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What Posing Nude Taught Me About Mortality

That it took me until I turned 27 to recognize my own mortality is ironic, considering that I was diagnosed with a never-before-seen combination of two strains of leukemia when I was 15.
February 21, 2015, 12:05pm

All images from video by Sam Gordon

I became aware of my own mortality in June of last year, just after I'd turned 27. I started working as an artist's model around ten years before that, but it wasn't until the belated realization of my eventual death that I recognized a connection between mortality and modeling.

Though it's a matter of fact that having your portrait painted captures you, the subject, at a particular and transient moment, I never thought of it that way. I didn't think about it being a past record in a distant future because modeling, for me, is a way of spending time in the present. Like being on a train, modeling is a way for me to stay still and yet be doing something. Going somewhere. Thinking about things. Getting transformed into art.


I first started sitting for a sculpture class in the North End of Halifax, an amateur session on Gottingen Street that averaged three students a week. Like most teenagers, I had body image issues, and I thought that getting naked for strangers would help solve those issues. It did, I think, in so much as I still have a body, and still have issues, but don't worry about either anymore. Later, I did it to make a little bit of extra money, but that never worked out. A male artist in his seventies posted an ad in Craigslist looking for female nude models, and, unfortunately, this did not make my alarm bells go off. I applied, got booked for a session, and felt deeply uncomfortable as soon as I arrived at his studio. The man smelled of antiseptic lotion and worked in a small room in his apartment where the West End becomes the suburbs. He showed me his portfolio of distorted women in highly sexualized positions, drawn from compromising angles. He asked me to take my clothes off—he stayed in the room watching me undress—and then he asked me to open my legs wider. When I didn't, he strode over to the table on which I was sitting and moved them himself. I never went back.

I started modeling for Rosy Lamb, an artist friend of mine, when I was 24, which, with four years' hindsight, I can see was an age of becoming. (I'm sure 27 is an age of becoming too—as every age is—but 24 felt particularly cusp-like.) Now, I only model for Rosy. Not to get over body issues, and not for the money, but because I enjoy the process of working with her.

The first time I posed for Rosy, she asked me to get onto a table topped with a mattress and find a comfortable position. I lay on my stomach and crossed my arms underneath my head. "Perfect," she said. "That's perfect, just like that." She got a permanent marker and drew circles to mark the feet of the table as well as her easel, so that the perspective would remain constant. She also used masking tape to mark my elbows, head, hips and feet, as well as the edge of the pillow I held. Any time I took a break, or when I returned for the following session, it was important to find just the same pose again.


It was such a comfortable position, and such a comfortable situation, that I often fell asleep as she painted me. When I was awake, we'd talk about our favorite New Yorker articles, movies we'd seen lately, and our experiences making art—the similarities and differences between writing and painting. When she was working on my face we didn't talk, and I would watch her face at work.

While she paints, her face gets so worked up with concentration that it almost looks as if she is laboring to build something physical. A house, not just a painting. She's constantly looking at me—in a way that feels like she's looking through me, like I am object, subject, background and foreground, but already just a painting—and putting the paintbrush at various angles to compare the lines of my body to the straight line of the brush.

I like watching the colors she picks up and wondering to which part of me they correspond, but it's almost impossible to guess. What I've learned is that human skin, flesh, is made up of every color, really. Orange, green, purple, yellow: Rosy makes every color fit. Sometimes she'll take a make-shift rectangular frame she's cut from paper and look at me through that, because it helps her see me as a final painting. I tell her that I have a similar trick with writing: I imagine that I'm watching a film of my book, and then I just write about what's happening in the film.


We both felt that in that first session, Rosy had captured an immediate likeness—I recognized not only my physicality but my mood, my sense of self. It had just been a few hours, and the painting wasn't finished, but I told Rosy that she'd "captured my soul." But as she continued to work on it over the next weeks and months, she would get frustrated, and worry that she was making it worse. Sometimes she would finish the session by putting the painting facing the radiator on the wall so that I couldn't see it. Not knowing anything about painting, or what she needed from me, I tried to tell her not to worry: "the soul is still there."

That it took me until I turned 27 to recognize my own mortality is ironic, really, considering that I was diagnosed with a never-before-seen combination of two strains of leukemia when I was 15. One of the strains was called "Natural Killer." Doctors told my parents that I was not expected to survive, and yet, here I am. I had such faith in the medical profession: I didn't let myself worry about dying. In the end the doctors and researchers proved that my trust was well placed, and perhaps that's why I came to feel I was immortal: I trusted that lightning wouldn't strike twice.

Two events converged that June that made me realize that I was not everlasting.

1: My grandfather died. His death was expected; he was old, had been weary for years, and my granny often said how he would beg for death to relieve himself of the constant pain of living. But when his death actually came, I was stunned. I knew it was coming, I just never believed it would arrive.


2: The day after my granddad died, I was diagnosed with pre-cancer of the cervix. (Pre-cancer is such a strange term. The notion of pre-anything is odd, really, because it's a hypothesis, or a promise, rather than a state in itself. I remember walking through the quad in my small liberal arts college and hearing one guy say to his friend: "What does pre-law even mean? Why do you tell people that? I could just as easily say that I'm pre-banging your mom.")

