“I worked out really hard,” Baker said, laughing. “I’m, like, if my muscles are good, then everything else is good.”
He has experience as a sculptor and some idea of what poses would be interesting to artists. Both of his parents are artists (his South African father is an architect, his Israeli mother a painter and sculptor), so he’d been exposed to art all his life.
“It’s funny,” he said, “there’s this big drawing of my mom, it’s nude, and it was in my living room growing up. My friends would come over and go, ‘Dude, your mom is naked on the wall.’ And I’d be, like, ‘Well, I guess, but I don’t really see it as my mom.’ They never really grasped that. It was weird for them. [But ] it was just always there, part of the house. I love it. It’s a great piece.”
A beat later he says, “I don’t know if I’d have it in my place now, though. At my folks’ house, it’s okay.”
Baker laughs, then continues his story.
“So, the day of the class, I’m getting ready, shaving and whatever, and I feel this pain in my chest. It sort of radiates to my left arm, and I’m, like, This is a classic symptom of a heart attack — who am I going to call to say goodbye to? So, I call my girl and she’s, like, ‘I think you should relax, you’re probably having an anxiety attack.’”
The pain soon subsided, and Baker got in his car to make the hour-and-a-half drive from Santee to Costa Mesa. When I asked what kind of self-talk he employed in the car on the way, the corners of his mouth turned down and he shrugged dismissively. “I just jammed to the music in my car and chilled out.”
That day, he stepped out of the changing room in an old, itchy, blue-plaid robe of his father’s. It was too small and hit him above the knees. When it was time to take it off, he did.
“[Poses] just came to me,” he said. “I draw from movies I’ve watched, action heroes, comic-book heroes, all the sculpture I’ve done and seen, paintings. You know, I’ve [taken] all this in, and I’m using it for my motions.”
The instructor helped put him at ease.
“He was a calm guy. ‘Stop stressing out, you’re doing great,’ he said. I just went with the flow, and it turned out to be a really good thing. And that’s kind of how it’s gone.”
These days, Baker models for 10 to 15 local and regional art programs, and sometimes privately for individuals or small art groups, for a total of 15 to 20 hours per week, at $20 an hour. He has secured some work through booking agent Brook Castrejon Solis, who receives a fee from the schools and programs.
“I also get a lot through my own tenacity and networking with artists,” Baker said. “Artists will give me names and references. They’ll post pictures they’ve done of me — either in the class or on their own time — to their Facebook pages, and include a link to my page. Some people find me that way.”
Models work in 20-minute increments, and a single pose can last anywhere from 30 seconds to nine hours. In the case of 30-second poses, the model will set a timer and change position every 30 seconds for 20 minutes. For a nine-hour pose, he or she will hold the same pose for 20 minutes at a time, with five- or six-minute breaks in between, through as many as three three-hour sessions (usually held on a single day of the week for three consecutive weeks).
“You have to think about what your body can do for two minutes or three minutes,” Baker said. “I found that out the hard way. I did some dynamic poses for too long.”
He stood up from the table, then squatted with one leg stretched out to the side to demonstrate.
“If you’re doing something like this, then all the pressure’s on one leg,” he said. “For a short sketch, it’s awesome for an animator, because it’s, like, ‘Oh, cool, it’s Spiderman,’ but for longer than a few minutes, it’s going to suck.”
Returning to the table and his iced coffee, he said, “I sorta had to find out which muscles to engage to take the pain away or to support me in another way. So, it was a whole learning process.”
This evening, at the Art Institute, Baker begins with a series of two-minute poses, setting a timer placed on the floor near his feet. For most positions he is standing, limbs held in asymmetrical positions. The first few poses are done prop-free, but Baker later uses swords, a pole, and a toy gun pulled from his duffle bag to create naked-man-and-weapon poses. The definition of the muscles in his legs, abs, and arms creates small valleys of shadows all over his body. But for these short sketches, the instructor urges students to capture only the shapes of the model’s gestures.
The beeper sounds every two minutes. Bob Marley sings “Natural Mystic” and “Three Little Birds” before another reggae artist gets his turn on the station. Nguyen writes on the whiteboard: humerus, radius, ulna, brachius, bicep, tricep, flexors, extensors, and so on. Meanwhile, the students draw quietly, adding the soft scratch of their charcoal pencils or the occasional turning of a sketchpad page to the room’s sounds.
Earlier, Baker explained: “Learning not to be self-conscious was a process. What helped me was going around and looking at the art [that the students created]. It helped me see this is not about being Yoni, it’s about what my body’s projecting and the story I’m telling. But I still get nervous. It’s like going onstage and performing, in a way.”
To calm his nerves, once he’s in a pose, he either thinks about nothing or about anything but the fact that he’s the one naked person in a room full of people who are fully dressed.