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art by ShotHot Design

A study in flesh and mind

Fascinated by storytelling in all forms, Liz writes poetry, prose, comics, and song. Her work has been published in an array of publications including Daily Science Fiction,The Pedestal Magazine, Meanjin, Recursive Angel, and Sprawl. Liz moved from Australia to Americaís Pacific Northwest in 2009 and adores creating in two countries. Her website is lizargall.com
The model is privileged to work at the Albury-Wodonga Academy of Fine Arts and Neuroscience. Work permits are few and she needs to send half her ration to family up in the burning lands round Newcastle way. She has excellent references, but that doesn't count for much; the proof will be in her flesh, her stamina, her strength of will.
She removes her clothes in a dark change room. Someone has let a can of drink fall on its side and sticky Cack congeals on the bench--a waste of good, if foul tasting, nutrient. She removes her clothes, top half first: a soft crochet hat, elbow high fingerless gloves and three layers--soft hemp undershirt, polyurethane mid layer, thick wool shell. The whole lot pulled up and over her head in a single gesture, an easy, familiar motion. She folds them neatly and places them in her bag. She pulls off her shoes, lines them up on the scratched linoleum, then removes the bottom half: poly-leggings under button-fly goat leather, hemp underwear, wool socks, removed in a similar single gesture. Folds the pants in on themselves and places them in her bag. She stretches one arm, then the other, shakes her legs and thinks through possible poses and energy she will bring to the class. She lives to do her job well--she loves to see how artists develop and grow and make classes come to life with potentia.
The model opens a tall cupboard in the back corner of the change room; she grimaces as her hand touches congealed Cack on the handle. She climbs into the cupboard and closes the door with a soft click. She hears the machine rumble as it gears up for the sensor sweep, processors whirring. Eventually there is a small ding. Synchronization complete. The model steps out of the cupboard and, keeping her sticky hand away, pulls on a thin poly-cotton dressing gown. She checks herself in the mirror and opens the door to the awaiting class.
Studio Four is a fairly standard space, awkward fluoro lighting and a few spot lights suspended from the ceiling, a heat lamp beams down on the podium in the centre of the room. She shivers under the thin robe; she'll need that heater. About thirty students, young with a scattering of olders, prepare themselves at their easels. Some chatter with the familiar nervous bravura of first-year intakes trying to find their way. Some prepare their space, breathe deeply, meditate, and organize their materials. Each easel has cheap reusable neuprint, sticks of charcoal, and sand trays for warm-up sketches, and a basic Tablet/Stylus with a 5dial4slide array. A few ambitious students have full 256ControlBoards, but two-thirds of their array has been taped off to reduce their pallette back down to the 5&4. The model nods approvingly--too many choices just muddy the mindscape to start with; they have to learn technique first.
The model looks for a cloth to wipe the Cack off her hand and the bench, has just found the cleanup sink but no cloth when the Great Teacher arrives. He is a petite man, but his presence fills the room. He is the best, he makes the best. He is a new prestigious prize for the Academy with a reputation so glorious that applications have already doubled. The students spring to attention, each behind an easel, dominant hand closest to the board, body at a 45 degree angle, hips and shoulder towards the podium with open, upright posture. The students insert their neural interface earplugs, carefully coiling the cable over their shoulders. The cabling is more awkward than wireless but has superior resolution and response times.
She walks over to the Great Teacher, smiles warmly. "Hi I'm..."
"Yes, I can tell by the robe. Once I have inspected the class you are required to be on the podium. Make sure you are ready."
The Great Teacher circles the room, correcting posture with precise raps from a slender bamboo baton. His jagged eyebrows and superior lip draw fear, admiration, hatred, and a cult-like devotion from his class. A student bites her lip, watching his corrections with furtive glances, terrified she'll fail. Another smirks and wears her skirt up high. As the Great Teacher prowls the model washes her hands in the sink. The soft whoosh of water elicits an angry scowl and she turns off the tap abruptly, wipes her hand on the dressing gown.
When the inspection is done she drops her dressing gown onto the floor, stands on the podium and moves into her first pose. It's a challenging pose, arms uplifted away from her body while twisting her torso in a large sweep. It's high energy, works from all directions, and has interesting negative space, an excellent pose to warm up the class and get them drawing confidently.
"No, no... not that, dear, do this." The Great Teacher places his left hand on his hip in a fairly generic, if splayed, stance. The model observes the shape, intent, and through line, places herself into a similar pose, but with a more graceful composition and flow.
