Articles

CAREER GIRL WITHOUT CLOTHES

With amused contempt for people who think nude models are wanton, Helen Gaskin follows her unusual career of inspiring young artists

MCKENZIE PORTER August 1 1949
Articles

CAREER GIRL WITHOUT CLOTHES

With amused contempt for people who think nude models are wanton, Helen Gaskin follows her unusual career of inspiring young artists

MCKENZIE PORTER August 1 1949

CAREER GIRL WITHOUT CLOTHES

With amused contempt for people who think nude models are wanton, Helen Gaskin follows her unusual career of inspiring young artists

MCKENZIE PORTER

IN TORONTO THE GOOD 25-year-old Helen Gaskin earns her living posing nude before mixed classes of art students and professional painters.

When she first went to Toronto from more sophisticated Montreal just under two years ago she was frank about her job. Nowadays she is more evasive. She has found that the average Torontonian reacts to a life model in two sharp ways: the men leer and come closer; the women tilt their noses and back away.

Helen says, with a twinkle in her eye, that people outside the art world seem to associate her with those old penny peep shows called “Artists and Models,” “What the Butler Saw.” Landladies in particular are apt to recoil from her request for rooms. One landlady took her in without investigation, discovered her semisecret, then pointed sternly to the garden gate.

So many people think Helen spends most of her time drinking absinthe or dancing with a rose in her teeth at five-day parties that when the talk turns to employment she generally says she works in a store or an office.

It is not because she is ashamed of her job. On the contrary, she is proud of it. But she says that keeping ordinary folk in ignorance of her calling simplifies her public relations.

At the Ontario College of Art on Toronto’s Dundas Street, where Helen Gaskin makes most of her money, life models are cherished like the masterpieces in the adjoining galleries. Girls who will pose in costume are plentiful, but those who will pose naked for anatomical sketching are as few as the jokes in Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.”

Only five other girls provide OCA students with an alternative nude figure. Three of these are married. All of them model only part time. Helen is the only model in Toronto who makes a full-time job of life classes.

Mary Pettigrew, the grey-haired OCA executive who engages the models, protects them from outsiders. When I was trying to contact Helen Gaskin a suspicious smoke screen was immediately thrown up.

Later, when honest intent was proved, Mary Pettigrew explained: “We sometimes get queer men trying to get the models’ telephone numbers. They pretend to be artists. We have to be extremely careful.”

Helen Gaskin is a striking but not an obviously pretty girl. More than one artist, however, has perceived great beauty, the reflection of a volatile and mercurial personality, flickering in her strange dark face. She is 5 ft. 9 in. tall, yet weighs only 115 lbs. Her bust is 32, waist 22, and hips 34. Most people would call her thin, but she has small bones and is not angular.-

Her hair is shiny black, falling thickly and stiffly to her shoulders. She has huge liquid grey eyes and a ripe mouth which she dims with purplish lipstick. Her nose is Greek at the bridge but dilated and sensitive in the nostrils.

She has a wide dazzling smile somewhat marred by a gold front filling and a few strong hairs on the point of her chin. Helen’s walk is almost a stalk.

She wears simple black suits for economy but shows a barbaric flair in little flamboyant hats like men’s peaked caps. In one of these the peak almost touches the bridge of her nose and suggests a Guards officer in profile.

Her exotic appearance hints at Indian blood, but she says she is of English descent with three eighths of Spanish blood through her father.

“I know I’m not pretty,” she says, “and I’ll never be a Venus de Milo. You don’t have to be, either, to be a life model. Real artists want the truth about women, not glossy illustrations. Some models are dumpy and some are lanky like me. It takes all kinds to make a world and artists need plenty of change.”

