My interlude in Christchurch was based around a life modeling session in the neighbouring community of Amberley with Jeff Elliot, a local business owner and artist. I woke early that morning to take the Intercity bus for the 45 minute trip to Amberley. Jeff met me at 7:45 a.m. outside the petrol station with a big hello and a handshake. His energy was instantly contagious. He cooked up a trucker’s breakfast for us as we chatted about art and my trip and his life as an artist. It turns out he doesn’t sell his paintings and had no idea until about ten years ago that he even had the talent to capture what he sees with watercolours, pencils, pastel, oil or just about any medium he decides to use. After a quick tour of his family’s home we got to work in his studio attached to the garage. He showed me a variety of paintings and sketches he had done with other models which gave me a good idea of what kind of poses and effects he is looking for. I disrobed behind a giant easel and waited for instruction as he got his paper and pencils ready and got the music playing from his computer. By 8:30-ish the space heater was on full blast and the first playlist was the Dixie Chicks so I was a happy model.
How would you like me to start, I asked. He suggested that I just move to the music and he will try to capture a line here and there. What the hell, I thought…Sure, I said! So I moved and posed and turned and such each twenty seconds or so until he decided on a pose he wanted to see for a longer pose. He asked me if I could squat, like I “was shitting”. So I squatted, forward, back, side. My feet fell asleep as he drew the pose over and over from different angles on the same piece of paper. I leaned forward on my hands and he was thrilled at the weird way my fingers and toes bend too much. He wanted to accent my undercut because each side of my head looked distinct from the other. He asked me to show him my fanny (ps. A fanny here is not the fanny at home)…but don’t really show it…move a little so he can just think he can see it. Then he would erase the whole sketch and we would start over. A huge mirror was placed on the platform with me so he could put his paper on the glass and draw upsidedown from my reflection. I laid with my head hanging over the side of the platform so he could paint my face upside down.
(NOTE: Just as he started this piece his teenage daughter burst into the room crying about someone named Borat. He rushed out of the room with an apology and mumbled something about a cat…so I just waited. My one job is to not move but I had no idea how long he would be so I just waited with my head hanging down over that plywood platform and the space heater blasting on my head. At least the music was still playing. About ten or fifteen minutes later he came in the room again and started to work again. Apparently Borat was one of the family kitties and the poor girl found him in pieces on the road outside their home. My wait was the time they needed to bury the cat in the backyard. And onward with the art!)
Surprisingly, the portrait he did of my face with my clothes on was the most challenging of any pose I was asked to do. Having someone a couple of feet away from my face and studying my eyes for their expression and emotion was a slice of personal development because all defenses had to go down and I had to remain present in the moment. I have spent so much time and effort building walls and trying to project strength and independence that I felt a little panicky that it would be a relative stranger who might see the real contents of my heart that day.
As random as this all sounds, it was inspiring to watch the ideas flow and to be part of this work that was undefined, had no expectations or destination and to be part of it. I felt elation and smiled through my poses as I felt in control of my destiny and free of normal bindings. I was asked to come and look at the paintings halfway through and asked what I thought they needed. I was asked to simply fall asleep while he painted a pose with my feet propped up (my feet were filthy from walking around the studio and I appreciated the little nap). We stopped for lunch with his wife and watched a little rugby. My wedding song came on while I was posing and I couldn’t move and had to keep my concentration. He asked me about my story and my marriage and my journey here in NZ. He painted my balloon girl tattoo and my photo-bomb buddy, Klaus, into the pictures so they would be mine. By 4:30 p.m. we were both tired and I was ready to be shipped back to the bus stop so I could make my way back to my couch surfing house in Christchurch with a day’s pay in my pocket.
In the weeks since that session Jeff has been sending me the finished paintings he has made from the sketches he did that day. One in particular features the “shitting pose” as he calls it, my tattoo and a boatload of colours. He calls it “Floating up from the shit” and he could not have done a better job of providing me with a beautiful snapshot of my life right now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow, but on that exact day.