Covid as Muse
One of the things that I tell beginning writers is this: If you describe a landscape, or a cityscape, or a seascape, always be sure to put a human figure somewhere in the scene. Why? Because readers are human beings, mostly interested in human beings.
One summer, between my freshman and sophomore year of college, still so young, I took a job as a swimming instructor at Manitou Fine Arts Camp about four hours north of Toronto. It was cold up there under the Northern Lights and no one wanted to go swimming. In between canoeing, playing tennis and escorting campers to bed, more or less, I modeled in the art studio. That is, I modeled my head and nothing but my head. I had to keep still, no posing necessary, no instructions other than to sit. I sat and sat and day dreamed that one day I'd travel to Paris and become a writer. I was already in Paris in my imagination, I already was a a writer in my imagination, though it took me many years to become a writer. The teenaged artists sketching me, however, were precocious, gifted and disciplined, very serious about their work, which is why they had chosen the camp. Immersion in art with some athletics and romance for balance all summer long. It was bliss for them and for me. Then one day, the art teacher asked me if I'd pose for him off hours in the nude. He was about twenty years my senior, handsome in a rugged way, not my type exactly, but I wasn't sure—being young and naïve—if he was coming on to me (is that what we called harassment when I was coming of age?), or if I wanted to come on to him, or if I even knew what a nude model did, or why artists since antiquity have used nude models to practice their drawing skills and create great works.
"What would that involve?" I asked.
"Undraping yourself," he said. "Shifting your body into various poses. Do you think you can do that?
"Like a dancer?"
I'd had some dance experience and sort of knew what to expect. But was I willing? Was I being groomed? Was I flattered? No, none of those. I was in the presence of an artist and that was exciting for me at the time, and I felt safe, and mostly curious. I did wonder how I would respond to the sometimes voyeuristic male gaze, what is known as "le regard" in France. But I had an emancipated European mother and I was emancipated, I thought, or at least I planned to be. So I said I'd think about it. L'artiste didn't press me, the decision was mine, he had other models, other counselors who were willing, he said.
"But you, maybe, there could be something more."
"Model as muse."
Alors, he was in love with me, I decided. So I said no definitively. I had a boyfriend, I was still so young. But it didn't take long for me to regret my decision. To be an artist's muse, ah well, that would have been a memory to take into full adulthood.
Fast forward decades, I've never had a similar offer or request, though I have had a muse or two myself, have written about art a lot in both fiction and nonfiction, and when I am in the company of visual artists, my spirit soars. I make certain I interview them regularly, artists near and far, so that the life affirming conversation about making art can continue. And so I was pleased to be able to meander –masked, distanced, and vaccinated—through the Unison Arts Gallery a few days ago with Stuart Bigley to peruse his work and ask him about his process. The title of the show is "Covid Muse," though Covid itself has not been the inspiration. Rather, Covid sheltering has provided time for quiet contemplation and experimentation, a "forced retreat," Stuart says. Most artists and writers I know have had a similar experience during the pandemic.
"When I retired as Director of Unison Arts, I decided I wanted to nail drawing," Stuart continued. "I question artists who can't draw. It seems necessary, even as I moved into abstraction, to be able to observe and record accurately." As usual, there are analogies to writing; our devotion to practice is similar. A life drawing class, which Stuart hosts in the gallery once a week, is the same—practice and preparation. These days, though the models are still mostly female, the class attracts both men and women image makers. It's a reminder that women, too, enjoy contemplating the contours of the human body and transforming it into art.