No, not a hospital. It's reality, and no one expects me to do anything but remain naked. It's Chestnut Hill College, a Catholic women's school in a suburb of Philadelphia, one of two Catholic women's schools in Philly where I get paid to be naked. (I learn later that Chestnut Hill went co-ed a decade after my experience there.) I'm the model, twice a week, for six weeks, for a class of young women. 
     Terry, the teacher, had the pose thought out before my arrival, and she informs me we have to reconstruct the whole works each time, since other classes use this studio. We push two heavy tables together, and Terry brings out some cushions and drapery. She makes a big production of arranging cushions and drapery, ending up with a black velvety material under my upper body and a silky dark blue fabric from approximately my waist on down. I'm on my side, right leg drawn up slightly, my head cradles on my right arm. 
     St Joseph's Hall, where all of this takes place, is a beautiful stone building with a rotunda open all the way up - 5 or 6 stories. It stands on a hilltop overlooking the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. (On one trip here, I see three deer nearby, on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek.) To reach the studio where I get naked, I ride an ancient elevator, which must be as old as this lovely building. Terry is careful about covering the single pane of glass in the wooden door of the studio, and does what she can about a bank of windows at the same end of the room that are not completely blocked by a number of storage units. Did anyone try to peek in during my naked time there? I have no idea. 
     The pose for this class is a lazy one, though my right arm often goes to sleep. I generally hold this pose for 30 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. Sometimes, I double up, posing for a full hour before I take a break. During this pose, I still have an evening telemarketing job in Wilmington, Delaware, commuting from one job to the other by motorcycle. The security guard at Chestnut Hill is kind, providing a "Staff" parking permit for my bike, so I can park relatively close to St Joseph's Hall. 
     As I lie in my classic pose, I find myself caught up in counting seconds. 30 minutes = 1800 seconds. I note what I call a "crossover point" on my digital count-down timer: it reads 1120 for 11 minutes, 20 seconds to go at the same point I reach 1120 seconds counting up to 1800. I later discover that it doesn't work all the time, not for five minutes, or ten, but that for any number of minutes divisible by 8, the "crossover point" is a whole number of minutes, such as 300=5 for 8 minutes, and 1500=25 for 40 minutes. There's one answer to the question I often get: "What do you think about when you're lying/sitting/standing there naked?" 
     Terry is a careful classical oil painter. She has the students do preliminary drawings in charcoal. If they desire, they can transfer a "cartoon" (as the Renaissance fresco painters called it) to their canvas. The students use several different techniques for this. Most spend at least the first week (I pose Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 1:30 - 4:30 pm) on the drawing, though some go into the second week. One student does a finished drawing in oil pastel before moving on to her painting. Terry has them pay close attention to "underpainting," laying the foundation for the shapes of the final picture. 
     Some places I pose, such as Haverford College, take an entirely different approach, offering a given pose for only one three-hour session, stressing a "loose" style of painting. I listen with interest to Terry's advice to each student. She makes rounds regularly, keeping in close touch with each of her charges. Some pigment names I am familiar with - cadmium red or yellow, thalo green, burnt siena and raw umber - but for a while I am stymied by a color she recommends to a number of students for working flesh tones. I can swear she tells them to use "maple jello." It is some time before I figure out that she is really referring to "Naples yellow." Terry gets a chuckle out of it when I tell her about my error. 
     This is a mixed class, though it is all female. There are two seniors, one of whom does her own thing and does not draw or paint me at all. At least two of the students are freshmen, for whom the experience of painting a nude is brand new. To say nothing of that nude's being male. This leads to an amusing episode one day. As I take my break from posing, donning my green silk robe, I note how intently one student is working on her painting. I move softly over to see her work. She does not see me approaching until I am fairly close. Just as I round the corner, she does see me, and suddenly switches her painting task; up until this moment, she has been absorbed with painting my penis, but obviously feels uncomfortable with this part of me while I am watching her paint, so she pretends she was painting my shoulder instead! 
     It is during the fourth week that the nun incident, such as it is, occurs. I have been aware that the department head is a nun, a Sister of St Joseph, but have only had Terry and her students in the studio while I have been posing. She comes in to speak to Terry when I have just started a 30-minute posing segment. She glances at me briefly, but barely acknowledges my existence. She does not smile, but engages Terry in conversation for several minutes, leaving before my next break.

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