Before I moved to Queenstown to take my au pair job I had done some research about artists in the area that resulted in contact with an artist named Angus Watson who might have a need for life models. I moved in with my au pair family and kept an eye on my email in case Mr. Watson got back to me. He did write me a note and invited me to visit his studio any day I was free to have a chat. A casual question to my employer about how to find the studio revealed a funny coincidence that the artist was in fact the uncle of the husband. It is a small world after all. The appointment was set and Mr. Watson, aka. Gus would come pick me up since he was going out for groceries anyway.
Gus picked me up on a sunny afternoon and we made our introductions as he drove us outside of the town to his beautiful property with a mountain view and home he built himself. The old campervan he used to live in as he traveled sits in the front yard and next to the typical garage cluttered with tools and projects abandoned for more pressing life events. As a tetraplegic living alone and working from home, Gus has a hoist in this garage to help him get out of the car and into his wheelchair. It was then that I noticed the hand controls in the car and I clued in that he wouldn’t be able to use the car pedals. How did I think he had been driving the car? Maybe I was just nervous.
After a tour of his home and studio I saw more of his watercolours and some of the influences that show up in his art. Images of landscapes, race horses, sheep in pastures and beautiful nudes were all brought to life with soft colours, bold red outlines and an absence of detail that grabs the eye and invites the imagination. We drank tea and ate homemade bread on the warm side of the porch to talk business. What does he want in a model? How much will I want per hour or would I like a painting in exchange for my poses? Where do his paintings end up? Tomorrow afternoon for three hours, a dinner break an hourly wage is agreed upon. The sketches he does could be for sale in his annual exhibition in January. I had negotiated my third life modeling session and was excited to be working with an artist who has made a living selling his art for the past twenty years.
The following afternoon was a chilly one so Gus stoked the fire in the living room where I would pose for his sketches. I got undressed in the next room and stood by the fireplace as Gus sat in his wheelchair and prepared his pencils to be within reach and his paper to balance across his lap and the arm of a nearby chair. He instructed me in the pose he wanted to see. As a seasoned artist, he knows what poses sell best and what gaps there were in the collection of paintings he had already done for the upcoming exhibition. A sitting pose as I leaned back on one hand. A sitting pose leaning forward on a table with my head resting on my hand. A standing pose with a ¾ profile and a hand on my back at hip level. (NOTE: I almost fainted with the heat from the pot belly stove as I stood there and tried to stay still. When I started swaying Gus pulled the patio door wide open and let the cold air and a glass of water revive me before we could continue.)
We didn’t exchange much dialogue as I focused on not moving and Gus focused on his sketches. Just over an hour into the session Gus announced that he was tired and finished working for today. I was surprised since he had booked me for three hours but got dressed and tried to pretend to be really cool about it. Was he unhappy with my posing? Were the sketches not right? Did he get at least one of the three that was usable? He did say I was more “voluptuous” than his other models…maybe that was a bad thing. My insecurities played havoc on my mind and heart as I walked back in the living room while Gus put his art supplies aside. It is amazing how I could be more self-confident while completely nude than I was at that moment in all of my clothes.
Gus offered to drive me home then or to stay for a wine. Either way I was getting paid for the three house. I love wine and I HAD offered to cook dinner for us so, in 2012 tradition, said YES, I would stay. We drank wine and chatted of cannibals and kings while I made pizzas for us. He showed me the salmon, the tomatoes, the bacon, the cheese, the spices…I didn’t want to admit I don’t cook much so I just put EVERYTHING on it. Every single ingredient went on top of my homemade Frankenstein sauce and I hoped for the best as they baked in the oven. A few bites sparked a surprised exclamation from Gus, “OH. You really did put EVERYTHING on the pizza!” We discussed the merits of using a different flavored sauce on salmon pizza before moving on to cultural differences, politics and anything else that came up. The leftovers were to be his lunch the next day…at least that is what I choose to believe as I wrapped up the remaining pieces and put them in the fridge. I laugh to myself even now as I write about that horrible little salmon and bacon pizza with the nice red wine.
As was the case with my previous experiences with the kiwi artists, the best part of the afternoon was getting to know a man who has hitchhiked around North America (only to be picked up by a car full of Black Panthers!), traveled in South America and tramped around Europe before returning to NZ. His life in a wheelchair for the last thirty years was even more fascinating as he told me of marriage, being a father and an uncle, divorce, relationships, different models he has worked with, renting out the cottage on his property…a full life being lived to the fullest by a person who gets to explore his talent everyday and sell his work to buyers all over the world.
Posing nude is a very clinical activity and Gus describes it well with a quote from his website: “Although he focuses on figure painting, for Watson the subject is not important-it is something on which to hang the colours.” It is the chatting and swapping stories with the artist that makes it feel like a personal encounter and produces an image which captures a snap shot of not only the model’s body but the artist’s perception RIGHT THEN. Time stops for nothing and by the time that sketch was finished and we had cleaned up from dinner both model and artist would be different already because of meeting a new person and sharing perspectives. By the time the paint is hung on the structure of the pencil lines a week later the artist is different again. He has had time to reflect on the encounter, on the mood he feels that day and any other influence which may have snuck in unnoticed with each day that passes. Needless to say, I was hoping that the sketches would turn into at least one painting and that he would be pleased with the result.
Two weeks passed and I heard nothing more from Gus. My voluptuous body and insecure heart decided to accept that not everything turns out as we hope it will. I would just keep trying to learn more about modeling and maybe my next job would be more successful. And then the email showed up from Gus. A photo attached to a simple message saying that he thought I might like to see it. I wrote back thanking him for the opportunity to work with him and that I enjoyed meeting him. And that was it. No more correspondence, no requests for more posing. The holidays came and went and I moved on from being an au pair in Queenstown to Dunedin to focus on finding a new job and exploring the sites with my Upper Canadian.
One night last week it occurred to me that I should check Gus’ website to see how his annual exhibition is going and which paintings he is selling. The current works section of his site was updated in December 2012 with thirty one paintings in a gallery showing his range of watercolour landscapes, abstracts and nudes. And there I was. Standing there in ¾ profile with my hand on my back at hip level. I clicked on the photo and saw the $2000 price tag on it. And then the title assigned to it. All of the other nudes have titles that reflect the pose…”relaxed in magenta” or “beautiful back”. What was mine to be? Maybe “3/4 standing”? Mine is titled with one word: Confidence.
There have been few moments in my life that have stunned me into silence. The kind of moments where reality makes me stand in front of a giant mirror so it can smack the dark, self-tormenting part of myself and forces to let some light in so I can really see. This was one of those moments. Forget that the pencil and paint shaped my body on that paper. Gus Watson managed to capture my inner reflection on a day when I wasn’t kind enough or strong enough to see it for myself.