There is a nude man sitting across from me on the modeling stand. I can plainly see his curly brown pubic hair and dangling limp penis in my periphery but I do not look. Neither does he look at my boobs and nipples which are also two feet from his eyeballs. It’s like conversing with a person with a facial deformity like a hair-lip or a big purple birthmark- you never look there. You respect one another’s space when you model nude with another person, male or female.
We chat about farming as he is a dairy farmer. We chat about hiking as he is a long distance hiker. DJ and I have been friends for years. He’s backpacked 800 miles with Todd and me on the Pacific Crest Trail before we had children. As weird as it may sound, it feels normal sitting here with him without our clothing on.
At the end of the semester, my good friend Anna, the life-drawing professor here at Kutztown University, takes the excess money remaining in the budget, and hires two models for the same class. It is very good for the art students to learn to draw multiple people interacting. As artists in the future, they may need to work on illustrations or paintings that involve more than one person and the figures should not appear separate or disconnected in the piece.
When DJ and I do fast poses to warm up the students in the beginning of class, we grasp hands and pull against one another. Another pose we might link arms and stand back to back- any pose where the students are forced to draw two people as opposed to one.
DJ was looking for some extra cash. The art department was looking for more models. He practiced beforehand like I did so many years ago so it would feel “normal” for him to climb the few steps onto the wooden stand and disrobe in front of twenty-five young artists, as well as me.
People have asked Todd, “Why do you let her model nude with a guy?” And he replies, “Why not? What is wrong with it?”
The nude in art dates back to 25-30,000 BC and according to art historians, a list of well over 600 nude masterpieces have been created by the greatest artists of our time. The nude in art has always been associated with pureness of being as opposed to society’s view of the vulgarity of nakedness. We in America use sex to sell everything, yet some find the occupation of life models as somehow “wrong,” or at best, confusing.
Nudity has never been an issue with me, ever since my days as an art student. Drawing and painting nude models was a fact of art school life. I saw a substantial amount of penises and breasts, which differed from one another by a mere matter of inches. To an artist, they were pretty much all the same and were just body parts that we needed to learn to draw and paint, the same as hands, arms, necks, feet, etc.
But even before art school, I was somewhat relaxed about nudity. As a teen, I romped the woods of Mount Penn, surrounding Reading with my best friend Colleen, We often camped in the pine plantation at a nearby reservoir in between college years, as we planned our long distance hike on the Appalachian Trail. I worked on the other side of the mountain at a pretzel factory and would leave the lap of wilderness early in the morning to cycle to work. Colleen and I often indulged in an evening dip to cool us off and wrestling into bathing suits seemed stupid and unnecessary with no one around.
One time, however, when I had my brothers and cousins with me, we got busted by the cops. I felt badly about setting a poor example for the youngsters but as we sprinted away from the flashlight beam, I recognized the voice of the local young cop who used to date my sis. When we realized who we each was, we stopped running, sat down on the wooden bridge, flicked off his flashlight, and sat there in the dark, him in his cop uniform, me in my birthday suit, catching up on each other’s lives.
When Todd and I attended the Great Lakes School of Log Building, in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, the only way to bathe in this remote camp was in the Finnish log sauna. After toiling side by side with comrades from all over the country, from all walks of life, ages, both sexes, it was a very intimate bonding experience to finish off our day of work and learning by sweating nude together in a sauna. Todd and I wanted to build our own sauna. While we built our home, it was our only way to take a bath as we had no plumbing in the house that we lived in. In the past thirty years, we have enjoyed many a delightful evening sauna with our friends.
My sister-in-law opted to wear a synthetic body suit in the 190 degree sauna heat and darkness because she “felt uncomfortable.” That gross fabric sticking to your body sounded like a worse idea to me. Whoever heard of “taking a bath,” which is essentially what a sauna is, with your clothing on? Besides, the sauna room is pitch black and you can throw a large beach towel over you as you run out- and a beach towel covers up a lot more of your body that a crocheted string bikini, which was what she wore to the beach. (I didn’t get that.)
Living in the woods at the end of a ½ mile driveway, my little kids often ran around without pants on, or any clothing, if it was stinking hot. When we hiked the Continental Divide Trail, we would often get into camp hot and sweaty and rip our stinky hiking clothing off and plunge into the cold lake. If we waited even long enough to put a bathing suit on, our body temperature would cool down too low and we’d lose the desire to swim. It was a way to quickly bathe and wash off the sweat and grime. It was a timing thing but turned into our favorite way to swim.
When our friend Bob Riley hiked with us, we told him he had to turn his head and not watch if it made him uncomfortable, ‘cause we were going in. He said to me, “As soon as you take a break, your boots fall off and as soon as you get around a lake, your clothing falls off.” This is how my kids grew up.
THE FAMILY BATH
When we designed our handmade log home there was only going to be one large bathroom to keep the plumbing, which we did ourselves, simple. We sunk an antique claw foot tub into the tile floor. There’s no shower stall. A solar shower was built in the orchard, but taking a bath is how we have always washed indoors. When you walk into the bathroom, the tub is right there, no hiding, no privacy, but privacy was never something anyone in the family seemed to desire.
We took baths with our kids when they were tiny and we always shared this one bathroom with whoever needed to use it-as in brushing their teeth, or needing the toilet or sitting there chatting about an issue while the other was in the tub. Our kids grew up sharing the bathroom and seeing each other nude. The kids saw their parents, we saw the kids, the kids saw one another. (In Europe, people are far less hung up about nudity and families all over the world enjoy an openness that we in America guard voraciously.)
Bath time is together time for Todd and me. After living without plumbing for the first seven years of our marriage, and hauling and conserving our water, we began to use the same bath water out of necessity. But we continue this practice after all these years.
Todd gets himself much dirtier than me in life and he can’t tolerate the very hot water that I enjoy so his bath always comes after mine is done. He sits on the bathroom chair and talks to me while I am in the tub and I do the same with him- nearly every night for 30 years we have enjoyed this ritual. It does not matter how disconnected our day was or how far-flung our work took us, bath time is together time.
Even as young adults, I still go in when Bryce is home from college and sit on the chair next to the tub while he shares moments of his life with me, his thoughts, his concerns etc. When Sierra is home, she’ll yell up to me in my studio to please come down and keep her company while she’s in the tub and shampoo her hair for her. It is an intimate act with mother and daughter that she has never outgrown the need for. My girlfriend tells me that her young adult daughter won’t even let her into the bathroom when she is in the shower with a closed curtain, and I feel sad for her.
I understand how this simple act of seeing one another nude may have helped contribute to our family closeness. It may look weird to someone who was raised with deeply private people but our family adopted the open-book Sicilian type of family lifestyle and to us, this is “normal.” I saw my own Sicilian mother’s bare breasts when she was dressing while growing up as she never closed her door. “This open door” philosophy became a metaphor of an open heart as my mother always talked to us about everything and I to our children. In other words, “You can tell me anything. I promise I won’t be shocked and I will never think unkindly of you nor judge you.”
And so my children learned the difference between nakedness, which suggests unprotected, vulnerability, defenselessness, and is associated with cold, loneliness and fear for you can feel naked while being totally clothed; and nude, which is the natural state of humans, without clothing, feeling at one with your surroundings and comfortable with your natural self and has nothing to do with sex or eroticism.
My girlfriends often marvel at the level of intimacy my children, especially my daughter shares with me about her private life and concerns. I never found it surprising for I have opened my life and thoughts and feelings to her as my mother did to me, as well as the bathroom door.