Naked Lunch, the David and the Birth of Venus…

Eight years ago, our life drawing group here in Suburbia limped along with fewer and fewer committed members and sought more participants. We needed to have steady funds to afford to pay a high enough modelling fee to entice models from downtown to brave long travel times and find it worth their while to come here and sit for us. The local Arts Council subsidized our makeshift studio space, but we were to scrape up the weekly modelling fee. There was a core group of 6 people willing to commit to the weekly sessions, but often several members had prior committments which caused them to miss  some, so we could never be certain of not having to scrape our pockets, week to week, in order to come up with the fee we promised to models and which we were obliged to cough up.

One evening, after a particularly low attendance, several of us and the model repaired to the Lone Wolf Pub to quaff a glass of wine and toss around ideas about how to increase our numbers. I arranged for the model to stay the night in our spare bedroom, a situation which “Rumpole” agreed to, and which he rather enjoyed because he then felt included in my activity in a more direct way – he found this particular model to be a character, full of stories and experiences neither of us had ever had, and even more so because this chap had been in the British Army in his youth, and now was a “Remittance Man”.

The glasses of wine served at the Lone Wolf revived us after the three-hour drawing session, and we madly brainstormed about how we could attract more members to the group as well as gather donations to give to the building fund for the proposed new Art Centre, as a formal thanks for the years of subsidized studio space.

People here in Suburbia tend to be quite conservative; they also revere tradition in the Arts,  and fear controversy. Therefore a “tasteful” happening was required – no scandal, no nudity, no offense of PUBLIC MORALS. However, we also had to put out an appeal to local artists – one which would encourage them to willingly fork over money on a regular basis in order to take part in the life drawing group, and to share the joy and pain of the weekly work-sessions with like minded others.

So, in order to make a nod to tradition, we determined that a reference to the Renaissance might be a good hook.  The Renaissance was a time of great figurative work, and of Major Art Heavies like Michelangelo, and Botticelli (among others), who would be familiar names to many suburbanites.  But, of course, living at the end of the 20th Century, we had to make connection to more contemporary culture as well. So, we bandied about a title for the Happening, and decided that “Naked Lunch” (a William Burroughs  book, and, in recognition of the transgressive nature of drawing from the nude, in our born-again conservative community’s estimation [never mind the numerous sex-toy shops, x-rated video stores and peeler-bars that exist here in suburbia]) might do the trick.

So “Naked Lunch” was theme, but how to emphasize this idea with live models? Monet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’herbe” with its offense against bourgeois morality, was discussed as a basis for doing a “mis-en-scene” with live models.  We dismissed it as not having far enough remove from prevailing moral codes. We deliberated about the “Fetes Champetres” compositions as having a certain possibility of being recreated with models, however it was not until we bandied around how we might reinterpret a classical composition with contemporary props that we hit upon Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” as our favoured point of departure.

As we sipped our wine we allocated who was to do what to make this happening come about. Since I had been dubbed by our group as “The Lone (Ar)Ranger”, I was to come up with the venue and co-ordinate the efforts by various group members in their chores of signage painting, poster design, publicity, and gathering the models and artists for the occasion.

It was decided that where “Rumpole” and I lived was central to activities down-town and would attract the most drive-by traffic. As well, our yard was huge, with handsome shrubberies and trees amongst which we could set up the models so they would not die of sun-stroke, and in the shade of which we could set up easels for the artists. We decided that we would provide a “lunch” of watermelon and other fruits, and lemonade with ice for visitors. “Naked Lunch – A Feast for the Eyes” was to be the header for our posters and signage, and we co-opted the image of” The David” as our mascot. He was to stand in all his Renaissance naked splendour and coyly hide his genitals behind a board advertising our header.

Tamela designed our mascot “Dave”, and the posters. Sherry (of “Sharold” fame) enlarged Dave onto large sheets of Coro-plast. As “Lone (Ar)Ranger”, I lined up the models, where they were to bunk and be fed, and the necessary props which would provide a contemporary twist on the “Birth of Venus”. Roger enlarged a colour photo of the  Botticelli reproduction at a local printers. I sent out press releases to the local and city papers, as well as the alternative press. It was no problem getting artists to come out and draw at this happening, since they didn’t have to pay, and also because they could have a lawn exhibition of paintings and drawings based on the figure.  All that was required was that they would pay a 30% comission on any sales they made, money which would go toward our group donation to the Art Centre Building Fund. The models donated their time gratis, and were wined, dined and housed at our expense. What we were hoping for was a clear and sunny day for our mutual effort.

Co-ordinating all this was quite a bit of fun, and we were very excited and quite well organized. The Sun God heard our anxious hopes, smiled on us and provided a gorgeous sunny day. We set up exhibition, signage, models, props, easels, artists, sun-shelters, refreshments so efficiently that one would have thought we did this regularly.

