I'm standing in Plymouth, naked, and everyone's staring at me. If this was anywhere but the art college, I'd now be bundled into a van by a copper hiding my tackle with his helmet. But here, in the bosom of a white-brick studio, the only heat coming from an electric fire slowly roasting my buttocks, I can swing free in the name of art. I am a life model. Hello, world.
Until today, I'd never been one to unleash myself on others.
So I worried how I'd feel when that robe hit the floor and I was exposed to a roomful of youngsters. 'It's like one of those dreams where you turn up to school naked,' says Naomi Lang, marketing officer at Plymouth College of Art, when she greets me in the canteen. Very similar, I agree, recalling the panic that such dreams inspire. 'I've always quite liked the idea of going to the beach naked,' she adds. Not the kind of thing I need to hear right now. I imagine a room of 25 girls peering out from behind easels as I'm ordered to the front to drape myself naked across a table, lying stone-still for an hour, thinking hard about Susan Boyle.
Lecturer Becalelis Brodskis calms my fears before the session starts. 'If at any point you can feel something happening,' he says, 'just tell me that you need the loo.' Have I brought a robe? he asks. I haven't. I pad barefoot to the studio in nothing but a white sheet, feeling like a kid who's forgotten his PE kit.
It's a relief to find only six students, five of them male, sitting in a semi-circle around a sheet laid out on the floor. Turns out they're animation students who'll be drawing me on laptops. It all seems very laid-back, which is perfect - it's a three-hour class.
My co-model for the session is John, a shy, heavy-set man with hints of grey in his pony-tail, who works at the college modelling full-time. He's wearing a blue robe, which exposes his tattooed feet. He smiles supportively as Bec briefs the students. All too soon, Bec gives us the nod. I look at John, who whips off his robe and places it on a chair, revealing a torso and thighs covered in tattoos. 'Oh, balls,' I think, 'here goes.' One swift action. The chaps are out. The most natural thing in the world.
And to be honest, it is. Once the initial moment is past, it's not as bad as I'd feared. The difficult bit is knowing where to park your gaze. I make eye-contact with an oriental student, and am instantly reminded that I'm naked. I look away and catch a glimpse of John, noting that he has a pierced member. The point where the wall meets the ceiling suddenly becomes fascinating.
Bec is an enthusiastic teacher. He gets us to stand naturally, and asks the students where we might be. One suggests a bus-stop, and they do quick sketches that capture this idea. It leaves me to ponder a couple of questions: where is this nude twosome heading? And where have I stashed my travelcard?
We do a series of 10-minute poses. One involves a chair, on which I sit imagining I'm watching Arsenal-Liverpool on a pub telly. The nakedness soon ceases to be an issue. I realise I'm the only one who cares about me; all the students care about is getting better at art. Between each round, we move back to our corner and climb into our robes. Or sheets. I ask John how he got into it. He says his first time was a couple of years ago, in front of 30 17- to 25-year-olds. He'd turned yellow and sweated.
The college is very serious about its duty of care, both to the 25 models on its books and the students. Everything is done to make the models as relaxed as possible, and to keep the students safe. All potential models have criminal record checks done on them - it has been known for people to enter the life-modelling world because they get a kick out of students seeing them naked.
Most, of course, do it for the money - about £15 an hour - or to benefit learning. And it is fun. Especially in the second half, when the room becomes a film set. Bec sets up a motion scene, and I pretend to push John to the floor. Looking for the best angles, the students move about like film directors, making frames with their hands.
'Do you want them naked?' asks Bec. 'Is there any point?' says John. We do it clothed, the relief palpable on the face of one lad, who has sat down for a striking 'between the knees' shot. The students thrive on this style of learning. At the end, one shows me a rough sequence that he has animated. It's impressive.
I'm back in the canteen, clothed, and Bec asks if I'd do it again. I would. Turning up to school naked wasn't so bad. 'You'll never be freer,' says John. I don't know - a nude dash across the turf at Wembley must be liberating. All in the name of art, of course.
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