"No, like this." The teacher displays a rougher, more exaggerated pose, one knee bent awkwardly. "Ah," thinks the model, "an exercise in mundane grotesquerie, interesting." She observes the key points of the pose; it is important to understand the voice and intent of the teachers so that she can complement their teaching methods and curriculum. She refuses to be one of those models who simply rotate through a number of set pieces and never extend themselves. She has noticed how much more the students develop when working with a dynamic model who actively engages with the creative process.
"Try to observe closely," says the Great Teacher, not really looking at her fresh pose, tapping the baton in his palm and smirking at the short-skirted student. "It's like this."
The model observes his new stance, the way his right hand grasps his hip, the left held in the air. She mimics his pose exactly, although she keeps her face carefully blank and does not include his sneering expression.
The Great Teacher snorts in disgust, shakes his head and rolls his eyes. She swiftly finds a new pose, a mangled combination of the previous three, fighting down anger and a hint of panic. She has no idea what he wants and she will not survive at this school without his recommendation.
"That will do." The Great Teacher nods his head stiffly. "Twenty minutes people, we've wasted enough time finding the pose. Make every moment count; if you fail to produce you will be penalized. There will be no hipsteric wishy-washy smudging in my classroom." He patrols the room as the students draw slowly, clumsily, still unfamiliar with scratchy, analogue media like charcoal and conte. Her feet will be black from the powder they leave on the floor. She will have to keep a careful eye out for thumbtacks when she stands. The model balances awkwardly, the toes on her left foot clenching to hold her balance. As her left arm cramps she contemplates what to do next, what will please, what will work. She can't afford to screw this up.
"Change," barks the Great Teacher. She breathes a small sigh of relief, rolls her shoulders and moves swiftly to a new pose.
"No, not that." The Great Teacher sighs again and addresses the class. "Inexperienced models often struggle to find new and interesting poses. It is important as an artist to be able to direct the model, observe."
Over the next three hours the model struggles to maintain her self-esteem under his capricious and biting direction. She draws deep on her accumulated experience. She can do this--she has to. She does yoga every morning, frost making the ground slick as she follows the poses of a wrinkled master in Remnant Park. She does weights and running on alternative days, meditation in the evenings to keep herself strong enough to sustain the physical and mental rigours of her craft. And yet she finds herself faltering under his grinding displeasure; it chips away at her and age-old insecurities arise with venomous fangs. There must be something true in what he says, he is the Great Teacher. She is, underneath all her bravura, inadequate, talentless scum. She pushes herself harder, to prove herself, to show him, to show herself. She hates him, what he's doing to her. She gazes at him, unblinking, quiet death in her eyes, her pose full of intent, she will show him. She will show him. The Great Teacher meets her gaze and nods. She sees him mouth "good." She wants to kill the demeaning fucker.
"Now we move to the emotion, the heart of things. Give us a quick angry pose.... No no no real anger, get primal, get nasty.... Yes, perfect... or as close as we'll get with her."
She sweats, grimaces, and bares her teeth, her face frozen in a rictus, body hunched and menacing. Bands of pain cross her back and legs; lactic muscles cramp in exhaustion. She vows to show him, if it kills her, she can do this.
"Keep it steady."
The model feels a single drop of sweat coalesce at her armpit and draw breath before tracing a path down her side. Another clean line of salt falls along her waist and the back of her left leg.
"Now, class, I want you to observe her posture of anger. Look carefully at her body, the skin. See how the muscles knot and tendons are tight. It is important to carefully examine and depict the physicality of her anger. Focus on the pure form, the body in space."
The model pushes down an itch, ignores how it crawls across her skin and into her hair. Constrains a wobble to maintain the pose. She focuses herself, reasserts her strength and clarity. She can do this, she is strong, she is enduring. A trace of a smile tickles her face, she knows how to give this nutbag anger.
"Your anger is wavering. Fix that."
The model nods internally, a fair call and a simple rookie mistake. They are moving into the heart of work now. She closes her eyes and focuses, imagines the shape of anger and brings it to her aching face, dutifully bringing back a spark to the pose in its dying minutes. Her emotions want to run on, to the joy of changing poses, how nice it will feel when this pose is done, the hope that any minute now she can change to something more comfortable. She clamps down on her hope, another errant itch, saves it for the next pose. She brings anger to her eyes. The students scritch scritch scritch, the sound of willow charcoal makes the back of her teeth ache. She prefers the gentler susurration of compressed charcoal. She focuses on the annoying sound.
