From naked to nude: Art student finds now-confident model

Hindley Wang // Miscellany News

I often joke that I know Ben Kheyfets ’21 way too well. Aside from the two years we’ve shared on the same crew team, I really took the extra liberty to know him—his form, his facial structure, his poses.

You see, Ben was one of the nude models for my Drawing I class. Seeing nude models was nothing short of excitement for a college first-year; there was a moment in the first session where I thought to myself, “Wow, I am in college and we are drawing a real-life nude person,” with much of that high school residue of naïvety and enthusiasm about everything. Nude modeling is a work-study option that entails students modeling for other students in formal drawing classes and informal sketch sessions at the requests of art professors. As you might expect, it is unlike any other work-study option on campus; one must stay still for long periods of time and have a willingness to disrobe before others. Artists and models don’t really talk about this unique work relationship, with respect to the unspoken agreement among them. I’ve always been fascinated with the psychological exchange and the artistic interaction with body image and presentation, so I approached Ben with my curiosities, and he gladly agreed to sit with me for an animated conversation about his experience.

“How did you take up this job?” I asked.

“Well, I first heard about it on Facebook before I came here. There was an article called ‘Fifteen Weird Jobs at Vassar’ and one of them was nude modeling,” replied Ben with ease. “I applied to 15 jobs for work-study and that was the only one that responded to me that was like: ‘Okay, we will hire you!’ and I desperately needed money to pay for my books, so I took the job!” Fair enough. But I don’t know if I would personally have the nerve to accept this job—even if it were the only way to get paid. Having your body in full exposure to be looked at, examined formally, deciphered figuratively and depicted pictorially takes more than self-acceptance.

It had been a long time since I last studied Ben’s face this carefully. The accent lighting in the Retreat cast different angles on his freckled skin and ginger curls than the fluorescence in the Ely drawing room. I still remember the awkwardness when our eyes met the first time Ben walked in for our first nude drawing session as the model. I don’t know if I was feeling embarrassed on his behalf for being exposed entirely in front of a friend for intense observation, or if I was baffled by my own position in this setting under which I was obligated to look at him intensively and technically, if not too excessively. I was required to figure him out, so to speak: his fingers, his hands, his joints, his torso, his shins, all while he remained in his state of optic vulnerability.

I wondered what that experience was like on his part: “How did you get through the first time doing it?”

“The first time was hard,” Ben admitted. He remembered waiting in the corner with a robe on, watching his co-worker undress and walk up with confidence. “I walked up, taking the robe off and tried to hold it in front to cover myself…and then eventually you just put it down and you’re just naked. And you’re just embarrassed…but then every time afterwards was easy.” For Ben, he went from accepting the job, to undressing, to confronting the self-conscious instinct to cover up, to eventually owning his nudity. He started naked, a body without clothing, then became nude, more confident of his body as presented.

Vacillating between the dimensions of nudity and nakedness, the sitter and the sketcher share a sense of ambivalence, at least for their first time. Both parties agreed on the terms of the sketching exchange before entering the room—that one is to accept the plain nudity of the other, and the other in turn is to approve of their own exposure as the object of gaze.

As the sketcher, to accept the nudity of the model is to treat the body with a discerning eye. It’s more comfortable for the sketcher to take the sitter as a nude, as a posed figure displaying human form, corporeal features, as they are, without feelings about their state of undress. You want the models to come to terms with their nakedness for you, disengaging it, making it easier for you to engage in a kind of looking that demands technicality and objectivity. Nevertheless, you catch the eyes of the models from time to time. The model is suddenly not an inanimate object, but a living being staring back at you. This brief exchange often ends with you panicking, apologizing internally, shifting your eyes precipitously to your gigantic sketchpad for justification, showing that you are only looking because of the task at hand. You, too, are conscious of the model’s awareness of your gaze, as they are. These instances make you wonder who is more naked, to reconsider the act of looking entirely.

This led to my next question.“Do you look at them?” I asked.

“What?”

“Do you look at the students drawing you?”

“Well yeah…you look around and then you make eye contact and then you look away… it’s okay. It happens.”

Maybe I was the one who was more naked after all.

“What have you observed from sitting up there for people to draw you?”

“Nothing really came across my mind, because I was busy keeping myself distracted. I noticed the pictures more than the people, to be honest. Some of them liked to draw me in cubes, some had my limbs look all disproportionate, some made me look skinny; others, chubbier. Some would include a lot of muscles in places where I knew there was barely anything there,” he giggled. He liked how he could perceive different versions of himself through the artists’ eyes. He embraced his body as an open site for creative possibilities.

“How has this experience changed your relationship with your body?”

“I came in very self-conscious as many probably do, because I was always like, ‘Oh, I am kinda chubby…it forces you [to adapt to situations when] people have to look at you… but I guess it gave me a confidence boost, being used to people looking at me but more me being comfortable knowing people are looking at me. When you reveal yourself to other people in that way, you might not feel so great about it.”

Regardless of any confidence boost, I still don’t think I could possibly do Ben’s modeling job, which makes me appreciate him all the more for his modeling that instrumentally facilitated my personal drawing education. But being able to walk away with fascinating renderings of and a relationship with your body makes nude modeling ever so tempting. For now, I’ll stay behind the easel.

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