New Model Old School: I sat for the Pretentious Cleveland Portrait Artists, and lived to tell about it.
The request landed back in February.
“Hi Erin,” wrote Tim Herron, cofounder of the Pretentious Cleveland Portrait Artists (PCPA), “I am always on the lookout for interesting models.” He added the sketch group was scheduling pretty far out, into August.
I blinked at the screen for a minute or two amid a vague feeling of disbelief. Me? Sit for a portrait? Um … really?
Despite my bewilderment, I responded, “That sounds grand!” and jotted down the date.
The next six months, of course, flew by and an uneasiness crept over me as the event neared. While I’ve been writing about art for years, I’ve never been the subject of it in such a direct way. And yes, I may have posed semi-nude more than a decade ago for my craft, this felt different. I was The Model.
Images raced through my mind. Jane Avril … Emilie Louise Flöge. (Yeah, right.) Pygmalion? Nah. What about that one movie scene …
“I want you to draw me like one of your French girls,” said a precocious Rose (Kate Winslet) to Jack (Leo DiCaprio) as he readied his charcoal pencils in the 1997 Titanic.
French? Nope. Even “girl” is a stretch for me. After all, I’m a short 58-year-old woman with long witchlike hair. So be it, I thought, this is who I am.
I’d seen others post about sitting for the group, to which I’d respond with a ‘like’ and some innocuous comment. Last month, however, Noelle Celeste popped into my feed urging anyone tapped by the group to take them up on the offer. “It was a splendid honor,” the City Club’s COO and Director of Advancement wrote on Facebook, but that’s not what stuck with me. She also said the session had her “breathing in pain and breathing out love.”
Well, sure I was going to breathe, but … pain? There was going to be pain?
Then I imagined sitting for so long. Hell YES that sounded painful. Would my fragile back start to hurt? Or my poor old hips? I could barely sit still for final Jeopardy for cryin’ out loud!
What would I wear? What about makeup? Should I gather up my unruly hair into an equally unruly topknot or just let it fly all over the place? Would there be weird poses? What in the name of ZEUS had I gotten myself into?
It mattered not. I had committed and if I blacked out and crumpled to the floor, they’d simply have to call the authorities and cart me off to the land of defunct and aged models.
Yeah, yeah, yeah … I tamped down my trepidation and got my carcass to the designated spot at the designated time.
The space at Artful Cleveland was friendly enough. As people trickled in and set up supplies and lights and electronics, Tim gave me the rundown. I was to simply sit and train my gaze on one spot. We’d have one 45-minute session followed by a 15-minute break. Then another 30-minute sit, another break, and a final 30-minute session. Sips of water and coughs and short exchanges were fine. There would be an online component to the proceedings, so all of this would be recorded. Tim would be taking stills of me as well.
At 7:30, they locked the doors and the sketching began.
Previously known as the Pretentious Tremont Artists, the group launched about 18 years ago in the Literary Café.
“When we first started,” recalls Herron, “we had five, maybe six [artists].” The tight group, which included Herron, cofounder Brian Pierce, and “a couple of stragglers” who wanted to join in and sketch, would ask bar patrons to sit as subjects. “We’d go from 10 at night to one in the morning.”
They meet every Friday even if it falls on a holiday. “We are hardcore,” says Herron, adding that the unwavering essence of the PCPA was sketching live models—until the pandemic shut down the world. Then the group was forced to either languish or go digital. They forged ahead online.
While they’ve returned to live Friday night sessions, the pandemic days ushered in a number of new members (an informal designation). Herron notes contributors now include artists from points as close as Cincinnati to farther flung locales such as Australia and Taiwan. Remote contributors can work from a live broadcast on Facebook, or still photos Herron posts.
“It’s really modest, really just low key,” explains Herron of the group’s raison d’etre.”We’re just trying to get steady practice.” The concept is simple: models give their time and at the end of the night, the artists give them the portraits. Subjects have included writers Les Roberts and Mary Doria Russel, playwright Michael Oatman, and museum consultant Dennis Barrie among so many others.
The group is old-school to be sure, but it’s also distinctive.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the United States where this happens,” says Herron. “Cleveland should be kind of happy that we give them something unique.”
There were nine artists in person and untold others online. Their heads volleyed between me and their work like as if we were at some cosmic tennis match. As the night went on, they spent less time studying me and more on their drawings. To my surprise, I was not overtaken with the fidgets (there’s even a three-hour video to prove it). An iPad played folk selections as I stared at my chosen spot. After a while my eyes played tricks on me, forming halos of light around objects in my direct and peripheral vision.
Here’s the weirdest thing, as the slow and distinctly human nature of the event plodded on, I felt something akin to relief. I basked in this quirky and authentic break from our lighting speed world. Take away the lights and electronics, and the evening wasn’t that far from what might have played out in a smoky studio a century ago, or even longer.
Truth: when all those erins started pouring in, it was a bit intimidating. Jim Pennington captured the way I think I look, while Kirsten Holt Beitler depicted the way I wish I looked. Phillip Evans made me colorful. I was happy in Laurie Lamb’s eyes, serious to Jean Marcellino, and surprised to Tracey Prescott. Betty Vasiliki Rozakis depicted a minimal Erin, while Paula Petlowany made me just plain fun.
One common thread wove through all of them: honesty. Suzette Cohen portrayed the asymmetry of my eyes, Nancy Notarianni captured the twist of my mouth, and John Ryan saw the lines life has carved into me. Initially I felt a bit vain and out of control, but the more accustomed I became to the images, the more I appreciated each element of the kaleidoscope. The whole thing was oddly freeing.
In the following days, Tim posted image after image (including an embroidered effort from Sarah Woehrman Lane) and then an elaborate blog post. So many sketches! I “liked” each effort on Facebook and thanked the contributor. While the repetition of gratitude may have seemed rote, it was anything but. I meant every single “thank you” with all my heart.
The artists had given me a part of themselves, however quietly, but they also realized a part of me that had been plain as day to everyone in the world, except for just one person.