When I was young and crazy and living in San Francisco, I met a man with a beautiful Italian accent, a mane of dark hair, and an annoying clove cigarette habit. He called himself a sculptor. We will call him Ignazio.
Ignazio told me he sold his work to the fanciest restaurants in town, where the pieces were used as mock-ancient dÃ©cor. He took me to dinner at one so I could see.
Hovering around our pasta al’oglio and zuppa di pesce were ghostly female shapes —torsos with arms outstretched or hands crossed at the heart and full-length bodies in classical poses, some holding drapes, others in repose. His “sculptures” — a mute and frozen Greek chorus — were actually plaster life casts of nude women.
A few were burnished on hips and hands with gold leaf. Others had been dusted at dÃ©colletage and derriere with sepia-toned powder. All were backlit, spot lit, or warmly glowing from hidden Christmas lights.
After fishbowls of cheap house Chianti, he asked if I would model for him. He couldn’t pay me, he wanted to be clear, but I’d become “himor-tal” as he put it. I blushed and stumbled over my words–but of course, I said yes.
Preparing for our session was anxiety provoking and time-consuming. He had warned me that the plaster would stick to body hair. That meant I would actually have to shave my armpits (he hadn’t mentioned the bikini area, so I just assumed I was posing for a waist-up torso). I wasn’t thrilled about the shaving. But I made it happen.
Ignazio worked his magic in a borrowed garage in the Sunset district, a typically grey neighborhood facing the Pacific Ocean. The place where he expected me to strip down was as cold and damp as a basement, and lit by the harshest fluorescent lights I’d ever seen.
He had a space heater the size of a toaster and a bucket of paste already prepared. I had a robe in my messenger bag, but there was nowhere to dis-robe without being seen. I had to doff it all right there in front of him; instinctively, I turned my back as I removed my heavy sweater and jeans.
The first red flag went up immediately. When I turned to face him, cheesy smile, goosebumps marching up my spine, and hands protectively placed over my groin, I noticed The Look. That’s the way a man will telegraph his disappointment without saying a word. “Hmmm,” he frowned, his gaze lowering to my belly. “A few sit-ups wouldn’t kill you.” My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I closed it, and he moved me into place and got to work.
He asked me to hold a drape, which was just a thin thrift store bedsheet soaked in plaster. He took my right hand, folded the slimy fabric into it, and positioned it at my right shoulder. Not only was the drape uncomfortably cold and slippery, but it was also heavy. Ignazio arranged my left hand low on my left hip and moved to tuck another part of the fabric there, when he stopped. “I told you to shave!”
“Riiiight,” I said, questioningly. “And I did …”
“No, no–you did not take it all off. This is not good. The plaster, it’s going to stick.”
I thought he was going to tell me to leave. I was blushing, but he was not looking at my face.
“Oh, the plaster …? I’m fine with that. Really.” I panicked, embarrassed, wanting to be The Muse at all costs. “I’ve done waxing before,” I lied, “ripping off a little plaster won’t bother me.”
And so he proceeded. The drape was moved into position across my body, smoothed again my skin from shoulder to thigh, breast to bellybutton, and below.
Still mortified about my pubic hair, I soon had another problem. The drape was so heavy and the plaster so cold that I started to shiver uncontrollably. I began seeing little glimmers–stars–at the edges of my vision. Please don’t let me faint.
I asked Ignacio if we could take a break. “I’m not feeling so great. I think I need some water, maybe a snack.” The Look shot my way again. He shrugged and turned away to wipe his hands on a rag.
“Uh, would you mind handing me my bag?” Clearly, I was pretty much glued to the spot where I was standing.
This seemed to be too much to ask. He turned back to me. “You know, maybe you actually shouldn’t eat anything. I need my models to be nearly perfect, and I’m already dealing with your pot-belly stomach.”
And with that, something snapped in me. Being a muse is clearly overrated. I dropped the sheet and scraped clods of half-dry plaster from my skin. Pulling my sweater on and shoving still-sticky legs into my jeans, I told him I was done. Without waiting, I grabbed my bag and bolted.
I waited at a rainy bus stop, with plenty of time to think over what I had just experienced. Predictably, I was depressed and, worse, self-critical. I felt fat — and stupid. Why did I ever think I could be someone’s muse?
As those doubts morphed into a burst of rage, I felt myself rise up inside. As the bus headlights finally came my way, the anger shifted into exhilaration. I’d taken myself out of a bad situation, and now I knew:
A muse should be worshipped, not criticized.