In 2003, I took a month-long stint as a nude sitter for legendary portrait artist Don Bachardy. He captured the mash-up of my youthful confidence and a burgeoning sexuality still defining itself in the midst of its aesthetic peak. I took the job seriously despite my woeful ignorance of Don’s importance in the art world at the time. But something about the manner of the man, even more than the evidence of his accomplishments hanging all around, jolted an instinct that my earnest cooperation might aid in the creation of something memorable.
Just yesterday, with ten years of aging and life experience under my belt, I arrived once more at Don’s studio inside his idyllic Santa Monica home. The task was to select one of Don’s paintings as a set piece my upcoming film, “Inside-Out, Outside-In,” since the plot of the film includes my character’s history as a nude model in youth. Don generously agreed to the inclusion of one of his real life paintings after a nerve-racking phone call pitch. In preparation for my arrival, Don had laid out fourteen paintings in a square formation on an oversize table with two paintings he clearly favored filling up the center of the square. As I looked at them, I couldn’t help but wonder if my small contribution as a model in his collection of portraits might outlast any and all of my own creative accomplishments in a lifetime. It’s an exhilarating but humbling realization.
Back in 2003, Don was in his late 60s, I believe. His stamina and work ethic really stunned me, especially considering the physical strain of his job. We worked eight hour days, with Don creating four paintings a session. A quick ten minute break occurred in between each painting. During the breaks, Don brought out some water and we’d make small talk, although it was small talked charged with the difference in our wardrobe. Some nuggets of information about his process were forthcoming during these breaks. At the time, Don believed in working quickly, creating something, then moving on to the next painting. From our short conversations, it seemed to me that the present moment was of cardinal importance to him and he trusted it more than the desire to perfect or alter something after the fact.
In our case, the nature of the artist and his subject seemed fortuitous. Indeed, Don relentlessly provoked and captured the erotic experiment of a somewhat dangerous young man. I didn’t take the job for the money, although I was well-compensated. Two years after a significant, five-month love affair, I had lost all sense that my sexuality was important, sacred, meaningful. I was uber-resistant to the hookup scene so powerfully seductive in Los Angeles but when I saw the ad for nude sitters, I sensed an opportunity to explore a powerful latent sexuality that I had no clue how to harness or express. Don sensed this as well, but was either too smart or too kind to acknowledge my motives.
As a novice sitter, Don told me to simply and naturally find a pose, then hold it for two hours or so. I took his direction literally. Once you’ve sat completely still for hours, you realize how often we move our bodies to relieve slight discomfort or just to change things up. When forced to stay frozen, the areas of your body that bear weight tire, then rebel at the increasing physical pain experienced. But, seeing Don’s seventy-something muscles moving the entire time I was sitting was more than motivation enough to “hold the pose” at all costs. So I tolerated some major discomfort without moving, sometimes softly crying as a result of the effort. Sometimes the tears weren’t about the strain on my body.
I remembered those tears when looking at Don’s work. He had included them on some of the faces of the Hunter from so long ago.
My fashion designer friend Shpetim Zero and Don chimed in on which one would be best for the film. It came down to a debate between which pieces interested us the most versus which were most likely to be displayed by the character in the movie. I was torn and unsure, undoubtedly distracted by the sense memory of my life ten years ago. Finally, Don offered to frame and loan me five of the paintings, which was the best result possible, stemming from my indecision or his enthusiasm or both.
Before I left the house, I gave Don a hug and thanked him for the generous loan of his work. But the quality of the hug communicated – hopefully to both of us – that I was thanking him for more than a huge favor in 2013…I was thanking him for valuing my sexuality and erotic sensibility at the moment I needed it most.
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink, an open source production company. Our filmmaking blog charts the progress of each of our projects. If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).