"Pay attention. I could tell that her anger was wavering without looking into her head. The set of the jaw, the way the muscles contract under the skin. You must know the physical form as well as the mental. These drawings have not been practice games--even doe-eyed Maru next door knows this." The students nod their heads dutifully, watching the Great Teacher and the model with half-open eyes. Some students flicker with pride; they study under a superior teacher and are certain their success is assured. Some mournfully wish they were learning under Maru; a kinder, cuddlier teacher who'll tell them everything is wonderful. One student slips a blue bomb under his tongue while the Great Teacher isn't looking.
The Great Teacher claps his hands, a single crisp sound. "Now that you have mapped the basic figure, you may reach inside her head. Proceed."
The model feels the familiar tap of minds exploring her own. She replenishes her anger to keep her flow of emotion consistent as a class of hungry young minds take snippets from her, transforming her raw emotion into artistic renderings. She remembers a childhood of hunger and loneliness when anger was her only food; the boy who dumped her on her twelfth birthday and told everyone she smelled of roadkill; of her mother abandoned on the road to Newcastle; of stitching up her brother's face with cotton thread and needle because they couldn't afford a streetdoc. These are time-honed tricks as she lets the old survival anger rise to the surface, trickle down soft-etched grooves as her hindbrain concentrates on keeping her body immobile.
Time passes. Another drop of sweat finds a path down her body, quantum forces guide the droplet under her breast. She observes the cool path of the droplet, made alien through fatigue and hot lights as a counterpoint to the pain in her elbow, the fire tracing up her legs, and a mild desire to pass out.
"Yes, see how mind and body relate. It is important we ground ourselves in the fundamentals before diving into head-space willy-nilly. Now that we have closely observed the body in space we can unpack the emotion and make stronger artistic choices."
The Great Teacher's remarks draw to a close. The model feels a surge of relief. A change is overdue and it's the natural moment to move on to the next pose. She has a pose in mind, challenging, but expressive. Her next pose will be exquisitely joyful, deeply demanding, but so rewarding.
"Steady, girl, bring it back. Now, pay attention class, you can see her anger has diminished. This is common when many people tap the one model for more than a moment. We shall pause in our sketches, give her a moment to adjust and she will raise her emotional output to previous levels. A more experienced model would not indulge in such a lapse, but you must be prepared to wait for the less skilled--or perhaps just lacking in stamina."
The model's eyes glaze over with anger. She feels pieces of her core fracture and survival anger gnashes like a trapped beast longing for his throat. Dohment bastard, she thinks. Less skilled? In this kind of agony pose? You're lucky I've got the chops to hold it this long.
"Yes, like that. You do have to provide more direction to new models, but they are responsive."
"Especially when we hold the food coupons," giggles the blue-bomb-sucking student. His face now flushed and eyes dancing. Lightweight, thinks the model.
"Silence," roars the Great Teacher. "What did I tell you about proper decorum? No demeaning language in the classroom. The model must be treated with respect."
The student blushes and twiddles the dials on his stand as the girl next to him moves away, just a little. The model channels her hope into anger: It's going to be soon, yes soon, you freaking dohmer.
"I'm sorry about that, dear," says the Great Teacher, suddenly all ginger and spicemeats. The model glowers suspiciously, as much as she can with an immobile face. "It is a lovely pose, and very natural. Hold it for the rest of the class, dear, we'll really focus in on it. How does that sound?"
The model's face drains of all colour, her mind a whirl, She wants to scream, "Of course not..." He smiles sharply, knowingly. Her eyes dilate, then narrow as he shakes his head ever so slightly.
"Fine," she says through gritted teeth, her mind spiking sharply in waves of anger. She follows the wave of anger down, diving deep so that it will save her. Diving deep enough that she can push through despair and the urge to buckle, the stabbing pain in her chest, her jaw, and arms, the way it's difficult to breathe now and students suck at her mind through thirty greedy straws. No, you nutbag freakjob, you know I only took this pose because it was a quick one. I can't... I have to eat... I have... I am going to fucking kill you. Rage bubbles in her belly.
"Oh, now don't push yourself. Lovely enthusiasm but impractical, we've got at least another half hour."
The model sweats and tries not to shake. Threads of fire rage through her muscles. They whirl and eddy around her joints, as imaginary ants crawl under her skin and coalesce for an impromptu picnic in her left thigh. She bites the inside of her mouth, focusing on the pain to keep her body still and her emotions steady. Her right leg is numb. She can see it turning white and blue out of the corner of one eye. She tries, illicitly, to wiggle her toes but the message can't get through. She glowers at her foot, concentrates hard and eventually one toe curves downwards. A new shiver of pain races up her leg.