The mis-en-scene was situated in the shade provided by an apple tree on one side and a large holly tree on the other. There, Venus, a statuesque blonde young woman wearing a flesh-coloured body suit, stepped into a green-plastic child’s frog pool. At her feet, to keep our Venus cool, we placed a frog sprinkler which sent up intermittent arcs of water to bathe her lower legs. At her right stood an upright electrical stationary fan, connected to power by a long extension cord.  Zephyr(our ancient Remittance Man), wearing fancifully embroidered cut-off shorts, aimed the fan at Venus, while also puffing out his cheeks to suggest he was also providing added breeze.  A Sprite, in bikini and semi-draped in a sheer cover, wrapped herself around our Zephyr, as if supporting and also accompanying him. On the other side of the frog-pool, a bathing-suited handmaiden, casually swathed in a flowered sheet, readied another, more ornately flowered sheet, in which to receive and wrap the arriving Goddess.

Artists took their places at easels, and drawing began apace. Visitors started arriving; they wandered around looking at the work displayed, lounged on the lawn, watched as drawings were progressing, helped themselves to refreshments, and engaged the artists in discussions as to why they were doing all this. Martha, our photographer, took many shots, of the set-up and also visitors.

At one point in the afternoon, a couple of young men arrived in a little beat-up Japanese car.  They had come from the city, and had seen the advertisement in the alternative press, and being Naturists were quite intrigued about possible nudity on a suburban lawn, or that even people in the suburbs might have an inkling of how controversial a book “Naked Lunch” had been in the 60s. They seemed completely charmed by our set-up, and stated they understood why we chose the title for our happening, and why we translated it through a Renaissance reference.  They actually laughed while discussing with us the reasons why we determined to go about our activities as we did. They wolfed down a fair amount of our water-melon, and lounged about chatting up visitors.

Many visitors came, some as singles, couples, and also some families with children of varied ages.  We sold some work, signed up new members for our drawing group, sweltered in the sun and hid out in the shade for five hours.

Our most unusual visitor arrived near the end of the day, close to the time we planned to stop. A large van pulled up alongside the grass verge.  I was busy taking a breather,  munching away a piece of watermelon, near the periphery of the action. The side door-panel of this van slid back. Long, skinny, black-hose clad legs, sporting blood red stiletto-heels emerged from the shade of the van’s interior followed by a woman in mini-dress. As she sought steady purchase for her ridiculously high heels, she had turned her head down to look, her face obscured by a long mane of blonde hair. Finally, having got her footing, she tossed back her hair to reveal a carefully trimmed red goatee. She collected herself, tugged down her skirt and picked her way carefully across the grass toward me. “Welcome”, I said, “make yourself at home.” She gave me a gracious smile, then wended her way around the displays, looking at all the art work.  Then she took up station behind the artists and settled in to take a good look at people drawing, at the model set-up, and chatted with visitors gathered there.  I caught sight of Martha skulking around trying to take a picture of this person without being herself noticed.  I felt like going up to slap her away, but didn’t want to cause a scene.

There were no impolite double-takes, or snickerings behind up-raised hands from those assembled as this woman made her way around considering the whole scenario. The models maintained their professional mien. The woman stayed for some fair amount of time, bought a drawing, said her good-byes, disappeared inside her van and drove off.

We dismantled the set-up, removed easels, drawing materials and unsold work to various vehicles. Once the tidying up was completed, we all sat on the grass, tallied up the sales and donations, and debated as to which pub we would repair to for our evening meal. The Lone Wolf Pub became the destination for our well-deserved revelry, as it nicely book-ended our happening, after all it was the place where our idea for the “Naked Lunch” was born.

And there, at the Lone Wolf, truly pleased with ourselves, we began to plan a future happening for our group – “The Three Graces on Concrete – Naked Lunch II”.

5 Responses to “Naked Lunch, the David and the Birth of Venus…”

  1. Deborah Barlow Says:

    Great story. I’ve never heard of anything like this. Thank you for expanding my concept of what a drawing group can do.

  2. suburbanlife Says:

    Deborah – desperation can be a cause of a little bit of invention. We were limping along pretty badly! It is often amazing what group effort can yield. 🙂

  3. James Steerforth Says:

    I quite agree – great story, and well told. You seem to have lots of them. Have you ever thought of putting them together in a memoir?

  4. suburbanlife Says:

    Thanks, James – these stories are for my new granddaughter. I so wish my grandmothers had made journals about their life and times, and I do like to bother older people to cough up some of their stories as all lives have great information to be considered for edification. All for the sake of continuity…

  5. The Handmaiden Says:

    Thankyou for the flash from the past! I had forgotten the magic of that day, but I had not forgotten the flesh coloured two-piece “bathing suit” that I wore – I was prepared to be truly nude – and remember how funny it was when cars would drive by too fast to realize that we were clothed…
    I assume that this comment most likely will be read by few as the original post is many months old, but thankyou for letting me know it was here and the rest of your blog too! I will spend much time reading to catch up and continue to learn from you, my much missed mentor and friend.

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