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WHY ARE YOU PAINTING THOSE NAKED LADIES? Or, What makes me think I can go to a nude drawing session on Saturday and then go to church on Sunday?

September 2, 2012

Michelango’s Creation of Adam, modest-ified.

I received this message this morning:

“Brother Richards, 
I just love most all of your marvelous work.
 But if I might ask, why in blazes do you paint nude women? Are you perhaps trying to get attention from the secular world? Where is your head at?”

Here’s another similar message from a few months back, after I posted a photo of what I felt was an innocuous figure painting:

“Hey, I don’t like this post. Please remove it. I guess I can be a little over the top, but I really don’t like to see nudity in any way, shape, or form. We try so hard to fight porn and stuff and we, as women in the church are always being told to keep our bodies covered. We aren’t even supposed to wear “tight or revealing clothing.” But, apparently, it’s alright for an LDS man to post a painting of a nude woman on his wall. What if that was your wife or daughter’s body? I’ve heard nude art called “soft porn.” As far as I’m concerned, porn is porn.”

So here it goes. I will try to explain my point of view here once and for all. I’m not interested in discussion. In fact, I’m not going to allow comments on this particular blog post. My sense is that most people have made up their minds when it comes to nudity, and “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

Let me tell you quickly about events that have formed my opinion, and then I’ll venture deeper into the opinion itself.

I’ve always loved to create artwork–artwork that depicts people. One of the hardest things to draw is people, and as a result, so much artwork that tries to depict people is poorly done. And for the same reason, one of the principles studies of the serious artist is the study of the human figure.

I drew my first “nude” in the ninth grade. Fascinated by the gesture and anatomy of the ancient Greek sculpture, The Discobolus, I copied it from an art book. Proud of my drawing, with its proportion and accuracy, I showed it to one of my best friends. I was surprised by his response of disgust and embarrassment at the display of nudity. ‘Where does that response come from?’ I asked myself.

Later in high school, my art teacher set up a special figure sculpting workshop and brought in a professional sculptor. We sculpted in clay, looking at a model who was wearing a leotard. I thought my sculpture looked pretty good. The visiting professional critiqued my work: the breasts looked wrong. Rather than being parallel, they should sit at almost a 90 degree angle, he said. And these angled relationships are repeated throughout the body. Isn’t that fascinating? But because I couldn’t see what was going on beneath the leotard, I couldn’t understand what was happening with the human figure, its inner and outer workings. As I tried to make more accurate figurative artwork, this limitation became more frustrating.

When I went to BYU, I took figure drawing classes. I loved those classes. They were challenging. My skills were being refined. I even took anatomy in the Zoology department with all the pre-med majors, so I could more thoroughly understand the human figure. My only complaint about the art department’s figure drawing classes is that the models wore bikinis (and male models wore speedos.) What’s the problem with that? Here’s the problem: the careful concealing of the human figure produces a sexual response. Thus, lingerie. Most sexually active men will tell you that once a woman’s body is fully unclothed and still, the sexual response is significantly decreased. A common practice among doctors is to have their patients undress before the doctor comes in, thus avoiding the sexualized viewing experience of undressing. In other words, I soon found out that the university art classes with their bikinis was much more sexual than the nude figure sessions I would later attend as a professional artist.

Rodin’s The Kiss, modest-ified.

My first nude session was led by an LDS artist/instructor, who was visiting from the east coast. He had been through as much schooling as most doctors—but in various art schools. And what do you suppose the focus was in those schools? Learning to draw the human figure, undraped, un-obscured—a fundamental for artists. The session I attended was conducted in a private gallery in Park City. My heart raced as I anticipated (for the first time in my life) seeing a woman step out onto the platform, fully revealed. And then she did it. She stepped onto the platform. She stood there, naked. I started drawing. My heart slowed down. I began the overwhelming task of laying values, lines, and marks on my page—desperately straining my brain to correctly record proportions, anatomy, edges, divisions of light and dark. The experience desexualized. I know there are people who won’t believe this. All I can say to those people is, if you don’t believe it, you’ve never conducted a serious study of drawing the human figure. If you had, you’d know.

Later on, after my career had begun, I attended weekly figure drawing sessions to continue to hone my skills. I made a comment about what I felt was a hint of a sexual nature in some of the poses chosen for the session, and I was chastised. The man who chastised me was and still is an upstanding spiritual man—active in church callings and a hero to many artists including myself. The human body is not inherently sexual, he told me. And he was right. I stood corrected.

