This Time, a Senior Nude Model
Model is 60, naked and proud
Artists draw inspiration from human figure, and model is comfortable in her own skin.
By LORI BASHEDA - The Orange County Register
January 24, 2006
It takes a special kind of person to stand naked in front of strangers.
Particularly when those strangers are only a few feet away. And they're staring at you. Lingering over every bulge.
At the very least, you have to be a person at peace with your bulges.
Maura Laura LeBron is such a person. At age 55, when many women are embracing the world of bathing suits with attached skirts, she answered an ad for a nude model.
LeBron is 60 now. A full-figured size 14. And she enthusiastically drops her robe for students in painting, drawing and sculpture college classrooms across Orange County.
She and her husband, Paul, a computer techie, have never been big on clothes. "We're kind of like nudists, but just at home," she says. "But it never occurred to me to go out in public."
Then one day her husband spotted an ad in a nudist magazine. It was perfect. Not only is LeBron a closet nudist, she is a closet artist. She has expressed herself with jewelry, stained glass, abstract paintings. The idea of using her very flesh and blood to make art was thrilling.
"I have cellulite. And my breasts are beginning to go south. But it doesn't freak me out," said LeBron, who came to New York City from Puerto Rico as a teen and still has an accent. "It empowers me. It makes me feel that I am contributing to the art community."
Dropping your drawers, it turns out, can provide a vital service to the artiste.
The nude figure, says Coastline Community College art instructor Lynn Goodin, "nourishes the creativity of any visual artist. It's like a source of inspiration." As soon as you put clothes on a figure, "you have made a statement about personality, placed that individual into a specific time in history."
Elizabeth Knox, a painter who runs a workshop at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, put herself through the Parsons School of Design in New York City as a young student by posing.
"To work from life gives you the vital blood for your work," she says. Not to mention the ultimate painting challenge. "The human form is the most complex form in the universe."
Knox says there is a return to figure painting among young artists. And not just those focusing on the fine arts. "Picasso made figures into abstractions over and over and over. The mother of Western art is the figure."
For Knox, painting a nude is "about the psychology of the person and getting to their soul."
On Saturday afternoon in the basement of the Grand Central Art Center, Knox and six other painters tried to get to LeBron's soul.
Wearing a satin paisley robe, LeBron walked around the room chatting with the artists – five men and two women – while they set up their easels and paints. At 1 p.m. she stepped onto a wood platform raised on four plastic milk crates and sat down on a chair draped in red velvet. Knox aimed a spotlight at her, casting a shadow.
"OK," LeBron said, closing her eyes and taking several deep breaths. Then she opened her eyes, gazed off dramatically to the left and let her robe slip away.
"OK, guys, do you like it?" Knox asked. One painter wanted more shadow. Another asked her to place her hands on her thighs.
When the pose was agreed upon, the work began. They painted quickly, the sound of their brushes stroking canvas sometimes louder than a recording of Brazilian music.
LeBron sat motionless, short red hair matching her red lipstick, wearing turquoise earrings, a turquoise ring, an anklet, a toe ring and a single striped flip-flop. Later, she admitted she often uses that time to think about her grocery shopping list.
After 30 minutes, a timer beeped for a five-minute break. LeBron pulled her robe back up around her shoulders and did a quick loop around the room, inspecting and sometimes commenting on the artists' perceptions of her, each so different.
"A photograph is dead," says Bob McNeil, a former illustrator of schoolbooks who lives in Santa Ana and attends the Saturday workshops. "This is alive."
After three hours, LeBron went home. But the paintings of her scattered. They might wind up in a portfolio, on a wall, in a gallery, in the trash.
LeBron has been painted and sketched and sculpted naked hundreds of times. She gets calls for 12-16 hours of modeling a week, making $18-22 an hour.
She is proud that breast cancer didn't stop her. Several weeks after surgery, she arrived for a class bloated and bandaged and feeling anything but feminine. The instructor, knowing what she was going through, had created a stage that looked like a French boudoir; all lace and flowers and everything pink.
"I just broke down and cried," she says. And, sitting naked on a chair, she continued to cry while they painted her. She has pictures of it.
LeBron is one of 32 models on Knox's on-call list. Other instructors have their own lists. Workshop facilitator Debra Marsh said she's had models from 21 to 80 years old (one man walks with a cane). There are more women than men. "The models are artists in themselves in one way or another," Marsh said. "A lot of them are actors and dancers."
LeBron is one of Goodin's favorites. "She's got a little drama," she said. All shapes and sizes are welcome. Short or tall. Plump or bony. Muscular or wrinkled.
"We like variety," Marsh said. Unlike the magazine and advertising industries' obsession with air-brushing out every freckle, curves, folds and rolls are embraced. (Think of the Rubenesque nudes of the Renaissance paintings.) Really the only requirement is that the model must be able to stay still.
"We're always looking for new blood," Knox said. Of course, it takes a special kind of person to stand there naked in front of strangers.