At 73, Ralph arrives at work carrying a yoga mat and a bag of props, including straps and poles in varying lengths. In front of a room full of students, he undresses and mounts a small stage where he strikes one dramatic pose after another for roughly three hours.
In one of Ralph’s favorites, he swings a yoga strap over a pipe in the ceiling. “Okay class, this next pose has got a title,” he says. Clutching the strap with one hand and holding out his phone with the other, he leans back, looks down at the black screen and announces, “This is called ‘The Purple Line to Davis!’”
Four decades ago, Ralph would never have guessed his future hobby and job would involve stripping down in front of a classroom. He went to school for electrical engineering, and continued to pursue a career in system design, and later, in marketing and sales. But after retiring, Ralph began to take up new hobbies such as teaching yoga classes, dancing, weight lifting, and, at the age of 65, nude modeling for drawing classes.
“I've always been a person who likes to learn new things,” Ralph said, who asked not to include his last name in the story for privacy reasons. “About halfway through my life, my artistic side started to come out.” His interest in nude modeling sparked when a friend described an art class he had recently taken that featured a live model. This conversation was a “lightbulb moment” for Ralph. He had no interest in the art class, but he immediately knew he would make a great model.
“At that point it was like an obsession,” Ralph said. He started searching the web, buying books, and looking at blogs and YouTube videos for more information. He needed to know where the opportunities were and whom to contact.
“Since I spent many years in my career working in sales, I know how to promote myself,” Ralph said. He made phone calls to art studios and colleges until, after three months, he secured his first gig. His first year he was only able to model 21 times. Now he models several days a week at art studios, universities and community colleges across Chicago.
When Ralph was starting out in 2013, he also tried to find gigs at Northwestern. He made phone calls to the Department of Art Theory and Practice but it wasn’t until another model canceled in 2015 that he was invited to model for a Northwestern drawing class. Although the university doesn’t offer dedicated figure drawing classes–where Ralph has made his second career–some professors choose to bring in a model twice per quarter to give students exposure to the human figure. As a result, Ralph has been a steady presence at Northwestern. He does the majority of the male modeling for the art classes and he has modeled for Professors Deborah Sokolow, Allison Wade and Brendan Fernandes.
“The part of the job that I like the best is doing gestures,” Ralph said. These shorter poses usually last between 30 seconds and a couple minutes, and Ralph enjoys flowing through the motions. He said it feels like a dance and because the poses are so short, he must improvise. Shorter poses also allow him to be more experimental with his body, like balancing on one leg or holding something above his head.
When Ralph holds a pose, his expression usually remains neutral but his movements are exaggerated and comical. He twists his body into athletic and unusual poses that help students practice drawing anatomy.
Ralph also likes getting creative with his poses; sometimes he pretends to throw a javelin or play the flute. During one of his sessions at Northwestern, Ralph recognized one of the students as a football player due to his athletes backpack. To amuse the class, Ralph’s next pose involved passing a pretend football and narrating the game.
Ralph believes modeling is its own unique art form. Good models are responsible for leading the class and if they feel uncomfortable, it’ll show in the student’s art. He confesses that most models, himself included, like the attention they receive from modeling. He chuckles, admitting that he does enjoy the exhibitionist aspect of the job.
Although Ralph was always pretty comfortable with himself, he said nude modeling increased his confidence tremendously. He describes his own body as being more feminine than artists are used to seeing with male models. In fact, he has observed that many artists, especially male artists, tend to shorten his legs or broaden his shoulders, projecting their notions of men’s bodies onto his in their art. In reality, Ralph is short with long legs. He is slim and looks muscular, thanks to his daily workout classes and weightlifting. He is tan, with gray hair and soft wrinkles along his laugh lines.
“Most of the people that are doing what I'm doing are 30 years younger,” Ralph said. “Because I'm doing things that young people do, it makes me feel young.” Modeling is a physically demanding job and Ralph said it motivates him to stay healthy and active.
Although Ralph does make a small amount of money from his modeling, he claims that isn’t what draws him. On average, he makes between $20 and $25 an hour and each class is typically three hours long. Still, there are only so many classes he can do and he must account for travel time.
One of the classes Ralph models for is a drawing class at Northwestern taught by artist and art Professor Deborah Sokolow. Sokolow said there is a surprising renewal of interest in drawing
the human figure so she’s very grateful to have models like Ralph. She also said her students enjoy his humor. “He lightens up the energy in the classroom,” she said.
One of Professor Sokolow’s students, Geena Vetula, said having a live nude model can be a little uncomfortable at first. “When someone’s naked, you're normally in a position where you’re not supposed to be looking at them, especially in a classroom setting,” said Vetula. But she said Ralph is good at making the initial discomfort fade. “Ralph is always cracking jokes,” Vetula said. “He’s someone I’d love to have a conversation with, if I wasn’t drawing him naked.”
According to Vetula, having a nude model in class is invaluable because they know how to hold complex poses that teach students how to apply skills they learned in class. Vetula’s art always turns out best when she has a model.
Due to the current COVID-19 lockdown, Ralph’s modeling has slowed down significantly. But he’s still finding ways to keep busy. One professor at DePaul University has asked him to send her weekly pictures and videos of him posing, which she forwards to her class. Ralph is semi-nude in these photos, wearing only a pair of form-fitted trunks. He has also modeled for a live class at the Hyde Park Arts Center using Google Meet.
When Ralph first started modeling, he kept his new hobby a secret from his wife. He knew that if he sought her approval first, she would try to stop him. But after a year and a half of modeling, Ralph couldn’t hide it anymore.
On a Sunday morning, Ralph and his wife took the train downtown and visited the Chicago Art Institute. After gazing at the art, Ralph sat his wife down and told her what he had been up to. He explained that much of the art they had just admired would not be possible without models, many of them nude.
At first, she wasn’t too thrilled. “It was a bit of a shock,” Ralph said. With time, she grew more used to the idea and now she is comfortable with his modeling and even discusses it with her friends and family.
“I've learned a lot about painting. I've met a lot of interesting people,” Ralph said. Even his family and friends, many of whom were skeptical and confused at first, think what he’s doing is very healthy and inspiring.