I felt my left finger twitch and I dug my nails into the fleshy part of my lower back. It had formed part of a ritual to create a memorable mark on my skin, remind me where I had placed my hand. That’s when I have to really concentrate; clear my mind and focus. I guess it’s similar to meditation, my kind of mediation. Time I can really zone out, let all the worries from the day sort themselves out into little compact boxes. Of course, it always seems easier sat in a room surrounded by people who by all intents and purposes are in need of my presence but not in need of me.
Tonight it was my leg’s turn to feel the numbness, initially it would always feel comfortable, I tell myself it’s only for twenty minutes but invariably it would turn into half an hour. The minutes I count in my head, intertwine with the music playing in the background. I start again. One elephant, two elephants, three... It’s how to count seconds accurately, I am told. No one tells you about the pace though. I wonder what the artists would think if I told them that tonight I’d replaced the elephants for the Pinball song from Sesame Street.
Sometimes I’ll abandon the chanting of numbers and instead I’ll listen to the sounds being created around me. Persistent scratches of charcoal, the chink of paintbrushes against glass as water is stirred, frogs in throats clearing and the hum of a fan heater.
There are smells too that accompany the sounds, sometimes metallic, powdery dust, a hint of oil (petroleum not olive) and hairspray. It curls around the back of my throat, an irritant but usually I manage to refrain from coughing until I have reached the end of the pose. It can be a tough gig being a life model with all the pains and pleasures to endure.
I smile to myself as I know my work mates would be shocked to know how I spend some of my evenings. By way of polite chit-chat and the invariable question “So what do you have on tonight?” I skirt around the truth of my exact extra-curricular activity and simply say “Not much.”
Tonight there is no hairspray, just the ingrained scent of paint that has been layered over the years onto the floor and easels. A fresh breeze meanders in pleasant whorls around the room. It’s now summer and I have no need for the fan heater. The room is airy but still a comfortable temperature and I can hear the bleating of nearby sheep in a field as the door has been left ajar. I chat with the artists, people who have become more than just familiar faces. It is ironic that I build up stories of their lives, and they also learn about me, yet while I catch a glimpse of who they are they always see more of me.
In between poses I will wander between easels, and see how others perceive me or have adapted me to their own image. It’s one of my favourite parts of the evening, I’ll recognise my thigh or breast whether roughly sketched in charcoal or in the subtle splashes of colour. A line is enough to capture a pose, while each artist’s style comes alive on the paper.
It’s not always accurate but what a privilege to view myself through other’s eyes and see the change in my body over the years. It can be a great eye-opener not least by the noticeable increase around the mid-riff. The funny thing is, you would never catch me in a bikini as I am too self-conscious of the constricted lumpy bits, but place me in a room where creativity is desperate to escape, I too escape and without care drop my robe.
So I keep this secret from my place of work and can only imagine the reaction in the middle of a discussion about what happened in last night’s Eastenders, my input of “Well at least you weren’t standing with your arse against a cold mirror, while your left leg went to sleep.”