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Art makes me uncomfortable

So, a guy -- let's call him Mr. Teacher -- at the school where I often pose nude for figure-drawing classes asked if I would be willing to work with him on an art project. He sent me pictures of his sculptures: very tasteful and...bland, the kind of thing that hangs in your dentist's waiting room. He's a faculty member , I thought. It can't be creepy . To start, he asked me to dance around in a circle for 20 minutes. Naked. Apparently he does profile capturing, where you record someone moving and then render them as a 3-D image; it's like motion capture for the movies, only without the little reflective dots glued all over you. About halfway through, I started thinking about a phone call I got a year or so ago.

I was in a documentary film about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair; I played "Little Egypt," America's first belly dancer. The film is okay and the costuming would make a historian weep, but it was fun. So when I got this call from a guy who said he wanted to make a movie about belly dancing, I was interested.

"We have other videos in the series," he told me. "There's a yoga one, too. Usually I interview you for about 30 minutes and then we do a little skit -- very humorous. I write them myself."

On his website, I found descriptions of his oeuvre. There were references to tickling, a few to wrestling (including something called a "scrotum hold"), and a disturbing page full of references to living mannequins. "A set of April photos with her in a sexy red dress, looking as fake as ever," trumpets one caption. I had visions of the video shoot with Mr. Teacher ending up on a website for $29.95: "Nude circle dancing, just as fake as ever!"

When he had enough footage, he asked me to pose the way I do in a standard drawing class. Only instead of using a sketchpad, he brought out a stack of marble slabs, the kind you use to tile your kitchen counter. I appreciate art from natural materials, so he was still getting the benefit of the doubt. "That's good," he said. "Hold it." He dug through his bag and triumphantly pulled out...a drill. "Okay, don't move," he said, and lowered the half-inch bit toward the marble slab. A horrible screeching noise ensued.

Tiring of the drill, he started chipping at the marble with a pair of scissors, then tossed them away and reached for a box of oil pastels. He drew with sweeping arm gestures and then announced, "Done!" Mr. Teacher turned his work dramatically toward me.

It was a stick figure.

"Do you want to see my inspiration?" he said. He showed me a stack of pictures of Paleolithic cave drawings -- elongated figures with short arms that held spears ready to throw. Rather than asking him why on earth he needed a model to draw stick figures, I just nodded, thinking, The sooner this is over, the better .

Eventually, Mr. Teacher asked if I would mind doing some "life-casting." That's when someone wraps part of your body in plaster strips; it's very popular with pregnant bellies. I tried a variety of poses, hoping to find something that would spur his imagination. "I'm looking for something muscular ," he said, then his eyes sank to my chest. "Are those real?"

"Yes," I managed.

"Excellent," he enthused. "Do you have any children?"

"No," I said, reclining uncomfortably.

"That's good. When you don't have kids, you can act like you're single." He began ripping plaster sheets into five-inch strips.

"How long have you and your wife been married?" I asked, hoping to remind him that he wasn't, in fact, single.

"Too long," he said, and began dipping the plaster in a bowl of water. "She doesn't like art. We live very separate lives," he said mournfully, and spread the first clammy sheet over my breast.

Usually, when I'm posing for art classes or the occasional photographer, I'm not even aware of being naked; when I was a child, my mother was certain I was destined for a nudist colony. The artists are friendly and shy and painfully aware of the present situation. I liken it to what happens when an amputee walks in; suddenly, everybody notices that someone in the room is missing something vital. Rather than draw attention to the lack, you ignore it and draw maturity around you like a veil. Everyone has a part to play.

But with Mr. Teacher, I was naked, and reminded of my vulnerability -- the nudity not just of my body, but of my faith in other people.


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