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March 4, 2009

Book Notes - Kathleen Rooney ("Live Nude Girl")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

More than a simple memoir, Live Nude Girl delves into the historical and sociological aspects of nude modeling as well as Kathleen Rooney's personal history, and is a witty, entertaining, and engaging read.

Kathleen Rooney is currently in the middle of a 25-city book tour with Kyle Minor.

In her own words, here is Kathleen Rooney's Book Notes essay for her book, Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object:

For almost six years, from January of 2002 through June of 2007, I earned part of my living by working as an art model—mostly nude, but sometimes dressed—for university classes, community drawing groups, and individual painters, sculptors, and photographers. Often, as a matter of professionalism and courtesy, I was expected to remain silent—an object, as the subtitle suggests—but equally often I was able to talk with the artist or artists, or to listen along with the artists to music playing in the studio.

These days I have a steady nine-to-five office gig which involves showing up fully clothed to a cubicle near the top of a skyscraper downtown. I like this job, but I really miss modeling—the thrill of being nude, the satisfaction of collaboration, and the exposure to new ways of thinking and seeing—and certain music helps me remember what I loved about those years. Songs actually show up quite a bit in Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object: songs that played in studios as I worked, and also songs that make me think of particular people, places, and things from that time.

That said, I'll kick off this set of Book Notes with music that isn't mentioned in the book, specifically:

"4'33"" (Four minutes, thirty-three seconds), John Cage, 1952

Frequently, the studio is a place of intense concentration that seems silent at first, but that isn't actually so. As in Cage's experimental piece—where the performer pointedly does not play his or her instrument over the course of the three movements—the room is quiet but not-quiet, rustling with all kinds of incidental sounds: charcoal scraping paper, students turning pages of newsprint, feet shifting, sneakers squeaking, the teacher talking, sick people sneezing, sighs of frustration, clay squishing, spray bottles spraying, shutters clicking. As the model, your stomach might be growling. You might have the hiccups, or swallow a burp, or stifle a fart. There might be street noise coming in through open windows, or trains going by, or ambulance sirens, or a ringing in your ears. All kinds of ambient sounds that you wouldn't necessarily normally notice create a cacophony when you are made to sit extremely still and pay attention.

"Changes," David Bowie, 1971

Not all art modeling consists of holding super-still and noticing the patterns of background noise, of course. A large part of the time, you are thinking not only of the pose you're holding, but also of the pose that you'll take next. Traditionally, an intro to drawing class will start with a few fast gestures—quick, tossed-off poses you throw and hold for maybe 10 seconds, maybe 15, working up to 30 and then a minute and then maybe 2 minutes and so on. Eventually, you'll do a couple fives, a couple tens, and then settle in to some longer, more sustained poses. All of this can be challenging and require the use of imagination and common sense—you want to give the artists something interesting to draw, but you want to give yourself something you can hold without putting your extremities to sleep—but for me, the toughest ones were always the rapid-fire 30 second gestures.

In an eerily and comically appropriate turn of events, the first song playing on the classroom boombox at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Georgetown the very the first time I posed was "Changes" by David Bowie. I was incredibly nervous and suddenly shy about taking my clothes off for 20 or so strangers, but this song broke the tension. The teacher was using a timer and calling out "Change!" as the other model and I ran through our paces, and everyone, including us, giggled when she'd yell that as David Bowie went "Ch-ch-ch-changes."

"Dazed and Confused," Led Zeppelin, 1969 (originally Jake Holmes, 1967)

Asking a roomful of two dozen art students what they want to listen to can be like asking the same number of people to agree on pizza toppings. For some reason, the music that seemed to get the most consensus, at least in a lowest-common-denominator sort of way, was Led Zeppelin. "Lots of people talk and few of them know, / soul of a woman was created below," says the song. Obviously, nobody ever sculpted my soul, per se, but when I'd sit for life-sized sculptures, the sculptors would have to make little wooden Xs called "butterflies" to support the heaviest parts of their constructions, including the renderings of my chest and head—and imagining butterflies fluttering where my heart would be would make me feel as if something soulful was taking place, especially if Zeppelin was on in the background.

"Come Away with Me," Norah Jones, 2002

This song is super-safe, snoozy and soothing, and was in heavy rotation at a drawing group I posed for in Boston that consisted of four highly talented female artists. I'd met them in a class at the Museum of Fine Arts, and they'd recruited me to pose privately. Doing so was always a fun and affirming experience, with lots of snacks and chitchat. This song reminds me of how familiar and comforting that relationship was, how dependable. Like a Starbucks. I'd get so comfy sometimes, it would be hard to stay awake. I was nude and therefore vulnerable, but also totally at home, full of trust and reassurance.

"Let Me Kiss You," Morrissey, 2004

A lot of the artists I posed for had fantastic playlists, but one of the best iPods ever belonged to a sculpture professor at Boston University. When I was posing for him for a larger-than-life sculpture of "Lot's Wife," I heard this song for the first time and it made me happy-sad in the way that most Smiths/Morrissey endeavors do:

Close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire

And let me kiss you, let me kiss you


But then you open your eyes and you see someone that you physically despise

But my heart is open, my heart is open to you.

Self-invention, self-absorption, self-abnegation, self-offering. Gender issues, body issues, identity and discovery. Longing for connection and fear that said connection may never occur. The eternal struggle between the real and the ideal. This song had it all, but was also kind of hilarious. One of the things I love about art modeling is the way it provides a space in which all body types, sizes, races and ages are truly welcome. But personally, I struggle (as most people probably do?) with how I feel about my appearance: about trying hard to be what somebody else wants over and over. Are you admired? Are you despised? How much control do you have over that anyway?

"Brand New Key," Melanie, 1971

This is another discovery courtesy of the BU sculpture professor. After we finished "Lot's Wife," he used me as the figure for some allegorical pieces representing "Spring" and "Fall," and this song came on his iPod one afternoon and completely cracked me up as I was kneeling there nude, trying to look autumnal:



Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates

You got a brand new key

I think that we should get together and try them out you see

I been looking around awhile

You got something for me

Oh! I got a brand new pair of roller skates

You got a brand new key

The cute and not-so-subtle lock-and-key sexual imagery also parallels the innuendo or erotic undertones that are often present in a posing situation, but that are sublimated or ignored or that dissipate quickly as everyone gets to work. Also, the lyric that says "I'm okay alone, but you got something I need" resonates with the way that, for me, I guess, there might be something just a wee bit needy in art modeling—in being basically fine without the approval of others, but in still craving it nevertheless.

"Death is Not the End," Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 1996 (originally Bob Dylan, 1988)

Art and art modeling in general make me contemplate mortality—my own and that of others—but sculpture especially puts me in mind of death. Fittingly, I first heard this version of Bob Dylan's song in a Boston University classroom where the half-dozen or so students were spending a semester making life-sized sculptures based on my body:

When you're sad and when you're lonely

And you haven't got a friend

Just remember that death is not the end

Can it be that death is not the end? Perhaps, perhaps not. One of my favorite critics, John Berger, writes that "Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually, it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented." Art as a means to immortality—both of the artist and of the sitter—holds considerable appeal. I'll be dead one day, and so will all the artists who ever represented me, but maybe we can leave something lasting behind.

Kathleen Rooney and Live Nude Girl links:

the author's website
the author's book tour blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
MySpace page for the author
publisher's page for the book
Goodreads page for the author
Goodreads page for the book
LibraryThing page for the author
LibraryThing page for the book
excerpt from the book

Bookslut review
Los Angeles Times review
On the Seawall review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out Chicago review

The Daily Beast profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Oneiromance
Page 99 Test for the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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