In a few minutes, Yoni Baker is going to take off all his clothes.
I will see him naked. I know it. He knows it. The camaraderie we established in the past hour over coffee has been replaced by an awkward silence as we walk across the parking lot of the Art Institute in Mission Valley. At the school’s entrance, he holds the door open for me, presents me to security, and leads me up the stairs to the classroom where, momentarily, I will see his bare bottom and his penis. We have known each other for two hours.
Fifteen or so students, all of whom look between 17 and 23 years old, straddle wooden art-horse benches, sketchpads open and propped on a vertical board in front of them. There are holes in the knees of their jeans. Some sit quietly, doodling or playing with smartphones. Some chat with their neighbors. A few are just getting settled. Almost all look up when we enter. Dzu Nguyen, the drawing and anatomy instructor, a young guy with a ponytail, jeans, and Vans, also looks up from the podium at the back. He greets Baker by his first name.
The scent of something beefy and garlicky follows us into the room, a reminder that the culinary programs share this building with art, fashion, and design. I sit at a table off to one side while Baker disappears into a back room with his duffle bag.
Etiquette, he has explained, requires that he undress out of sight.
A few minutes later, while Nguyen takes roll call, Baker emerges from the back room wearing a dark-blue robe that reaches down past his knees. He sits on a chair against the far wall and does not look in my direction.
The blinds on the windows have been drawn. At the front of the room, a spotlight stands lit beside a narrow stage. After roll call, Nguyen turns off one set of fluorescent overhead lights, emphasizing the pool of light.
“Okay, we’re doing arms tonight, FYI,” he says to the students, who have stopped talking. Pencils in hand, they appear ready and eager to draw. “This will complete our tour around the upper body. Are there any questions on the chest, torso, back, or shoulders?”
No one responds.
“Okay, Yoni,” Nguyen says from his station at the podium. He turns on an XM roots-reggae radio station that feeds into the room’s sound system. “Why don’t you give us some warm-ups.”
As Baker approaches the spotlight, he unties the robe’s belt. The quiet in the room is replaced with the sound of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.” Baker takes off his robe, lays it across his duffle bag on the floor, and steps up onto the stage. Naked.
An hour and a half ago, the 37-year-old sat across a small table from me, sharing the specifics of his life as a special-effects make-up artist and artists’ model. In the days leading up to our meeting, I’d figured him for a gregarious, almost-overbearing type, based on the number of exclamation points in his text messages.
“Have a nice day!!!!!!,” he’d sent more than once.
His Facebook page, too, suggested a wild side that was absent at our coffee date. His cover photo shows him yielding a sword in each hand, the muscles of his shirtless torso and arms defined, and his mouth set in what looks like testosterone rage.
That image doesn’t match the quiet, respectful guy with neatly trimmed facial hair, sitting across the table in a Fenton Marketplace coffee shop. At first, as he told his story, he spoke in a bit of a monotone, his eyes averted, his face void of much expression — save for moments when he offered particularly revealing details.
Of his debut as an artists’ model, he said, “The first time, I thought I was having a heart attack, but it was actually an anxiety attack.” His gaze met mine briefly, as if he expected to see surprise on my face.
Then he looked away and continued the story. He would do this repeatedly, giving an impression of shyness and reserve, although occasionally, when he looked directly at me, I’d glimpse something mischievous in his eyes.
For nearly 15 years, Baker has been a special-effects make-up artist, one of three regulars who work the Gaslamp’s Haunted Hotel every Halloween. Although the job provides a month of consistent work (and pay), the rest of the year is less stable, at least as far as make-up work goes. Recently, Baker did the make-up for a series of webisodes called Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie Slayer. He also worked as actor, make-up assistant, and stunt guy for Neshima, an independent feature about, as its Facebook page declares: “a reluctant warrior [who] must fulfill an ancient prophecy and bring her people to their sacred home, Neshima.”
“It was a fur-and-loincloth type thing,” Baker said. “We were called the Goran. I was just sort of Barbarian Goran Number Four, not really a specific character. Hopefully the [sword-fighting] stunts I did will be in the final version.”
Because the make-up jobs are inconsistent, he’s held a number of positions to keep him fed between gigs: assistant manager at Sharper Image, team leader at a pet store in Del Cerro, digital retoucher at a photography studio in La Mesa. But closures, restructuring, or inflexible bosses brought all these to an end.
A couple of years ago, at a make-up trade show in Pasadena, a longtime friend suggested that Baker try modeling for artists.
“It took a couple of years for me to give it a shot,” he said. When I asked what kept him from jumping on it right away, he said, “I guess the nudity and getting over that. It’s like when you’re a kid and you have dreams about walking into the school in your underwear, and you’re embarrassed.”
In May 2012, when Baker finally decided to give it a try, he emailed several local art schools, sent them body-building pictures of himself, and asked for advice on getting started as a figure-drawing model. An instructor named Jesse Fortune at World Gallery in Costa Mesa responded by offering Baker an opportunity to model for an art class in two or three weeks. Fortune suggested that Baker go online and look at poses in classic paintings and sculptures.