When she is walking down the corridor of the College of Art she sees so many different interpretations of her form and character in pencil, crayon and oils hanging on the walls that sometimes she wonders whether she is really a living ensemble of all the great-grandchildren of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

She poses for several hours each day at t he OCA —it varies according to curriculum and schedule —and she tours the four Toronto technical schools where art classes are held. At these last, however, she wears bare midriff bathing suits or “slave girl” costumes because the Board of Education has decreed that teen-age students are too young to see a woman in “the altogether.”

Occasionally she is called into an advertising agency during an evening so that commercial artist employees used to drawing women’s legs at least six inches longer than is natural and giving them waists with the circumference of a giraffe’s neck can refresh themselves on the uncommercial truth. From time to time she poses for a private art ist in his studio.

Wherever she works the pay is the same — $1.25 an hour. She keeps a little black book for her engagements. Usually she has about eight weeks’ work in hand. Some weeks are so full that she earns about $60. Last year she averaged $40 a week, including holidays.

Helen thinks it is a sad commentary on life today that, in comparison, fashion models posing before cameras for advertisements can earn up to $7 an hour and lingerie models sometimes $10. There is also a vague social grading observed by models. The high-fashion models, though not always the best paid, are the aristocrats, the lingerie models the middle class, the tooth-paste and floor-polish models the working class, while Helen and her unclad kind are regarded as the untouchables.

This makes Helen, who is an intelligent and uninhibited girl, fill with an amused contempt. Here she is, contributing to fine art, showing off the beautiful lines and shadows of the untrammeled female form, possibly inspiring some future Gauguin or Velasquez, all for $1.25 an hour, while other girls, posing in sexy hosiery merely to catch a customer’s eye, get six times as much and regard themselves as her social superior. Helen and her life-model colleagues call the others “clotheshorses.”

But don’t assume she’s munching sour grapes. Helen admits she would like to be a high-fashion model if she had the orthodox good looks required. She doesn’t blame girls for ignoring the life classes when they can earn so much more money tilling bras and girdles. But she wishes they wouldn’t be so stuffy.

About half the students who draw Helen at the Ontario College of Art are going into commercial and industrial design. The other half hope for fame as painters. Some go on to the Sorbonne in Paris and the Slade in London. Life classes arc essential to both groups.

Unless they can draw many types of human figure nude they certainly cannot draw them clothed. Artists painting a man or a woman even for a Salvation Army ad must first draw the outlines of the naked figure. When they have got it

right they then hang on the clothes which drape themselves naturally over the body contours.

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Without plenty of sketches taken from nude life models in various positions even the best of artists are inclined to produce a wooden drawing. Such is the shortage of models that good business is done by art supply shops selling little flexible figurines which can he adjusted to various positions like crouching, kneeling or sitting. But these do not compare in the average artist’s view with the living model’s flesh tints, muscle outlines and bone structure.

Helen Knows Her Pose

The rooms in which Helen works are ordinary-sized classrooms, but they are splashed liberally with paint and plaster and it is impossible to see clearly from one end to the other for I high easels standing almost as close as pine trees.

At 9 o’clock on a typical morning Helen undresses in an adjoining dressing room and emerges naked with a smock over her arm and a big pocket ; watch in her hand. She then steps up onto a dais and drapes her smock over one of the big cubes, cones or pyramids j surrounding it. She places the watch in a position where she can see the 1 time without turning her head.

She makes a few twirls before the class and sets a pose. The students begin to squint out from behind their easels rather like squirrels peeping ; round trees.

At one time the art master would j suggest a pose to Helen. But now she is such an old hand at the game that ! she devises her own. She has a large repertoire of different poses which she has developed through experience of knowing what students want. George Pepper, director of fine arts at the collage, says: “She has a strong sense of grace and a knowledge of technique in art. Unless we want something very special we leave the pose to her.”

Some of her positions are natural everyday molds such as relaxing in the prone position, stooping to pick a flower, sweeping a floor or leaning against a mantelpiece.

Others for the purpose of anatomical detail involve stretchings and twistings and various acute angles of the body so that students will see how abdominal muscles flex themselves and how bones, tendons and flesh alter in outline, color and shadow under different stresses.

