On a Monday evening I ring the doorbell to the Arts Underground studio. No one answers.
As I wait I begin to feel nervous and awkward. Have I come to the wrong place? I double-check the instructions.
A moment later a truck pulls up and a woman around my age jumps out of one side, an older white haired man exits from the other. They open the back and start pulling out easels, big pads of paper, and boxes of drawing supplies. I must be in the right place.
Finally Neil Graham, the artist who runs the monthly life drawing sessions, arrives to open the door for us. He leads us all down to the basement.
Without much talking everyone begins to set up, pushing old paint-splattered tables out of the way to clear floor space, pulling easels from where they stand stacked against a wall, assembling a small wooden platform in the center of the room. Neil shows me to the washroom so I can change.
Alone, I take off my clothes and stand in front of the mirror hanging above the sink. I strike a few quick poses, trying to remember the ones I’d practiced at home. I throw a giant sweater over my head, slip my bare feet into the slippers I brought, and head back out. Two more men have arrived, bringing my audience up to five. Everyone is ready at their drawing pads, with pencils. Waiting.
There is nothing left to do but take off my sweater, kick away my slippers, and step — naked — onto the platform.
I hesitate. The days leading up to this moment have been filled with dread — partially because the thought of taking my clothes off in a room of strangers has made me want to crawl under my blankets where no one can see me, and partially because I have never modeled before and I am afraid of doing a bad job.
I’m not just getting naked; I’m spending the next two hours twisting my naked body into as many compelling shapes as I can imagine, while a group of artists draw me.
But then I recognize the feeling: it’s that same self-enforced pressure to be good at something before even trying it, the one that has kept me from doing things, kept me forever a beginner due to my fear of not already being an expert.
I decide to fess up. “Just so everyone knows, I have to take a photograph of this,” I begin. “Preferably not of me naked, as it has to go in the paper…because I’m writing a column about trying things that scare me. And this is defi nitely one of them.”
Just like that, the cat’s out of the bag. I, Joslyn Patricia Kilborn, am a first-time nude model. And suddenly that feels okay.
What follows is a very awkward moment where everyone in the room diverts their eyes as I slowly pull my sweater over my head. What follows that is an incredibly fun and nourishing two hours.
The moment before taking my clothes off is terrible. But as soon as they’re off, they might as well still be on. My nudity feels inconceivably normal, with a few exceptions — during the first few poses I can feel rivulets of nervous sweat making slow trails down my torso. I can’t do anything but let it happen and wonder whether the artists are close enough to notice. And though I’ve showered only hours earlier, I feel very aware of the smell of my own body.
But I quickly find that I really, really enjoy posing. I start with one-minute poses, working my way up to 15 minutes. I spend my time during each pose practicing my breathing, slightly shifting my weight around as different parts of my body begin to hurt, and planning how I’ll pose next. It’s physically demanding, it’s creative, and — it’s paid.
During a break the artists share their work with each other. There’s a theme to the words that get thrown around as they flip through their sketches of my body. They say, “I’m rusty”, “haven’t been here in a while”, “that last pose really threw me”.
They sound as nervous to share their drawings as I was to pose for them.