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Essays   ISSUE 03 | ESSAY | AIDS | ART | ILLUSTRATION   Dec 01, 2015

The Homo Atelier

Text by Mark James
Art by Rolando Rosler

A photograph of Scott O’Hara in black and white and nothing else hangs over the fireplace just a few feet from the makeshift model stand where I will be posing tonight. O’Hara, the 1980s porn legend and author, was the very first model for the San Francisco-based group Gay Men’s Sketch, founded 25 years ago in this apartment south of Market Street. This was once an area that symbolized sexual freedom, but now its sex clubs, bathhouses, and street corner pick-ups have given way to expensive nightclubs and million-dollar condos. Now full of new arrivals that did not move here to share in the city’s progressive values, but to appropriate them as a mythical lifestyle brand.

However, inside this flat, I can still feel that past. The cream light in the kitchen washes over the walls plastered with images of the male nude in every conceivable pose and medium, the work of dozens of artists over the years. Many of the prints are yellowed and curled around the edges. This apartment is something like a temple dedicated to the male body, its black-and-white drawings like religious icons. These nudes testify to an obsession with the male form in its entirety, a devotion rendered in pen and charcoal.

Started in 1987 by Mark I. Chester, a prolific fetish photographer, the weekly sketch group began as an alternative to the art school modeling classes of the day, which used primarily female figure models. In those pre-Internet days, models were procured from fliers placed on telephone poles: hustlers, fetishists and exhibitionists who were happy to either show off or make a quick buck.

AIDS was ravaging the city, and gay men were looking for a place to connect that was still sexual, but not dangerously so.

Much has changed over the last 25 years. The extreme threat of AIDS may have subsided, but it’s also left its scars. Gay men now feel that they can’t express their sexuality in an open and honest way, at least to the extent they once could. The price of wider societal acceptance has been sexual self-censorship. Class differences also feel more pronounced today than in the past, which leads to less mixing between different segments of the community. When gay bars and meeting spaces are primarily for hanging with friends and not used solely as cruising grounds, we self-segregate by class. It’s as if gay men survived the existential threat of AIDS only to abandon the traditions that once gave our community life.

Despite these massive changes in the physical and cultural landscape, Gay Men’s Sketch has stuck around, bringing together various elements of the city’s gay culture and attracting equal numbers of artists, fetishists, and gawkers. It’s a distinctly old-fashioned way for men to interact with the male form, one that remains relevant in part due to its rarity. It doesn’t just preserve some of the more venerable parts of our culture – it’s also a priceless way for gay men to experience their bodies through art. One of the effects of assimilation has been the loss of queer spaces in San Francisco. Thus I might have supported it anyway out of a vague sense of obligation to do my part by honoring a slice of gay culture that came before me, but my personal experience modeling for the sketch group showed me just how valuable it really was.

I first did figure modeling for a boyfriend while I was in high school. He was studying for his BFA and was tired of drawing nude women exclusively. Over the years, I’ve modeled for a few classes or friends. It’s a gym motivator, and I do find the process of gestures and long poses to be meditative work. It’s also completely non-sexual. Let me explain: It has evolved into either a job for pay or working for TFP (trade for print). 

Familiarity and the demands of professionalism in a classroom setting have removed any sexual undercurrent.

Having your nude body be desexualized by strangers who draw it in detail can feel kind of odd after a while. And so I was eager to pose for the gay men’s group – I wanted to counterbalance the effect on me of the straight guy’s gaze, which fears rendering a penis, or that of a housewife taking a continuing ed class. Modeling in schools so many times made it seem natural to me to think of a drawing session as non-sexual. In that regard, it takes the power away from the model and gives it to the viewers. But the Gay Men’s Sketch meetings seemed like an atmosphere with no pretense and no fear of the sexual. It was a signal that it was okay for the act to be erotic, and in that way shifted the power back towards the model; I would be looked at sensually, without shame or fear. I was able to shed the puritan pretense of the non-sexual so ingrained by art school didactics.

I arrive at Chester’s house, as instructed, a few minutes early, and am shown a room to put my things in and asked to buzz in the arriving artists. In the art school world, artists and models are usually kept at arms’ length to avoid even the slightest sexual vibe. Here, Chester encourages me to introduce myself to the artists, with the explanation that it will make me feel less “like a piece of meat”– though in the next breath, he tells me to take off my shirt. There has always been something of a class divide between artist and model, even among the starving artist set. But here, our shared sexuality changes the power dynamic. We are all gay men. There is no pretense about enjoying other nude men. Our desires are laid flat on the table.

This is clearly a more respectable venue for viewing the nude male figure than, say, the Nob Hill All-Male Adult Theater across town. Here, a mere fifteen dollars buys three hours of serious-minded nudity, in a variety of gestures and poses – fruit and cheese provided, thankyouverymuch. The men who arrive are a cross-section of Bay Area homos, a diverse group of college art students and retirees, armed with canvases, drawing pads, chalk, pens, and iPads. I rarely get the opportunity to connect with older gay men, and I find the interaction illuminating. These are homos of a generation that has seen it all, and are not shy in sharing their stories, or commenting breathlessly, “I could just draw your nipples for days.” During a break, one of the artists tells me that a local art school will call him when they have booked a particularly attractive young figure model that they think he would enjoy drawing. The models can vary widely as well. Judging from some of the models featured online, a hot body is not always required; attitude can transcend pulchritude.

My session is more straightforward, art school-style nude figure modeling, though the glaring camera lights and the bed sheets hung over Chester’s Victorian bay windows suggest a lurid Super-8 porno flick. For my first pose, I’m instructed to keep on some clothing. I decide on classic briefs and gym socks, but Chester immediately orders me to ditch the socks. Fetishism is rarely democratic.

Through the course of the evening we work from sixty-second gestures up to longer twenty-minute poses. Looking around during the breaks at the sketchpads, canvases, and iPads, the quality of work in the room is actually quite impressive. I also notice that no one is afraid to draw the penis. Here, unlike the art school jocks hoping to land a job at Zynga, my fellow tribesmen relish illustrating it without shame. Their art signals gratitude for my sharing of self and a welcoming into their community.

The community remains an essential part of Gay Men’s Sketch. Some of the men here tonight were at the very first session, 25 years ago. The group has survived the AIDS crisis, gentrification, and the latest tech bubble, held together by the sheer will of the artists who attend. A unique blend of art, commerce, and community has kept the group going, week in, week out. And the idea has spread: Outside of San Francisco, the Leslie Lohman Gay Art Museum in New York, and the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles also host gay men’s sketch groups, though these groups have a reputation for hiring models based more on aesthetics rather than modeling skill or even punctuality.

Perhaps this reads as a love letter to a by-gone era of gay male culture that we are losing. Yet in our age of Manhunt and Scruff, when so much of the “gay community” exists online, the idea of a Homo Atelier remains relevant – a place in the real world for young and old to share and connect in person. Artist or model, skilled or unskilled, it offers something we can all agree on: the pursuit of art, and need for connection.

Mark James lives in San Francisco and writes about film and culture.

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