Roy Joseph Butler is a professional artist's model. In 2015, he collaborated with Jonathan Armour and Leo Crane to create Paint Skin, an Armour Studio and BRILLIANA co-production. He is currently working with Maggi Hambling at Morley College and with a variety of artists and groups across London. Here he addresses the recurring question: "What do you think about when you're modelling?" and explores his role in the creative process.
“What do you think about when you’re…up there…when you’re modelling?” This question comes at me in so many ways: “What goes through your mind when you’re posing?” “I bet you think about a lot. Or not?” “Do you find it hard concentrating?” Even: “Is it difficult just being still?”
What do I think about when I’m modelling? Just last week I was asked yet again. I have narrowed my answer down to a stock phrase: “It’s meditative.” The artist who asked was taken aback, both by my answer and because the tutor had just described her work as being distinctly meditative, or a distinct meditation…or something like that. I overheard nothing. She intuitively tapped into something of me when she was painting and I can only hope others do too.
Modelling for life is a meditative experience. I remember starting out, letting album soundtracks run through my mind during long poses because that was the only way I could think to give Time its space to pass. I rarely do that now. Now, I saturate myself with Time, whether it’s a brief five-minute pose or a much longer 45- or 60-minute one (yes, they can go on). Sometimes, my body shivers from sheer physical exertion or attempts to divert all of my energy into not noticing the limb that’s fallen asleep (and is sending sharp, excruciating pain to those places I thought invulnerable) and I pray for Time to release me. But before that moment comes – and they are very rare moments, truth be told – I am in a space that is liberating, because Time has become friendly.
I live a bustling life in a bustling city. I have a six-year-old son and a dog, who, after nine years, still finds occasion to make our living room his personal toilet. I model here-there-and-everywhere so that sometimes only my pushbike will get me there in time. I have a job with a charity that involves managing staff, colleagues and safeguarding young people, voluntary commitments at my son’s school and with multiple organisations… I’m busy. So busy that I have allowed myself no space to simply be and think and relax - with the exception of modelling.
As a life model I have Time’s companionship. We see each other. And, for my part, I use his company to free my mind and focus on just one or two things. I problem solve, clearly. I find calm, easily. I pay attention to my breathing. I remove anger. I feel the air circulating in a room against my skin as I sense each breath taken and released. I meditate.
I imagine writing about my experiences one day, in as much as integrating them into a larger narrative where they’d support something a little more grand; modelling is not my whole life, after all, but a simple part of it. Then again, perhaps I underestimate what it’s worth and a narrative centred around a life model would work. I don’t know. A short story, perhaps?
Jonathan Kemp’s London Triptych offers up a view of the life model and should I ever write a book review I’d lambast it for veering away from the model as subject. By generally objectifying his characters – the life models, that is – he prevents us ever getting to know them (he might disagree with me, assert they are much more substantial beings than I am giving them credit for. And I’d say to that, “You’ve obviously never modelled”). They remain flesh, simply. There is a hint of intelligence to them, though that hint never really grows, just lingers enough to lend the slightest substance to their physical presence.
But I write no book review here, just acknowledge Kemp’s work as a motivator for me to take my experience to a different place, the world of fiction. I (and my fellow life subjects) sit in a precarious place regarding our representation in art versus the extent to which we create it. Viewed as objects we sit, stand, or recline passively for artists to capture. Subjectified, as it were, we reside more in the realm of collaborative artist. Artist. Truly. And that is one thought that strikes me often, and often as I am posing – “How am I as model being, or becoming, artist?” I can mediate on that one for ages.
I take my cue from London Triptych to take up the narrative of the artist’s model. Because I am one. Because I love writing. Because of the sheer curiosity of painters, drawers, sculptors, photographers, et al. in wondering what it’s like for me just being there, posing. Because for as much as I meditate during work, and ponder over questions large and small in turn (and in no great hurry – thank you, Time!), I have yet to read a fictional account of what I do and how I see what I do that really resonates with me.
I have a few short story starts (and sketches) on the boil that just might do…
This article is adapted and updated from Roy's blog Literary Impressions.