Then Helen has a number of routine classical postures like standing with her arms looped over her head, balletwise, or sitting demurely with her ankles tucked up under her as if watching her reflection in a stream.

The fourth type is abstract poses designed to inspire the artist with a given mood such as hate, joy, passion, love, or despair. These call for originality, considerable emotion and demand some of the qualities of an actress or dancer without affording a theatrical range of movement. For at all times Helen must stand as if frozen and movement by so much as half an inch brings murmurs of complaint from the class.

Thus Helen Gaskin, for $1.25 an hour, must combine an artistic sensitivity with great physical stamina. She must hold a pose for a minimum of 20 minutes. That’s tough. Try it.

The shapes into which she must knead herself and hold make her a bit of a yogi. “The harder I work at it,” she says, “the deeper the sort of trance into which I go. Once in a lying position, however, I fell asleep and the instructor had to wake me up and say ‘Rest!’ ”

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Helen knows from the class she is in which particular type of pose is required. After a few preliminary movements she suddenly “feels one” and strikes it. Holding it she*says to the class: “Is the pose all right?”

If she gets no answer she is not satisfied as one of the students may be too shy to speak up. So she breaks the pose, turns to the class and addresses directly three students, each at a different angle from her. “Is the pose all right?” she repeats three times. When she has three affirmative answers she poses herself again and work begins.

The Regency Sans Crinolines

From time to time she glances at her pocket watch on a nearby cube. At the end of 20 minutes she is entitled to her break. Sometimes she retires to her dressing room, but more often she just rests where she is on the dais while students go out into the corridor for a smoke or stand round chatting.

Occasionally she puts her smock on, but not always. It just depends how she’s feeling.

Frequently Helen will dispense with her break. It may be that the pose is easy and she doesn’t need one. But often she will forget the break when she senses that the class is appreciating her work. She can tell by the atmosphere whether she has impressed the students and whether they are working hard to capture the cast and expression she has given them. When this is so she will go a solid 40 or 50 minutes without a rest. “I keep my own time,” she says.

Early this year students were taking a two-hour period of poses calculated to fit in style and mood a series of designs for Regency furniture. Each of the poses was to be of 10 minutes’ duration for lightning sketches.

Helen thought of all the paintings of the Regency period she could remember and went to the museum to do a bit of research among pottery and silverware. Then she practiced a series of those odd, pert stances the women of those days seemed to adopt.

She stepped onto the dais, devoid of costume or other aids, and registered the Regency motif with her body alone. The subdued. “Ahs!” and “Ohs!” from the class thrilled her. She knew she had rung the bell first time.

At the end of 10 minutes she went into a second pose without a rest. Again the class enthused and began to sketch quickly. She struck her third pose without interval and glowed as the students smiled and nodded their appreciation of her exact interpretation of their need. She went on without rest for an hour and 50 minutes.

The class was so intense in the work and so silent she could hear them breathing and hear the swish of the pencils over the paper. Every single posture was so heavily charged with the Regency theme that the class almost broke into cheers at the end of the session.

“1 almost fainted with exhaustion,” she says, “but that’s where you get the bang out of this business. When my poses hit them I’ll work like crazy. When I don’t move them I lose heart and laze.”

Helen is touchy about suggested poses. She also has a hot temper and a sharp tongue. On one occasion when a technical-school class tired of waiting for a tardy teacher they decided to go ahead without him. One boy shouted to another: “Hi, Joe, give the model

a pose.”

Helen turned on him and snapped: “Listen, sonny boy, I’ve been in this business a long time now. And I set the poses here.”

She refuses to take up poses she cannot hold. She will not hold her arms above her head for 20 minutes unless the fingers are twined for mutual support or she can rest part of her arms against her scalp or temple. She will not stretch out her arms forward for 20 minutes unless there is a fine line for her to hang onto. Nor will she stand on one leg unless there is a stool to support the toe of the other.

