Look away, straight male gaze! How Life Drawing Became More Inclusive | Design

When an old school friend asked Ted Stein if he would consider modeling for nature drawing lessons, he was quick to agree.

Stein is transgender and never saw gender-diverse bodies while in art school. “I realized, how are these bodies going to end up in national art galleries if no one ever gets around to drawing them?” he says. “I wanted to give back to the artistic community in terms of representation, and also to give back to the trans and queer communities, which are so vibrant and such a part of my life.”

We talk after I’ve spent two hours breaking Stein’s athletic shape into shapes upstairs at the Lord Gladstone Hotel in Sydney’s Chippendale – a groovy little pub covered in graffiti that’s both commissioned and spontaneous.

It’s here that Stein’s friend Bligh Twyford-Moore and fellow artist Noni Cragg run the Glady Drawing Club every Tuesday. The man next to me is a scientist: this art club is the only burst of creativity he’s had all week, he says. It also seems like the perfect low-key gathering for guys who don’t like to be too social.

After he’s finished posing, I ask Stein about the challenge of being scrutinized. He is busy building his own worlds, he says; and anyway, he has a habit of not moving for long periods of time when engaged in his own artistic practice. “I had spiders webbing between my limbs because I stood still for so long,” he says.

Ted Stein, drawn by Jenny Valentish and Bligh Twyford-Moore. Photography: Frank Magree

Increasingly, live drawing classes are shedding the tradition of fluoride-lit community rooms and serious doodling in favor of immersive evenings that rely on deep collaboration with models. The most famous is Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, “alternative drawing” classes that use burlesque and cabaret performers as models. Founded by Molly Crabapple in a New York bar in 2005, Dr Sketchy’s is now a worldwide phenomenon.

Glady shares a similar focus on pursuing a variety of bodies: Stein’s other role models include performance artist Betty Grumble, showgirl Porcelain Alice, and label couple Katie-Louise and Timothy Nicol-Ford, who run the label. Nicol & Ford demi-couture “for all identities and bodies”.

“It’s not about the typical male look,” Twyford-Moore says of the models. “And I also love finding people who appeal to the queer gaze.”

Twyford-Moore, an illustrator and roadie, thought a life drawing club would be a “cool throwback idea”. He was inspired by the clubs he had seen in Melbourne, both in terms of themes (Gladdy Drawing Club covered Wonder Woman, Hulk and Wolverine) and booking models who have a reputation in their own right.

“They’re exactly the vibe I’m looking for — queer-inclusive role models who look different from each other,” he says. “Even in life drawing, Sydney is stuffy and conservative.”

Burlesque Artist Evana De Lune at Miss Muse Life Drawing.
Burlesque artist Evana De Lune at Miss Muse Life Drawing in Melbourne. Photograph: Drawing from the life of Miss Muse

A Melbourne institution that inspired it is Miss Muse Life Drawing, which is held every Tuesday at the Grace Darling Hotel in Collingwood. As the name suggests, the focus is on the model as muse.

“I myself worked as a model for eight years,” says Miss Muse founder Michaela Meadow, who is also a photographer. “I wanted to open a platform where models can bring something creative. Many sessions are themed and a lot of time is spent on playlists, sets and costumes.

These themes range from artistic movements, such as surrealist artists Leonor Fini and Claude Cahun, to cinema, such as Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar, Bonnie and Clyde and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (The models’ poses and outfits refer to the films.)

The Top Secret life drawing is another: Usually held at Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne (there was a cheeky nun session recently), there are occasionally pop-up events held elsewhere, such as at Easey’s in Collingwood – a rooftop restaurant made from old train carriages – and 24 Moons, a Northcote nightclub.

Top Secret's Squid Game theme party.
Top Secret Squid Game themed party. Photographer: Jean-Luc Syndikas

Top Secret founder Jean-Luc Syndikas works at an architecture firm by day, but is also a movie buff who wanted to create an artistic community. His club themes include Blade Runner, Squid Game, Mata Hari, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “I had a model dressed as April O’Neil, in a yellow jumpsuit, which is an iconic cosplay character,” Syndikas explains. “The model used to do classic stuff, but she thought it was awesome.”

For Transgender Visibility Day in March, he booked model Rora Mac, who ditched menswear for an 1980s-worthy aerobics look. “It was a really powerful night; she told us a story,” says Syndikas.

Top Secret Life Drawing Lessons, Rora Mac Model
‘One Mighty Night’: Model Rora Mac at Top Secret. Photographer: Jean-Luc Syndikas

All three drawing groups went online during the shutdowns, which suddenly allowed them to hire models and recruit artists from around the world. All three kept their online classes after reopening. As Meadow says, “Maybe someone doesn’t live in town or they have young kids or a disability, or for some other reason they can’t come in person.”

At the Glady, my two hours of drawing Stein flew by and I haven’t once looked at my phone…probably because I’m too busy looking at everyone else’s work to see if they’re also having trouble do the feet. After building up to 10 minutes of poses, set to meditative music to encourage the state of flow, the music shifts to aggressive hardcore for the final two-minute bursts.

“It’s like when they pat you on the back at the end of a massage,” says Twyford-Moore, which is why I attack the paper with sudden haste. “You are being readjusted to your normal state.”

For a beginner like me, Twyford-Moore suggests that I think of drawing as a verb, instead of a noun: “As if you literally came to draw, not to leave with five perfect drawings.” Personally, he likes to start with a barely visible warm gray #1 pencil and then get serious with a hard black pencil. Syndikas, on the other hand, recommends that I break down a figure into basic shapes: circle, square, triangle. “You can use charcoal or any other medium to trace this and create your figure from these building blocks.”

As for Meadow? She encourages to take a look. “Look around you at what other people are doing,” she says. “It’s a great way to learn.”

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