Writer poses nude for a figure drawing session

I haven’t always liked my body. I’ve variously felt too fat too skinny too lanky too hairless too hairy. In recent years though I’ve grown pretty fond of my weird bulgy bony body.

Tonight I’ll put that confidence to the test by posing as a nude life model for the Off-Beat Figure Drawing group.

This isn’t a normal figure drawing session. Usually there’s one model and a handful of artists. Tonight there are five models and upwards of 25 artists in a session inspired by Gustav Vigeland a Norwegian artist who often sculpted figures with intertwined limbs.

“Tonight’s theme calls for extremely close body woven poses” says organizer Desere Pressey in an email. “Please ensure ya’ll are showered and smelling clean for your fellow model friends.”

As instructed I have an extra-thorough shower scrubbing every crevice with particular care. Mid-shower I realize I didn’t ask about body hair. I’ve been letting my hair-down-there grow wild and free; is that against the rules? Too late to shave so I shampoo my bushy pubes and move on.

I arrive at a nondescript warehouse to find a crowd of strangers — and worse some people I recognize — setting up easels canvases and supplies in a semi-circle around a sheet-covered couch. Desere gives me a run-down: the evening will include five poses starting with warm-ups of five and 10 minutes then getting longer: 15 minutes 20 minutes and closing with a whopping 40 minutes.

The other models are experienced so I ask for tips. I learn that symmetrical poses are boring; I should twist and tilt to give the artists a creative challenge. I’m warned it can be hard to hold a pose for more than 10 minutes and it’s easier to grip something with arms extended than to push against a surface.

Since we’re going to be nude and intertwined we set ground rules. We’re comfortable touching each other but we rule out any overtly intimate contact. One model phrases it concisely: “Don’t put anything inside me.”

The crowd has swelled; it’s almost go time. I swallow some wine duck into the washroom shed my clothes and don a fuzzy bathrobe. We gather around the couch surrounded by easels and chat awkwardly. My nervousness builds. Desere gives the cue and without hesitation the other models drop their robes. I gulp and do the same exposing my naked flesh.

The others adopt interesting asymmetrical poses. I start slow sitting on the arm of the couch. The artists leap to their canvases. And I am so. Very. Naked. I struggle to keep my face neutral as dozens of eyes cast over me. I count down the five minutes with my pounding heartbeat.

Between poses I peek at the other models. I’m relieved to see a whole range of body hair from smooth-shaven to fully forested.

For the 10-minute segment I drop to the floor in a pose that inadvertently leaves my genitals swinging free. I have never been more aware of my penis. When I feel it twitch I panic. “Don’t let it be arousal” I beg silently. “Don’t let it be leftover pee spilling out.” With my eyes fixed on a distant pillar I can’t check on either scenario… but thankfully there aren’t any more twitches.

I mix it up for the third pose: I crouch leaning an elbow on one knee sitting on the other heel. I soon realize I’ve made a huge mistake. My weight is centred over the ball of my right foot which goes numb. Pain shoots up my calf. The pain spreads to my heel and sole intensifies.

The life model’s biggest job is to stay still. You don’t know what part of your body is being drawn at any given moment; shift at the wrong time and you’ll disrupt the artist’s flow. I stare at a spot on the floor. I think about my to-do list groceries Doctor Who anything but the pain.

Finally — finally — the 15 minutes are up and I release the pose with a gasp. My right leg on fire I sit heavily on the couch and do my best to look interesting while blood rushes back to my toes. It takes five minutes for the pins and needles to recede; when they do it’s heaven.

Until I realize I’ve moved away from the heater. Goosebumps spread across my exposed flesh. I start to shiver. I think about warm blankets a sunny beach a blazing desert.

At the break I throw a winter coat over my bathrobe to subdue the shivers and wander among the easels. Previously blank canvases are now covered with images of our naked bodies in charcoal watercolour and everything in between. It’s surreal to see my features splashed in colour stretched and stylized. While I shivered and ached on the couch they were making art.

We return for the finale: woven bodies. Desere directs us sculpting our poses into a tangle of limbs bodies draped across bodies. No risk of getting cold. Forty minutes gives me time to reflect on the evening how I proceeded from naked terror to a cozy stack of strangers confident in our nudity. As canvases fill with colour and a warm shoulder presses into my thigh the whole thing feels downright artistic.

Every month Mark Hopkins steps outside of his comfort zone and writes about the experience. Do you have an adventure to suggest? Email mark@swallowabicycle.com .