When people ask Helen doesn’t she feel embarrassed standing in front of a mixed class with nothing on she smiles at them pityingly, for she thinks this is a sign of a squalid or feeble mind. The nude form, she says, is not exciting sexually.

Nevertheless she reacts angrily when she feels in the class an interest in her body which is not purely artistic. In one school outside Ontario she noticed a certain janitor remained in the room on the pretense of picking up paper after she had taken her pose. She gave him a chance to retire decently, but when he lingered broke her pose and snapped: “Get out of here!”

One hot day in Toronto when she was posing nude she noticed a stranger gaping at her through an open door from the corridor. Again she broke the pose and shouted: “Shut that door!”

“Only one thing makes me more furious than a dirty old man,” she says, “and that’s a dirty young man.”

She has a horror of open doors not because she fears spectators as much as draughts. She catches cold easily. “I can’t afford colds,” she says. “Just try posing in the nude with a running nose.”

Some Male Models Are Husky

There are male models, too, in art schools. Some are slightly effeminate, Helen says, but others are husky guys posing to supplement their incomes. While female models are entirely naked in life classes, male models wear a strap.

One male model told her seriously one day that he always removed his wrist watch as wearing it spoiled his pose. She is mildly affectionate toward another male model who is 50 but has the physique of a young man.

“He is really an old darling,” she says. “So keen on his work and so proud of his figure. But before he can pose he has to build up his own atmosphere. I remember once seeing him try to set the pose of a fisherman hauling in nets. He started swaying and heaving himself about, but he had to sing a verse of ‘The Volga Boat Song’ before he was satisfied.”

Fred S. Haines, principal of the Ontario College of Art, says Helen Gaskin is one of the best models the school has ever had. He says nude models are increasingly hard to find, but he sympathizes with girls who refuse to do the work.

“It is not because Ontario is particularly priggish,” he says. “The people here are much like those in any other community. And, anyhow, the costume model serves a valuable purpose.”

Haines thought highly of one costume model who served the school for many years. She was an exquisite needlewoman and provided herself with a wide variety of costumes. She would figure one day as a nun, another as a Spanish dancer, again as a Japanese geisha, always in authentic garb. She was in great demand by students whose color appetite she whetted.

Another of Haines’ models left to get married, then fell on hard times. Haines met her in the street one day with her baby in her arms. She asked him if she could return to modeling when her baby was old enough to be left with others. He said: “Why not

come back now—with your baby?”

Mother and child posed nude for many months until family financial problems were solved. Haines says they stimulated some very beautiful work. Mary Hyrchenuk, a girl from Northern Ontario who’s now painting in New York, specializing in child subjects, got lier first exercises in infant life through drawing this baby.

“I wish we had a mother and child today,” says Haines. “It is a most inspiring combination.”

Haines says one successful Canadian woman commercial artist posed as a model at his school for years before deciding to take art lessons herself.

No Boy Friends in the Class

“There’s an odd idea about,” he says, “that models are raffish people. I have always found them to be quite superior.” He adds: “In 17 years at

this school I can think of only one unfortunate incident between a model and a student. And I found the whole thing was a silly misunderstanding due to her mistaking his words.”

Haines does not encourage models and students to mix socially. Models attend school dances, of course, and chat with students in the coffee room, but there is an understanding they don’t form deeper associations. “The only reason for this,” says Haines, “is preservation of discipline in the class.”

Helen Gaskin agrees with her principal. “I don’t think 1 could pose comfortably if one of the students in the class was my boy friend,” she says.

Helen became a model by chance. She was born near Point St. Charles, Montreal. Her father was, and still is, a laborer. She has two sisters, both stenographers, and two brothers, one a clerk and the other a laborer. She was brought up in a five-room house, and until she left Montreal had to share a small bedroom with two sisters.

