Look away, straight male gaze! How life-drawing became more inclusive | drawing

When Ted Stein was asked by an old school friend if he’d consider modeling for life-drawing classes, it didn’t take long for him to agree.

Stein is transgender and never saw gender-diverse bodies when he was at art school. “I realized, how are these bodies going to make it into national art galleries if no one ever gets to draw them?” he says. “I wanted to give back to the art community in the way of representation, and also give back to the trans and queer communities, which are so vibrant and so much a part of my life.”

We speak after I’ve spent two hours breaking Stein’s athletic form down 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 is here that Stein’s friend, Bligh Twyford-Moore, and fellow artist Noni Cragg, run the Gladdy Drawing Club every Tuesday. The man next to me is a scientist: this art club is the only burst of creativity he gets all week, he says. It also seems to be the perfect low-key gathering for types who don’t like being overly social.

After he has finished posing, I ask Stein about the challenge of being scrutinized. He is busy building his own worlds, he says; and in any case, he’s used to not moving for long periods of time when he’s engaged in his own art practice. “I’ve had spiders actually make webs between my limbs because I’ve been stationary for so long,” he says.

Ted Stein, being sketched by Jenny Valentish and Bligh Twyford-Moore. Photograph: Frank Magree

Increasingly, life-drawing classes are shaking off the tradition of fluoro-lit community halls and serious scribbling in favor of immersive evenings that rely on deep collaboration with the models. Most famously, there’s Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art school, “alt-drawing” classes that use burlesque and cabaret performers as models. Founded by Molly Crabapple in a New York dive bar in 2005, Dr Sketchy’s is now a global phenomenon.

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

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

Twyford-Moore, an illustrator and a roadie, thought a life-drawing club would be a “cool throwback idea”. He took inspiration from clubs he’d seen in Melbourne, both in terms of having themes (Gladdy Drawing Club has covered Wonder Woman, Hulk and Wolverine) and booking models who have reputations in their own right.

“They’re exactly the vibe I’m after – queer-inclusive, models that look different to each other,” he says. “Even in life-drawing, Sydney is stuffy and conservative.”

Burlesque performer Evana De Lune at Miss Muse Life Drawing.
Burlesque performer Evana De Lune at Miss Muse Life Drawing in Melbourne. Photograph: Marcus Keily

One Melbourne institution that inspired him is Miss Muse Life Drawing, held every Tuesday at the Grace Darling hotel in Collingwood. As the name suggests, there’s an emphasis on the model-as-muse.

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

These themes range from art 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 reference the films.)

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

Top Secret's Squid Game themed evening.
Top Secret’s Squid Game-themed evening. Photograph: Jean-Luc Syndikas

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

For transgender day of visibility in March, he booked model Rora Mac, who stripped down from men’s clothing to a righteous 1980s aerobics look. “It was a really powerful night; she told us a story,” says Syndikas.

Top Secret life drawing class, model Rora Mac
‘A powerful night’: model Rora Mac at Top Secret. Photograph: Jean-Luc Syndikas

All three drawing groups went online during lockdowns, which suddenly allowed them to hire models and recruit artists from around the world. All three have kept their online classes after reopening. As Meadow says, “Maybe someone doesn’t live in the city or they have young children or disabilities, or some other reason they can’t make it in person.”

At the Gladdy, my two hours of drawing Stein have absolutely flown and I haven’t looked at my phone once … probably because I’m too busy peering at everyone else’s work to see if they’re struggling with doing the feet, too. After we’ve built up to 10-minute poses, set to meditative music to encourage flow state, the music switches to some aggressive hardcore for the final two-minute bursts.

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

For a newbie like me, Twyford-Moore suggests I think of drawing as a verb, instead of a noun: “Like you’re literally coming to do drawing, not to walk away with five drawings that are perfect.” Personally, he likes to start with a barely visible, warm gray No 1 pencil, then get serious with a hard black pencil. Syndikas, on the other hand, recommends I break a figure down into basic shapes: circle, square, triangle. “You can use charcoal or whatever other medium to trace over that and create your figure from those building blocks.”

As for Meadow? She encourages peeking. “Look around at what other people are doing,” she says. “It’s a great way of learning.”