I was alone in my rented apartment in Paris when I got the medical results saying that the cells in my cervix had reached a pre-cancerous state. It instantly became hard to breathe—I remember gulping air. Having recently experienced shockingly bad service in several French medical centers, and it being too early in the morning to call anyone back home in Toronto, I Googled "cancer care help-line." My screen was blurry through tears so I clicked the first one I saw. It just happened to be in Ireland.

The woman who answered was so kind and patient that it made me cry even harder. I explained my situation through sobs, and she listened intently. After a minute, she said, in her lovely lilting accent, "Let me just get this straight. Are you Irish?" "No," I wailed. "And do you live in Ireland?" she said, still the pinnacle of kindness. "No!" "Right, well, I'm not sure what it's like in France," she said, "but this is what I would tell you if you lived in Ireland…"


Of all the people I spoke with before and after the procedure to remove the lesions, she was the most helpful. We even corresponded via email for a few days afterwards. The condition is a fairly common one; they removed the lesions successfully, and though I'll have to monitor it, there's no reason to believe further treatment will be necessary. But the most difficult thing to wrap my mind around was the fact that I had been wrong: lightning is indiscriminate. Lightning will strike however many times it likes.

I returned to Rosy's studio once or twice a week over the course of a spring and summer as she worked on that first painting. I went to Switzerland and got a tan, which meant that she had to darken the color of my skin; I got my heart broken and then fell in love, which probably changed nothing about the painting for most people, but when I look at it, I know. Rosy requested that I wear little or no make-up but that I keep my nails painted the color they had been the first day: she loved the pale oceanic blue and thought it worked well with the overall colors and feeling of painting. The name of the nail polish was "Sea Change," and the name of that painting is just Harriet.

Rosy started Harriet when she was three months pregnant, and finished just before she gave birth. It was a vulnerable period for her. She was wondering how her life and work would change as she became a mother, and how she would be able to preserve the space she needed to keep working. She spoke honestly and frankly about the difficulties and joys of living as an artist. I was naked, but she was exposed too.


Over the past three years, I've sometimes sat for her twice a week and sometimes once a month, and many months can pass where I don't pose at all. Rosy has made—or is in the process of making—at least ten paintings of me, plus a sculpture and a bas-relief. Sometimes the paintings get abandoned and painted over with a new person, and sometimes I'm the one to cover up a painting of someone else. That contributes to this feeling of present-tense, of transience, but also to the power of layering. If a painting takes weeks or months, there is a palimpsest of moments beneath the final picture. It's not like a photograph, which documents le moment décisif, but a history of the time spent making it.

In Man with a Blue Scarf, a book about his experience posing for Lucien Freud, Martin Gayford muses: "What, then, is a portrait painter painting? An individual who persists through time, or merely the way a ceaselessly mutating human organism appears in a particular time and place? It is a good question."

My friend Hanna modeled for Rosy for several years, before she moved back to Sweden, where she is from. Something about Hanna's softness and gentle beauty makes her look as if she's come straight out of a Vermeer painting: she has a classical, tender look about her. There's a particular painting of her that's always been one of my favorites: she's laying on her side, breasts and belly facing us, with a gray cloth—what always reminded me of a void, rather than a blanket—over her hips and legs. Her eyes are downcast and she looks mournful, nearly wounded, and yet simultaneously deeply at peace. I asked Hanna what she was feeling while it was being painted, and she laughed: "That painting took months, I was thinking so many things!" This was before I started modeling myself—before I knew about that layering effect.


While part of what I love about Rosy's paintings is the fact that I know and recognize many of her subjects, I also know that her work goes beyond familiar appreciation. After all, in portraits by any great artist, we care more about the work of the painter—brushstrokes, perspective, colors—than who the subject is, or how they may or may not resemble themselves. I don't care who the subjects are in Lucien Freud's paintings, for example, any more than I care about who was picnicking in Dejeuner sur l'herbe. That's not what interests me. And I definitely wouldn't ask any of the models, were I ever to meet them, what they were thinking about while the picture was being painted.

There's a famous quote often attributed to Rembrandt that "all portraits are self-portraits." While the paintings of me exist within Rosy's entire body of work, and in the future they will be considered as "Rosy Lambs" and not as "Harriet Alida Lyes," during the times that Rosy paints me it feels very much like an exchange. They couldn't exist without both of us there: they capture and incorporate us both.

Harriet sold a few years ago to a man I don't know and will likely never meet. I only occasionally wonder what he sees in it; because I have such a clear idea of what it means to me, his angle of interest in it doesn't matter.

Shortly after my realization last June, I told Rosy of my fears while we were having our lunch break between sessions. "Oh, of course," she said, immediately understanding. "That's the greatest fear. But isn't it just so amazing to be alive in this moment?"

I like modeling because it gives me the space to exist purely, or as purely as I can, in that present-tense feeling. I become intensely aware of myself while at the same time completely forgetting myself. I can forget about my mortality. But what I think I'll be grateful for in the future—in ten years, in 30 years—is the record it shows of me right now. I never thought of modeling as a way of becoming immortal, but as the paintings of me accumulate, I'm starting to see them as a timeline for both Rosy and me. While they won't make either of us live forever, they do immortalize something tangible.

In Harriet I see a girl in the middle of a conversation, unaware of her nakedness, unaware of what will happen to her in life, and OK with that.

Follow Harriet Alida Lye on Twitter, and see more work by Sam Gordon and Rosy Lamb.