She left Strathearn High School, Montreal, when she was 16. She says she knew nothing of art, music or literature and had a terrible inferiority complex.

Her first job was working behind the candy counter in a restaurant. She was then gawky, but after three years she developed grace and thought of fashion modeling. She landed a job as a coat and suit model in the warehouse of a garment manufacturer. But she never got into the limelight on the fashion-show runways or broke into the commercial photographers’ advertisement studios.

When Helen was 19 her hairdresser, who was taking art lessons, said: “You have a most remarkable head. It’s unusual and full of character. Would you mind if I mentioned you to my art master?”

A week later Helen’s powerful, tawny features were on show to students of Sheriff Scott, the Montreal portrait painter, for 75 cents an hour. Scott recommended her to a man called Clark Hope, who was making mannequins for store windows.

It shook Helen a bit when Hope asked her if she would mind showing him her figure. She posed nude for the first time before the mannequin sculptors.

Within a few months she was working in the evenings and at week ends for classes run by Montreal artists. She got $1.50 for two hours’ work. Artist David Maurice called her in to pose in his studio. Word of her qualities began circulating among Quebec art groups.

Montreal sculptor H. Macrae Miller saw a certain smoldering loveliness in the curious fusion of coarse and delicate features beneath Helen’s black hair. He fashioned a bronze head of her which was exhibited at the annual spring show of the Montreal Art. Association three years ago and was much admired by the GovernorGeneral, Viscount Alexander, himself a painter and no mean judge of talent. The head is at present touring the Dominion in an exhibition of Canadian artists’ work.

Helen fell in love with the struggling little art world of Canada. “Artists are sincere, friendly, generous and gay,” she says. “They are always helping each other out. When you have artists for friends you have security. Mixing with artists and posing for them I lost my inferiority complex.”

She gave up her job in the warehouse for full-time life modeling, averaging $35 a week.

In September, 1946, she had $600 and a hankering for strange places. She would have liked to go to London or Paris but figured she didn’t have enough capital to take that chance. So she went to Mexico City, armed with introductions to the great painter Rivera. Within a week she found that if she wanted to model professionally in Mexico she would have to live on Mexican standards, and Mexican foods made her come out in hives. And she couldn’t afford the kind of accommodation which she considered an absolute minimum for decency and privacy.

She loved Mexico and she liked the people she met down there. But she couldn’t afford to stay more than three months.

Returning to Montreal she found that her big need was a place of her own. So she came to Toronto in the fall of J947. She modeled for George Pepper in his studio, for William Winter who does covers for Maclean’s Magazine, Fred Varley and Estelle Kerr. She got started through Pepper at the OCA and then branched out to the technical schools.

She Gets on Well with Wives

Helen pays $8 a week rent for a Spartan but clean room in a six-room house on a trim avenue in east-end Toronto. She has at last found a landlady whose knowledge of the arts is not limited to tales of what her husband saw in “La Vie Parisienne.” Even so, any boy friends she entertains must be gone by 10 o’clock.

She likes entertaining, and has three close girl friends, a store clerk, a telephone operator and the forewoman of a factory. A number of married couples also exchange visits with her. “I get on quite well with wives,” she says.

She has two fairly regular hoy friends in Toronto, one of whom is an artist and the other a salesman. In Montreal she has two more—an artist and an accountant. “One type balances up the other,” she says.

“I’ve never felt the urge to go steady with anyone,” she says. “You see I don’t mind being alone. I feel sorry for some girls who get depressed unless they succeed in being dated up every night.”

For seven years now Helen Gaskin has been an artists’ model and she figures on at least another seven years in the same business. At first she used to be worried by the frowns of some Torontonians, whom, she says, are much more narrow-minded than Montrealers. But now she just ignores them as amusing demonstrations of priggishness.

As for the orgies in which artists are reputed to engage with their models, Helen says: “Show me one. I might

be missing something.”