Photo: Jonathan Barkat
"May I have the privilege of kissing your nipples?" Paolo Soleri asked as I lay sprawled naked on his bed. I could feel myself turn crimson. What was I doing here? Why hadn't I listened to my friends who wondered why I'd model naked for an artist? All artists were womanizers, they insisted, even though I had argued that this man was 87, too old be a lecher. Besides, this was the world-famous Paolo Soleri, who'd won the National Design Lifetime Achievement Award and had created Arcosanti, a prototype urban habitat 65 miles north of Phoenix, where I was right now, prone on his flowered sheets.
If only I hadn't paid attention to the notice I'd seen next to the wind chimes at Soleri's other studio-foundry, Cosanti, near Scottsdale. I've collected Soleri's famous bells for years, hanging them curtainlike in the windows of my Manhattan apartment. When I was in Scottsdale a year ago, I went to Cosanti to buy a new wind chime, and that's when I'd seen the announcement:
Modeling for Paolo Soleri
Women age over 21, interested in modeling for one or two sittings with paolo soleri will get one sketch of themselves free. If interested, please contact paolo soleri in person or via telephone.
I try to make myself do something at least once a year that terrifies me. I've summited Mount Rainier, paddled the huge rapids of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and climbed to advanced base camp on the north face of Everest, so cold my water bottle froze. I've run the New York City Marathon, done an international triathlon in Cuba, even driven a racecar on the track in Lime Rock Park—but I'd never posed nude for an artist. That was about the scariest thing I could possibly think of—except skydiving, which I have no desire to do.
I've always been ashamed of my naked body, even though I've never had a weight problem and I'm toned from years of sports. It's been more than 40 years since high school, but I can still remember Miss Oswald's beady eyes glued to me when I stepped into the girls' locker room shower. I'm still embarrassed when nude at my gym, and I swath myself in towels before going into the steam room. When I'm trying on bras or bathing suits, I cover myself before the salesperson enters the dressing room. I'd love to be liberated like soccer star Brandi Chastain, who posed nude (except for soccer cleats) in 1999 for the British guys' magazine Gear and said, "Hey, I ran my ass off for this body, I'm proud of it." But that's not me. I just don't feel comfortable in front of other people without my clothes on.
I thought if I modeled unclad for an artist, I'd stop being so self-conscious about my nakedness. My girlfriends thought I was crazy. "Soleri only takes models 21 years old," one said. "What's going to happen when he finds out your age?" My body doesn't look a day over 40, but I'm north of 50.
Soleri seemed flattered when I called—until I explained I was older than 21. How much, he wanted to know. A little more than double, I lied. There was silence. I expected him to say, "Please come anyway." Instead he said, "Usually I take only young women."
"You're no spring chicken yourself," I blurted out.
"But I am the artist," he said.
I don't take rejection easily, and I'd already told all my friends I was going to do this. It would be humiliating if I had to admit I'd been turned down. I pleaded with Soleri, "Look, you won't be disappointed. I'm willing to fly out all the way from New York just for you."
There was silence. Finally, he said, "Okay, for you I will make an exception."