She focuses on her anger, turns her grief and pain into a righteous simmer. Long poses are supposed to be easy, mellow explorations, kittens and puppies, first love, a mild discomfort, the occasional boredom or movie soundtrack. She is scraped raw as the students lap lap at her mind and her body pulses in agony.
She sees the students grow ugly, their faces showing their steady diet of anger, their canvasses dark and brooding. She focuses on how much she hates them all and will ravage the world. She digs deep into ancient rage and horror as they probe her mind and draw her body. Her brother's bleeding face, her mother's emaciated body, the stench of burning lands, and the hatred of loneliness. They take it, they lap lap away at every moment. At every thread they spread it open, fuck it, take it while she stands immobile, held still in her pride and desperation. Her eyeballs are puffy, her neck aches so much it hurts to swallow. She wants to hyperventilate or just stop breathing entirely. She feels deep bruises gathering through her bones and sinew, her mind slowly unraveling under the steady drain. She has turned everything she has, even her few sacred joys, into anger and chucked them in, burning, burning it all to prove herself and live. Her only coherent thought is her hatred of the Great Teacher, the final filament and weakening. It must be over soon, surely.
"Another ten minutes, class. Make sure you've captured it all."
She wants to scream. Is he insane? She wants to die as instinct holds her body grimly immobile. There is nothing but pain, physical and mental. Her body is numb and on fire, blue, white and screaming silently. The students surge into her mind to taste her for their last dribbling scribbles, all that she pours out like water from a jug until nothing is left.
The model wakes to the sound of the students packing up their equipment. Their eyes carefully avoid her collapsed, naked body in the middle of the room. A student with faded red hair and braces briefly makes eye contact, smiles apologetically, and looks away.
"Ah, you're awake."
The model rubs a fresh bruise. She must have acquired it when she fell to the ground. She remembers how sweet it was to be propelled into unconsciousness. She does not remember falling.
The Great Teacher hands her the robe, smiling. He throws a signed voucher down to her. It sticks to her cold, clammy skin.
"Don't worry, I've paid you in full despite your unauthorized break at the end." He turns to address the rest of the class. "I want you all back here on time tomorrow. Bring today's work, we'll be using the same model...."
It takes some time for the model to stand. She stumbles to the change room, a hobbled, crawling hop as one leg shrieks pins and needles--she cannot feel it, cannot move it. She sits on the ground, the Cack-sticky bench at eye height, and beats her numb foot with both hands, sensation slowly returning as she silently weeps. Eventually she can stand well enough to stand in the cupboard and sign out of the class's neuro-interface. She dresses and leaves.
She limps home, exhausted, shattered. She is numbly aware that she would feel angry if she could. She can feel synapses wincing at the prospect and at least she will eat today. She thought she was good at this, she thought she was a skilled, inspiring model. Now she doesn't know what she is. She weeps again in the shower and wants to call in sick tomorrow, but she can't afford to. She weeps when she realizes how little she has left to offer tomorrow and that if she doesn't perform well tomorrow she could be fired.
The hipsteric teacher next door, Maru, stops in on the Great Teacher after the class has left and looks at their sketches with an appreciative eye.
"Amazing stuff," Maru whispers. "Normally a model's pose fades over time, but these look so powerful and fresh. The detail is incredible."
"It's all about the technique." The Great Teacher smirks. "What are you teaching your little darlings tomorrow?"
"Same as today, drawing technique first, then lots of quick-fire intense emotions, brief sketches, so the students know how to take a tiny sliver and turn it into a powerful expression before emotion fades or becomes fatigued. What about you?"
"Oh," smiles the Great Teacher. "I think we'll do a nice long study of despair."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 20th, 2011


I started this story when I was applying to Clarion Writer's Workshop and was the first story I finished afterwards. I started this story in Canberra, Australia and finished it in Portland, Oregon, USA. Most of the teachers and artists I have modeled for have been wonderful collaborators and creators. In over a decade of modeling I have had two dreadful experiences--from one group I still carry the burn scar from a hot radiator. Those are rare exceptions. I hope I still model when I am eighty and have lots of great wrinkles to draw. Life Modeling is exhausting work (losing feeling in body parts and almost passing out are very familiar sensations), but creatively fulfilling. To see an artistís mind spark and get caught up in a creative flurry because of something you have inspired is exhilarating.

- Liz Argall

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