September 4, 2017
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Sitting completely still is not as much of a difficulty as I had imagined. If you told my mother that I said that, she would not believe a word. According to her, I was a very fidgety child, and neither of my brothers or I could be counted on to stay in place for more than a few seconds. “Rambunctious” was the term she applied to us, which was a nicer way of saying “unruly” or “very naughty”. At any rate, sitting quietly was apparently beyond my abilities when I was a child.
In my quest to experience life to the fullest, I look for new challenges wherever they appear. Obviously, some of them are more scary than others, and I’m not always ready to accept them. My fears of heights, spiders, and looking stupid continue to confront me at times. I have overcome them somewhat, however. I have stood in the glass boxes hanging out over the sidewalk along Wacker Drive from the 103rd floor of the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago. It only took me three attempts on different visits to the observation deck to actually make that step. I allow some small spiders to inhabit my shower here in Thailand. I made an agreement with them that if they stay put, don’t invade my space or start crawling around while I bathe, I’ll let them have their homes and their lives. The large Huntsman spiders have not signed an agreement, however, and they continue to die as soon as I see them. As far as my self-consciousness goes, I no longer have to be drunk to get up and sing karaoke. I will dance in public. I’m hoping to get an opportunity for open mic night or some improv classes.
As I’ve said before, when presented an opportunity to try something new, I will say “yes” unless there is a good reason to say “no”. (Morbid fear still is a good reason sometimes.) Last week, there was an invitation on a local Facebook page looking for a nude model for a drawing/painting class here in the area. More specifically, they were looking for a “fat, nude model”. I was a little torn. I have always been on the heavy side for my entire adult life. And I’ve always been self-conscious about that fact. I seldom like my photographs, as they remind me that I’m not the muscular, trim, Fabio as I imagine myself. But I was intrigued by the challenge of being completely vulnerable in front of a group of strangers, so I didn’t allow myself to ponder over the “fat” part of the request, and I made the decision to reply to the message right away. Within a few hours I received a message from the woman who ran the studio. She told me that they were excited to be able to work with a live model (apparently, it’s a bit difficult to find people here who are willing to pose sans clothing), and that she would call me on Thursday to confirm. They were looking for someone who was heavy – at least 80kg (I’m a bit over 100kg) – and could spend the day Saturday sitting in one position for periods of time while the artists sketched, or used watercolors and oil paint to render a copy of a less-than-perfect figure.
I spent the next two days wondering if she was going to call me and tell me that I was chosen, or was going to let me off the hook. Part of me was kind of hoping for the latter, but honestly, I really wanted to have the experience. I visited the studio’s Facebook page, where they were inviting artists to join them for the event with the “fat, nude model”. The photographs of the paintings they used to advertise this made me wonder if I was actually what they were looking for. The models in these paintings were morbidly obese. I now found myself wondering if they would be disappointed in me. Maybe they would feel cheated that I wasn’t as big as they had hoped for. I had to laugh at the irony of worrying about being fat enough for the artists. On Thursday, I got the call from Pui, the woman who ran the studio. She told me that she would pick me up at 8:30 near the North Gate in Chiang Mai, and take me to the studio 20km away from the city. I would be paid a minimum of 700baht (a little over $20US), provided with lunch and snacks, and given stretch breaks throughout the day. The modeling would begin about 10am, and finish at 4:30, after which I would be taken back to the city.
Saturday morning came early as I was out late the previous night. I got up and showered, dressed, and packed my bag. As I rode into town, I began to wonder why exactly I had agreed to do this. I pushed the negative thoughts out of my mind and just focused on money (which made me wonder if that’s what prostitutes do) and the fact that I would hopefully have a cool story to write. After eating a quick breakfast of khao man gai (chicken with rice), I walked to the meeting spot at the North Gate. Pui was there waiting for me, along with another woman who was one of the artists. She then said that the rest of the group was joining us, and sure enough, four more people walked up. Pui was driving her pickup truck, which meant that we had four in the cab, and three others reclining in the bed with the art supplies and groceries. As I greeted each one in turn, I tried to not think about the fact that these people were paying to have me strip off my clothes and let them render my figure to paper/canvas. It was a little bit weird for me. But everyone was nice, and they didn’t seem to treat me as the object that I felt like.
There were two guys in the group. Lorenzo, from Italy, was a tall, thin, young man with long hair and a beard. Gio, shorter and stockier, was very dark-skinned, and I thought he might have been from India, but his accent said different, and he told me that he was Australian (although his heritage is Indian). One young woman from the UK had brought along her mother. Mia, and her mom (whose name escapes me) are both involved in NGO work to help developing countries. Hannah, the remaining girl grew up in Chiang Mai. She said that she was half native, which explained her fluent Thai speech. It was an amiable group, and I found myself relaxed in their presence, pushing to the back of my mind the reason why I was there with them. As we drove further away from the city, and into the wilderness, I realized that there was no turning back at this point. I was committed.
Pui’s place was a family farm, with groves of mango, papaya, and banana trees growing on the foothills of the mountain. Pretty remote, and very beautiful. As we were driving up the rutted little dirt lane, I started thinking that this would be a good place to hide bodies. She and her parents had a homestay (guesthouse) on the premises and she had also built an open-air art studio out of mud and timbers, all by herself. After some light refreshments, we trekked out over a couple of hills to the studio.
