I have always liked art in general and drawing particularly. When in college in the mid-90s at Carthage in Kenosha, my favorite courses were my art courses. The first two pieces of art in the “Joseph” collection are self-portraits. In the past couple decades though, I maintained my drawing skills (barely) by occasionally going to a local draw in Kenosha at a little framing shop called Artworks.
I always enjoyed it. There is something edgy, and incredibly challenging about drawing from the human nude figure. No other type of art is as challenging as trying to correctly represent human anatomy. The fact that a live human being would offer you their intimate human form to view, to draw, completely and unashamedly, only serve to charge the artistic atmosphere further. Although my art is never the best produced at any draw, nonetheless I have enjoyed every single time that I have attended.
My first love is theater. I have friends who get sweaty palms or upset stomachs just before they go on stage… not me! When an audience is in their seats, and the lights are about to go up, I am ready! I can’t wait to go on the stage, inhabit a character, tell a story. That fearlessness did not extend to the model’s “dais” though.
The owner of Artworks, Chet Griffith, asked me to model on more than one occasion. He would say, “you’re an actor, you should do this!” I would respond jokingly, “yeah, but at least when you act you get to wear a costume!” In an attempt to confront my own insecurities about my body, I got on the schedule once, only to chicken out a couple weeks before.
Theatre was more my cup of tea. Playing a wide variety of characters up on the stage helped me to be free from my childhood insecurities. When I would inhabit a role, I would become someone else. Someone who knew nothing about my childhood, nothing about my psychological scars, or my history of low self esteem. When I acted, I was free from these things. It was remarkable how acting healed me.
During the last 3 years of my father’s life I was his primary care giver. He was a quadriplegic. Because of my duties I could no longer be involved in theater. If a staff member did not come to work for whatever reason, I could not leave, and therefore I could not commit myself to a director’s schedule. The most crucial thing for any actor to do is… show up.
My father felt bad that my dedication to him meant I sacrificed theater. He used to say to me “Joseph, when I’m gone you have to get back into theater!” I would complain “I don’t know if I want to do theater after you’re gone.” He would respond, “Anywhere in the arts then. You are so talented!” And then he would smile broadly, and add: “But whatever you do, you be the best!”
He passed in March 2015 and I still miss him terribly.
After his death I fell into deep depression. After more than three months of sulking and overeating, I had a serious talk with myself. I knew that I had to find my life again, be something, do something. I thought of his words to me and resolved to audition for a stage production. That play, at the Racine Theater Guild, was called “Calendar Girls“ and was a story about sweet little old British ladies that made a nude calendar as a fundraiser.
I played a man who got cancer and passed away. He was beloved by his wife and her friends. After his death they decided to do a fundraiser for a new couch in the “family room” of the cancer wing down at the hospital. They create a “nude“ calendar with strategically placed muffins, quilting, or needle point. The calendar made a fortune, and their story was made into a movie that stars Helen Mirren.
Any amateur house that decides to make a production of “Calendar Girls” is allowed to make their own calendar for a fundraiser. So when the call went out in Racine, I answered. After taking our clothes off for a good cause (and careful photo-shopping, so that women and men could be photographed separately) we produced an 18 month calendar! I was in the shot with fellow volunteers that became the month of November, 2015.
Armed with a new sense of purpose, and my trusty fundraising calendar, I went to Artworks. I asked my old friend Chet, “would you support the Racine Theater Guild and buy one of our calendars?” He took the calendar from my hands, looked at my picture in the month of November, and said, “Oh! You can pose for the theater guild, but you can’t pose from my life drawing sessions!“ Flummoxed by having been caught on the horns of my own hypocrisy, I staunchly retorted, “Put me on the schedule!!”
The day came on September 15th, 2015. I was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. I had no formal training… only pointers that Chet gave me, what I could find on an internet search, and what I remembered from having attended as an artist. I knew I had to have a robe and slippers, so I had gone shopping and purchased the black satin robe I still use today. Along with a stool, a towel, and a staff, I went to Artworks early to set up and familiarize myself with the space. Chet reminisces about seeing me that afternoon, saying I looked terrified.
Finally, the time came.
I went to the bathroom in the back of the store, and there, in a moment that was completely surreal, I took off all my clothes. My heart was racing furiously, and I remember asking myself “Are you actually going to do this?” I slid on my new robe and slippers and, clutching my folded up clothes to my chest, I passed back through the store, and down the stairs to the drawing room where four artists were seated at folding tables.
I don’t remember too much at this point because of information overload… I was overwhelmed! The one thing I do remember about those first poses was this: determination. A great deal was happening. I was not only violating social norms and revealing my completely naked body to completely clothed strangers. I was simultaneously confronting demons of low self-esteem that had lived inside of my heart for decades. Demons that constantly accused me of being unattractive, and of having little or no value. I was determined that I was going to succeed this day!
There are two things that every model must do: you must come out of that robe… and… you must hold perfectly still! Both of these things are difficult, and made even more so by having to do them together. I did them! I came out of that robe and I began striking 5 one minute gesture poses in a row. Almost immediately my life changed! I had been faced with one of the most challenging moments of my life…and I was doing it! I was holding a pose. Then I did a 5 minute pose, and then a 10 minute! I was doing it!
I wasn’t embarrassed. Or if I was, I didn’t seem to notice. I extended into each pose as if I was a character on stage. I couldn’t move, or recite lines, or use gestures to communicate with my audience (in this case artists) but I could use emotion. I “inhabited” the poses and the artists drew me. I thought much more about holding perfectly still then I did about what they could see. I was energized beyond anything I had ever experienced on the stage. I was completely naked, and I did not care!
On the contrary, I loved it! I loved the attention. I loved the incredible challenge of stretching out in plain view without a stitch and holding perfectly still. I felt young, strong, renewed. A feeling of self-esteem came washing over me that I had never tasted before in my life. Once or twice, in a couple special theater rolls, I got close to this feeling of freedom, but never so completely. This was completely me… completely Joseph… and I was standing firm.
Not even halfway through this very first session, I knew! I was going to do this for the rest of my life. Here was a place… upon the dais… that I thought I would never go. All my life I thought of myself as unattractive, as not good enough. All my life I suffered, thought of myself as ugly! But no more! I had found the doorway, and I had the keys: willingness and determination.
Here are these wonderful marvelous people… artists… and they are using my lines, my shapes, and my shadows to make beautiful art. I saw their work. It was me! And their art was beautiful! With every pose I grew more determined. I had succeeded here this evening! With no costumes, and no masks, and nothing to protect me from all of the things in the world I am afraid of, I stood naked and determined. And in so doing I became unafraid.
After the last pose was over, and I had bid farewell to the artists, thanking them profusely, I gathered up my neat pile of street clothes and bounded up the stairs to return to the bathroom at the back of the shop. I paused by Chet to tell him (somehow) that I had been transformed by the experience. Words failed me, and I just stood with outstretched palms, struggling to speak.
He begin putting money in my hands with a smile, one bill at a time. lol
My life was transformed, and I was getting paid! I mean, I knew I would be paid, but it had gone off my mind. I was so blown away by the experience itself, and even more by what it did inside of me, that I had forgotten about the pay! This was a real job, lol! I could do this! All I needed was to find the work!
That very first session I claimed that if I lived long enough, I would pose for artists a thousand times!
As of the writing of this piece… 773!