Life as a male nude art model
It's 7pm on a Friday and there are 42 sets of eyes fixed on the naked man, the eyes of women who will, over the next couple of hours and with the aid of three artists-instructors, paint the man on the canvases on easels in front of them.
The quality of these paintings will vary widely but "I have been really surprised by how well some of them do", says Jonathan Miller who, a few minutes before he takes off his clothes to pose, admits: "The first time I did this was nerve-wracking. But now, after doing it 15, 20 times, it's a lot easier. I am just being part of a fun evening in a creative and light-hearted place."
The women at the class, at the Bottle & Bottega painting studio in Chicago's Lakeview neighbourhood, are a lively mix, most under 40 and of all ethnicities. Six women are part of a 30th birthday party; a dozen part of a bachelorette party; a few groups of women not part of any celebrations but simply looking for, as one says: "Something out of the let's-all-do-shots ordinary bar stuff."
None will give their names, their reasons varying along the lines of "my boyfriend doesn't know I'm here", showing people can still be uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality, and public nudity.
Yet naked bodies have been the stuff of art since cave drawings, and almost every museum in the world features representations of the unclothed human form. "Man's naked form belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people of all ages," French sculptor Auguste Rodin said.
But most others aren't as worldly. "Sometimes women will paint underpants on the painting of my body. I don't wear underpants when posing," Miller says.
According to some artists who strip for their art (including Croatian choreographer Bruno Isakovic whose work Denuded was recently performed in Hong Kong at Spring Workshop, and who will perform the piece himself on December 10 at this year's iDance Festival), the novelty of seeing naked men (or women) wears off as the audience becomes immersed in the performance itself.
Likewise, the initial curiosity of seeing Miller disrobed causes some gasps, a few giggles, much whispering and one, very loud, "he's cute". But within a few minutes, the women are settled into their paintings, asking questions of their instructors, and comparing notes with one another about colour and composition. Miller might as well have been a potted plant.
Miller, 27, grew up in Cleveland, graduated with a degree in political science from Ohio University, is a second lieutenant serving an eight-year hitch in the Army National Guard and is close to completing a master's in urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He makes US$30 for every hour of posing, and this is how his modelling career started: "I was here on a date a couple of years ago and was painting and talking to one of the instructors who was telling me about the ladies' nights. I had had a couple of glasses of wine and said I might like to try that. I was just back from basic training and was in good shape, so I came in later for an interview and that was that."
When he tells fellow guardsmen, classmates or friends about his part-time profession, it causes curiosity, as in, "no way, what's it like?" He tells them that some of the women, as the wine flows, ask him questions.
"Can I touch you?" "No."
"Does it get cold?" "Sometimes."
"Can we go out on a date?" "No."
Miller, who is in a long-term committed relationship, says: "I'll keep doing this for as long as they'll have me. There's no reason to stop unless they tell me I'm too old or too out of shape. Doing this puts me outside my comfort zone, and that's not a bad place to be sometimes. It's also a chance to meet and talk with people I wouldn't otherwise know.
"I do suppose that my image is hanging on walls in houses and apartments, and maybe seeing me in those paintings will evoke some good memories for the painters, about the night they spent with some strange naked man who they will never see again."