Ten o’clock came, and the group had their easels all set up and their pencils/brushes/palettes all arranged. Hannah was on the couch (cut out of an old bathtub) where I would be sitting, trying out different poses that would suit the artists and be comfortable for me. I settled on one that looked like I could easily maintain for a length of time, and then it was the big moment. I took a deep breath and walked around the corner to undress. Thankfully, Pui had provided me a towel in which to wrap myself while I was naked, but not yet posing. Ready-or-not, here I come. I stepped out into the main room, dropped my towel, and sat down in the pose. Six people were looking at me intently, sizing me up, checking from different angles. Lorenzo asked if I would take off my glasses, which actually helped, because with my near-sightedness, I couldn’t really see their eyes. I picked a spot on the wall across from the couch on which to focus my attention. Hannah set a timer for 20 minutes, and then the work began.
As I sat there without a stitch on in front of these people, I began to take stock of my life thus far. I watched the blurry shapes in my peripheral vision move slightly – looking at me, looking at the easel, back to me, back to the easel-, heard the strokes of the pencils against paper, brushes on canvas, and I thought of all of the other crazy things I’ve done in my 49 years. When I was four, I ran ahead of my father on the pier, began climbing the lighthouse structure, and promptly lost my grip and fell onto the rocks, garnering a nice concussion (and probably my acrophobia) in the process. As teenagers, my friends and I used to regularly take inner tubes down the Chipola River in Florida, floating past snakes and alligators sunning themselves on the riverbanks. I’ve given speeches and presentations in front of crowds of hundreds or thousands. I quit my steady job with a good income and sold everything to move across the world to a place unfamiliar to me in both customs and language. Right before I made that plunge, I visited BDSM dungeons, went to a party as an enslaved man, rode through the streets of Chicago naked with a bunch of other bare-assed people. I tried illicit substances for the first time in my life. I often buy airline tickets on a whim to destinations without having any plans. But posing in the nude was one of the nuttiest things I ever did. I tried to imagine what my former coworkers would think if they knew.
The chime on Hannah’s phone caught me by surprise. Twenty minutes had gone by very quickly, and she asked if I needed a break. I told the group that I was good for another five minutes if they wanted. My ankle had started to ache from the position, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t tough it out for a bit longer. After the five minutes was up, I sat motionless while Hannah used strips of masking tape to mark the positions of my feet, body, and arm. I then grabbed a small piece of tape and placed it on my focus spot on the wall. I wrapped myself in the towel to walk around, as I felt it uncomfortable to be standing around talking while I was exposed. It was at this point, when I glanced at the sketches and rough outlines that the artists were doing, that I realized my mistake in choosing the pose in which I ended up. The pictures of me -relaxed on the couch, one foot in front of the other, one arm draped over the back, the other resting on my belly/leg with my hand over my thigh- looked like a pervert Netflix-and-chilling all by his lonesome. I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my God! That guy is sitting there pleasuring himself, and he’s ME!” Way too late to change the pose now. (Fortunately, Hannah didn’t really like it either, so she took a creative liberty and moved my hand to my side instead of in my crotch area.) After about a five-minute break, I went back and sat down, posing for another 25 minutes.
We stopped for lunch at noon, and took a 90-minute break. Pui made some delicious pad thai, and I enjoyed a couple of helpings. I had put my clothes back on for this, of course, because eating naked is just too weird. After we returned to the studio, Mia began to play some 70’s music from her Spotify account. At first, it was amusing, because trying to be completely motionless while you are listening to “Stayin’ Alive”, “Play That Funky Music”, or anything by James Brown, is almost impossible. There was also an uncomfortable minute or two when some French musical duet came on. I couldn’t understand the words, but I definitely knew that the guy was trying to seduce the girl – and winning at it, too -because the moaning, heavy breathing, and grunting that was going on as well as the singing made it perfectly clear what was happening. I never stared at a point on a wall with more earnest focus in my life. I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t play that on purpose. Bitch. (Kidding!) But as much as I enjoyed the other tunes, they were problematic for me, because they gave me a sense of time. Now, sitting for 20 minutes was four songs, or maybe five. Or perhaps a sixth would begin, because we started in the middle of another. And because my back and my butt were really beginning to feel the strain of sitting (it wasn’t a cushy recliner, after all), I started to count songs and the time became my focus. Fortunately, Mia finished up her painting early, and decided she was too hot sitting in the studio. She packed up her materials and took her Blue-tooth speaker with her to the main house.
When 4:30 came, I was more than ready to quit. I put my shorts and t-shirt back on, grabbed the blanket and cushions, and headed back to the house with the remaining artists. We all enjoyed some more food and drinks. They had already asked me if this was my first time posing as a model. Lorenzo mentioned that many models have a very difficult time being completely still, and they were very impressed that I sat like a statue. Pui asked if I would be interested in sitting for other studios in the future, because of the shortage of people willing to pose in the nude. She also handed me an envelope containing 1,000baht, which was considerably more than I was promised. Additionally, they gave me one of the drawings. A very nice gesture, but I promise you, it’s not going up on my wall.
Would I pose in the nude again for the sake of art? I thought about it while I was sitting there, and the conclusion I came to was probably not. Being stationary in the same pose for that long got to be tiring. I wasn’t doing it because I needed the money. I wasn’t doing it because I knew that the artists needed me. The main reason I did it was because it was a new experience. Something that wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list, but came up and I was able to add it and cross it off. It was an interesting thing to do, and challenged my sensibilities. And it also provided me with something to write about.