Later in my career, I met a lovely lady who would later purchase many of my paintings. She too was an artist. Her house was and remains full of nude works of art. Soon she was called to serve as Stake Relief Society President. She explained to the Stake President when he extended the calling, “This is part of who I am. I’m an artist, and the human figure is very important to me.” She expressed concern that some women under her stewardship might not understand. She didn’t want to be a stumbling block to them. The Stake President expressed his confidence that she should serve anyway—that nothing in her home offended him, and that if anyone was offended by it, it was probably because that person had experienced something in their past that was unpleasant. Was that Stake President correct to make such a blanket assumption? I don’t know. But I do know that my artist friend served faithfully and is one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. From my perspective, her love of the human form in art did not detract from her spirituality or ability to serve. What could have detracted from her spirit? Being forced into a puritanical rejection of those good things that spoke to her soul.

So. Why do I paint from the nude, and why do I occasionally display those paintings? Why do I hang some of them in my house?


1. Because I want to be an excellent artist.

In today’s email, this thought was expressed: “I just love most all of your marvelous work, BUT…”. To me, this is similar to the following comment: “Well I love everything you Mormons do, but I just can’t stomach Joseph Smith.” Joseph Smith is a fundamental for Latter-Day Saints. Figure drawing is a fundamental for artists. I want to be an excellent artist. My artist friends reading this will nod their heads and say, “Yes, of course.” Others may read it and scratch their heads, unable to reconcile this idea with their spiritual convictions.

Should a young Mormon who wants a career as an artist choose a different career path if he or she is unwilling to draw from the nude model? No. I don’t think so. But I will say this. If a young Mormon wants to create classical or realist works worthy of depicting the great doctrines of the gospel and stories of the human experience, he or she will most definitely need to study the human figure in great depth.

2. Because art celebrates the human figure, God’s greatest creation, in a non-sexual way.

I teach my young children to appreciate the human body. If they see nude art, I teach them not to say “Ew, gross!” I teach them to have respect.

I hear this all the time: “But I have teenage boys.”

What better way to teach teenage boys that the human figure is beautiful, not sexual, than to have a piece of art in the home? Or at least take them to an art museum once in a while. The alternative is to make them jump to the remote, shut the magazine ad, run out of the movie theater, at the slightest and earliest appearance of skin. What does that teach them? The body is evil. The body is sexual. Run away from nudity at all cost. I think this is unhealthy.

Where then, can we draw the line between nudity and pornography, or art and pornography? This can be difficult, especially when you or your teenagers have been conditioned to dismiss all nudity as pornography. We often want things spelled out for us so we don’t have to work to make judgments. But I say, let’s use our judgment. That’s part of God’s plan—for us to use our judgment: Is the work of art respectful to the human body? Maybe it’s not pornography. Is the work of art aimed to stimulate inappropriate sexual responses in me? Maybe it’s pornographic, and I can walk away like a mature adult. Let’s not teach our children to have an unhealthy, body-hating, puritanical view of the human figure–or they may be more likely to give in to temptations thrown in front of them when their parents are not around, something that will surely occur.

I have spent most of the day mulling over today’s email. During church I researched scriptures on the subject. Here are the conclusions I’ve made, based on scripture:

1. Adam and Eve were naked and innocent.
2. Satan pointed out that they were naked, and told them they should feel ashamed.
3. Knowledge of good and evil makes us aware of our nakedness.
4. Our body is our temple, created in the image of God.
5. Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years.
6. The act of clothing nakedness is a spiritually symbolic act.
7. Nakedness is often equated to poverty.
8. The Apostle Peter was naked on the fishing boat right before he saw the resurrected Jesus on the shore of Tiberias.
9. Ham saw his father Noah’s nakedness, and his son Caanan was cursed as a result. (This scripture is strange to me. I think we’re not getting the whole story.)
10. You must not uncover the nakedness of any relatives. (And I think this is a euphemism, similar to “lie with.”)
11. You must not look on a woman to lust after her.
12. Don’t commit adultery.

I go to church on Sunday. I serve in church. I have a testimony of the Gospel. I have a testimony of the power of good art. I want to make good art. I think the world would be better with better art—and that God wants artists to do their part to make the world better. I believe we were created in the image of God–which image I believe should be respected. I have no problems reconciling my faith with nudity. My wife is an artist. Sometimes she comes with me to draw or paint from the nude figure. I have never had a problem with pornography. I’ve never had a problem with infidelity. I could go (and have gone) months without attending a figure session. I’m not addicted. All this to say, there is a healthy way to look at the human figure, and an unhealthy way. One unhealthy way is to fall into an addiction to pornography. Another unhealthy way is to avoid the human figure like the plague.

So there you have it. This is my take on nudity. If you remain unconvinced, there is little point in the two of us discussing the subject further. But I hope you’ll appreciate my paintings of the Savior, anyway, and look past the “vice” that made those paintings possible.

With love and respect,

Kirk

The Discobolus, ancient Greek sculpture, modest-ified.

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