When I saw Chris stroll up to the entrance of Caffe Strada, I felt, in a way, as though I already knew him. I had already seen his slight — but well-built — naked figure, courtesy of my friend’s sketches of him for her figure drawing class. Chris, who prefers to be identified solely by his first name, is a figure model, meaning that a couple nights a week he strips bare for art students in academic settings, casual drawing groups and professional artists. He’s modeled for a variety of mediums, including sculpture, drawing and painting. We sat down to chat about getting into this particular modeling business and the nature of being scrutinized by the artistic eye.
DC : How did you get into figure modeling? Was there an ad?
Chris: No, no. It was an accident actually. I was at the gym in San Francisco and a friend of mine and I saw an advertisement for extras for the opera called Aida. I was a chariot rider. I looked like Yul Brynner from “The Ten Commandments.” Anyway, one of the other cast members was an artist and he asked me if I had ever done any figuring modeling. I hadn’t and he goes, “Well I’m with a figure drawing group in San Francisco and I’d like to hire you.” I had never done this before! And he said, “Oh Chris, it’s not a big deal. It’s an all-men’s group so you’ll be comfortable with them and it’s in my home.” So that was my first experience.
It’s sort of like word of mouth ‘cause there’s lots of drawing groups in San Francisco and the Bay Area in general. So then I joined in 1999 the Bay Area Models Guild. And then I just started modeling all over the place because they would get you jobs, because they were all connected much better than I am. And I would get jobs over here (Berkeley) … University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, different drawing groups.
DC: Ah, so you were in demand?
C: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. ‘Cause you know, I’m a very nervous person and when you model, once you finish the short poses, you’re just sitting there. So you’re sort of zenning out or meditating. And you sort of just zone out, which is nice. I like it.
DC: What goes through your mind when you have to hold a really long pose?
C: Sometimes I think about what I need to do, like my to-do list. And I’ll think about my mother or people that I care about. How they are doing. My mother lives in Maryland, so she’s pretty far away. It’s amazing how quickly the time goes. And you sort of get used to the time. I’ll look down at the clock and I’ll say to myself — like in a 10-minute pose — I bet we’re down to six minutes and I’ll look down and it’ll be six minutes. And what I always do as a courtesy is, like for the longer poses, I always give people a notice. Like, when we get down to the last minute I’ll just say, “We have one minute remaining.” Because then (the artists) can finish up an arm or whatever they’re doing.
DC: So when you’re in this modeling class, you can interact with the artists?
C: Oh, well that depends. They never ever tell you not to interact with the artists. Usually in a formal classroom setting, the instructor talks a lot during the break and he or she is walking around looking at everyone’s drawing. And sometimes I’ll walk around just to see what they have drawn and if I like something, I let (the artist) know. But if it’s a more relaxed setting, like a drop-in group, then it’s much more interactive. I don’t have to worry about the teacher walking around. It’s pretty relaxed.
DC: Who chooses the poses? Can the artists request a pose? Can you refuse a pose?
C: I’ve never refused to do a pose. But sometimes they’ll ask for a horizontal pose or a pose with a lot of negative space. They won’t tell me exactly what to do. The only time I get any critique is when I’m doing a long pose, like a 20-minute pose, and they say, “Chris, can you do that again for another 20 minutes?” Well, sure. I have tape with me all the time. So I tape myself and then when I get back into the pose, of course I have to ask the students if I’m right.
DC: Oh, so you tape what parts of your body are hitting the ground?
C: And some instructors actually tape my shadow. So when I get back into the pose, I’ve got to be in that shadow and they’ll know if I’m in the right spot. And usually what I do is I’ll get a bullseye when I’m sitting for a long pose and I’ll just look at that one spot. And when I get back to the pose, I’m looking at that same spot. I’m pretty good about getting back into a pose. If they request a long pose at the very beginning, I’ll get one that I know I can get back into easily. And what I learned early on is you learn what you can hold for five minutes versus 10 minutes versus 20 minutes. I’ve never gotten out of a pose, but I’ve learned through trial and error what I can hold for a long period of time and what I can hold for a shorter period of time.
DC: Do you have a favorite art medium you like to pose for?
C: Sculpture takes a lot more time. You can be in that same pose for six or eight weeks. That’s two months of your time. It’s much more of a bigger commitment. But … I can see what they are doing. With a drawing you can’t always see it, but with a sculpture it’s right there. But I can’t really say I have a favorite medium. There’s pastel and watercolor and acrylic and charcoal and graphite.
DC: When you look at a sketch of yourself, do the artists see your body differently than you do? Has your image of what your physical body looks like changed over time because of this?
C: I think it has. One thing I’ve noticed, just as a little off the side, when people do portraits it’s amazing how many times I’ll look at their portrait of me and I see me but I also see their face in it too. That’s interesting.
DC: Do you tell people that you are a figure model?
C: I’m careful — I’ll just say that. My close friends know. My family doesn’t know. I don’t blame them because it is kind of out there. Of course, the art community knows. You see, my father was an artist. I found his drawings in the attic. Beautiful pastels and nudes. So I had a little exposure through him. My partner’s family doesn’t know at all and I don’t want them to.
DC: What is it like going to a museum? Do you ever feel a sort of kinship with the figures?
C: Some of these paintings that were made centuries ago and it’s like how did that person hold that pose? Or how did they get all these people in one painting? What’s the guy’s name who’s French … ?
C: Rodin. I mean those sculptures … you have to hold that for a long period of time.
DC: You would know!
C: Yeah, and I have an appreciation for that. I also listen when the teacher is talking (in class) and I’ve learned a lot about art. So when I go to a museum, I do have more appreciation just because I know it’s not easy.