IT TOOK THE contestants less than an hour to vote which of the seven proposed poses would be the one to use for the Corcoran Gallery's recent sculpture competition. I was the model.
It could have been worse. I could have had to hold my arms folded over my head for five days. In another pose my torso was so twisted my shoulders would have been almost at right angles to my hips. Each pose I demonstrated was designed with a tension I felt I could endure for the week. It wouldn't be a delight but I felt I could tough it out.
In my seven-year career as a studio model, I have come to recognize that different people work in different ways. Some come to the stand with rulers, calipers and plumb lines to measure the lean, height and width, length from foot to hip, knee to deck, shoulder to elbow, the space from knee to knee.
The majority seems to be more organic, eyeballing proportions rather than making so literal an analysis. They seem to get a feel for the pose and build around it. The engineers build a structure and add the pose to it.
When we began I had expected the leisurely pace and atmosphere of a school art class, where most of my assignments are. I was wrong. These guys were dedicated. I had to be unaccustomedly strict and regimented about starting and breaks. They were on their feet as long as I stood the pose. Some worked through the break. I had never known such intensity and it increased steadily.
In the Corcoran competition, I worked for five days in the middle of the studio on an elevated stand that could be rotated. I worked 25 minutes, five off. The stand was turned regularly so that the 23 contestants could observe the pose from all sides. They moved around the studio if they chose, but frequently turning the stand generally provided sufficient viewing.
All my weight was carried through the right leg. From the first day I felt tension in the knee. Then pain began to develop in the heel. By afternoon I could visualize a tremendous inflammation around the hip joint. I reduced the work cycle to 20 on, five off. Even then, I often had to flex in place to relieve the pain. On break, I did a lot of knee bends to stretch and pump up circulation.
I knew the competition would be a professional challenge. I prepared the previous week by jumping rope and exercising my legs to survive the standing pose. But the most important element was the emotional presence within it. It is possible to put the body into a position and let the mind drift away from it, leaving a shell. Time seems to pass more quickly, the body seems less aware of discomfort. This technique is especially useful in such a trying situation. I felt, though, that I had to be present within the pose every moment. Not only was the pose to appear physically constant, I wanted them to feel that the pose remained as alive and breathing as the first day they studied it.
In addition to the artists, this kind of work attracts curious onlookers. I've seen people standing in the doorways, watching. It's not me they watch, it's the work. I have this vision of a munitions plant, the workers quiet and deliberate. Their attention is completely absorbed in their devices. I can understand how outsiders are fascinated by and drawn to the collective energy.
During a break, one sculptor followed me to study my head. Many at that stage came to look more closely. The guys with rulers and calipers were still checking me out. When I made the tour of their works, I couldn't see much difference from unmeasured pieces. But what do I know?
The quiet was also a little unsettling at first. Studio time was not for socializing. Their attention was completely absorbed in their work. Even as they worked the clay, the room was nearly silent.
The breaks always seemed too short. Five minutes was not enough time to use a phone to score more bookings. Later in the week, when I was experiencing a lot of difficulty in maintaining the pose, I could never recover fully. Some contestants smoked in the hall, had coffee, a donut. Conversation terminated when I took the pose.
Our appreciation of time was so different. They saw the clock counting down how much time remained before noon Friday. I felt every moment with stress accumulating and wearing down the mind and body. They wanted more time; I was prepared to quit at any moment.
Everyone watches the clock--in the Corcoran competition, there was a total of 24 hours working time available over the five days. By the fourth day, I was surprised how many sculptors remarked how glad I must be that it'll soon be over. I think they were projecting.
The project takes so much from its participants. I was a wreck, sure. But I also learned how some of the contestants were experiencing loss of appetite, difficulty in sleeping, general fatigue and nervousness, specific soreness of the arms, back, legs and feet. Some were so exhausted all they did this week was work, eat and sleep without seeing any of the city.
We worked steadily in the routine that became established during the week. There was no waste of time or energy. I didn't get any sense of panic. Hurry, yes, but not disorder.
When I look at the finished pieces, I see each dispassionately as an object. I am unconcerned personally that I am the source image. They neither flatter nor offend. I often wonder how they would be judged if they didn't have to be compared to the pose.
I haven't thought much about it, but in a roundabout way I've attained a kind of immortality. It's a notion that seems less meaningful than the memory of the artists I shared this week with.