“Do you ever, um shave that area?”
I am standing on a tall, round plywood pedestal. He is pacing around me in a circle like a lion stalking its prey. With me up on the pedestal, my bikini line is just about eye level for everyone in the room.
Yes, my bikini line.
Actually, my naked bikini line.
Did I mention that I was naked?
I try not to focus on the fact that my exposed nether region is just inches away from the ever-present cigar in his mouth. I hold my breath and turn my head ever so slightly so as not to be forced to breathe in the cloyingly sweet, voluminous clouds of smoke that envelope my head whenever he opens and closes his lips around it (the cigar, not my nether region). The smoke coats the inside of my mouth like a film and tastes vaguely of Texas barbecue.
I had been relieved when I’d received my “instructions” for posing the day before. His studio director, Laurie called and asked if I had a few minutes.
“Of course,” I’d said.
“Your job will be very simple. You will pose for 8-hours per day. You will have a ten-minute rest break every 50 minutes and a one-hour break for lunch. It is extremely important that you keep conversation to a minimum. Really it works best if you just respond to him when he speaks. Do you have any questions?"
It sounded good to me. I had been rehearsing lame small talk with him in my head for the last two weeks. I was actually happy that I wasn’t expected to chat with him.
“No, that sounds fine,” I said with a smile. “Thank you.”
But now Robert has removed his cigar from his mouth and is staring up at me with a disarmingly intense gaze.
Ayyee! "Do you ever shave down there"? — that’s a question!
I want to pretend that I didn’t hear him. I want Laurie and her assistant to be instantly incinerated. Most of all I want to disappear myself. But Robert Graham has asked me a question and now he is watching me with an air of impatience, waiting for an answer.
Suddenly my throat is unbearably dry. I cough slightly and cover my mouth. Instantly a clear, glass of water is placed in my free hand. A square, white linen napkin replaces it after I take a few sips.
It is the best glass of water that I’ve ever had. My throat feels both cool and silky-smooth as soon as I swallow. I wonder briefly if they’ve added something to the water to make it taste so amazing.
“Thank you,” I say quietly.
I turn my attention back to Robert who is still staring up at me.
“Umm, I haven’t had to -- much” I say, starting to feel light-headed. “But I can?”
It is barely a whisper and is more of a question than an answer. But I can’t bring myself to talk about this highly indelicate, extremely private subject in front of these strangers any louder than that.
“Good,” he replies. His voice is a cannon boom.
He is examining my knees and thighs now, holding his cigar in front of him vertically for perspective. “Do that then and we’ll start tomorrow.”
* * *
I feel every breeze “down there” as I shift around in the doorway of his studio the next morning. The sun seems high for 9:00am in the sky above Venice Beach and I wonder frantically if I am late. By the time Laurie’s assistant (Beth, I think) opens the door, I’m in a complete panic.
This was a huge mistake! What were you thinking?
But I know what I was thinking. I know that this is no ordinary statue.
Robert Graham has asked me to pose.
Robert Graham? You know who he is.
The sculptor. The legendary, notoriously private artist who was married to Angelica Huston?
Remember he always wore those clear spectacles, crisp, white cotton shirts and black pants? He had that leonine mane of black and gray hair?
Okay, well, maybe you’re familiar the iconic, Detroit landmark -- that 90-foot, 8000b fist that is the Joe Louis memorial? What about those archetypal torsos he did for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (at the front of the LA Coliseum)? Have you seen those? And for you New Yorkers, surely you've come across that 8-foot tall, bronze Duke Ellington memorial in Central Park?
Yes, that Robert Graham.
And now this 26-year old commercial director’s receptionist is inside Robert Graham's inner sanctum -- the tomb-like quiet of his actual, private studio.
Beth discreetly points me toward a robe that hangs from a red and gray partition in the corner. A ticking wall clock quiets my panic as it assures me that I have arrived early enough.
I suppress a smile that plays with the corner of my mouth.
This is fu*#ing surreal…
“I should change now?” I whisper.
Why am I whispering?
She nods silently as she backs out of the room, closing the door carefully behind her. It makes an almost imperceptible snapping sound as the lock clicks into place.
I begin to undress slowly, listening intently to the profound silence around me. Walking to the window, I can see people talking and moving around outside on Market Street but I can’t hear anything at all.
Maybe this place is soundproof?
Back behind the partition, I step out of my dress, letting it fall to the floor and pull on the robe as quickly as I can. Grabbing my Sony Walkman from my backpack, I prepare for another “only naked person in the room" humiliation. Holding my chin up, I brace myself and step put from behind the screen.
There is literally nothing else in the room but the pedestal and small table with what I assume to be his sculpting materials and a Barbie doll-sized woman's body standing upright on a small pedestal of its own. I walk over to the small pedestal and touch the doll tentatively, feeling the outline and planes of her body with my fingertips.
Is this me?
All at once, I think I hear a soft sound behind me. The hair on my arms stands straight up.
Wait -- was that outside or inside?
Terrified that he might catch me in the wrong place, I scurry back over to the partition with my heart beating wildly, peeking from behind it at the door every few seconds.
20-minutes later I get up and tiptoe over to the door.
I should have brought a book.
At 9:30, my nervousness is starting to evaporate.
Really, Dude? I busted my as$ to get here on time and you’ve got me sitting here in this quiet room all by myself like an IDIOT?!?
I mean I SHAVED God Dammit!!
Suddenly, downstairs I hear a distinct banging sound (which causes me to jump and stub my bare toe on the polished, walnut floorboard). I cover my mouth to keep from yelping and hop around lightly on my uninjured foot. I can hear what sounds like a crowd of people hurrying around downstairs.
There goes my sound proof theory…
A woman’s staccato voice gives what sounds like urgent instructions to a man. I can hear his responses clearly.
“Right, got it. In two hours? No, he’s here now. Okay...”
Is that Robert?
Suddenly the studio door explodes open and in he flies. His hair bounces like yarn off the shoulders of that infamous, crisp, white, button down shirt. We make eye contact for a brief moment and he growls an apology for being late.
He indicates with an impatient gesture for me to disrobe. After I hang it on the edge of the partition, his eyes travel up my body, stopping briefly on my freshly shaved area, then his gaze rests heavily on the Walkman in my left hand.
“Oh,” I manage. “Is this okay? I know you’d said we’d start with my legs so I thought it wouldn’t get in the way. I mean if it does, I’ll put it down.”
“Hmm,” he grunts. “Okay for now, but your hand changes the whole position of your body depending on how you place it. When I get deeper into the clay I must have you posing – ALL of you posing exactly as the figure." He points to the Barbie-doll figurine. "Hands cupped in front, shoulders back, chin raised slightly, muscles taut. ALL muscles must be taut at all times."
It is the most he’s ever said to me all at once (in fact it was the most he’d EVER say to me all at once). From that moment on, I learn to read his facial expressions, hand gestures and posture.
He wastes nothing. Every movement for him has extreme significance. Idle chatter is out of the question. Our personal lives are just that. We never discuss or exchange any non-essential information.
There is no music, no outside sounds, no television.
Just Robert Graham, me and the ticking of that wall clock.
6-hours, 40-minutes and six months to go.
|Me and my Robert Graham torso, circa 2006|