Model Citizens Bland and Keffer
Striking Poses in the Name of Art
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
5:09PM, Wed. Mar. 21, 2012
Among the various women featured in the paintings (to be precise: the stunning and gorgeous paintings) by Austin artist Jennifer Balkan in her "Peep Holes" exhibition at the Wally Workman Gallery are Kelli Bland and Michelle Keffer.
Bland and Keffer are models.
Bland and Keffer are actresses.
Bland and Keffer are best friends.
(That's them over there to the right, in a painting entitled "I wish life was just … ")
(You know, we even wrote about Bland a few years ago, when covering the Naked Lunch series of models-posing-for-animators gigs that's run by the sketchy professionals of Powerhouse Animation.)
There's always much to be said about the artwork that Jennifer Balkan creates, and there's much that we could ask the artist (in addition to simply running a brief review that seeks to drive as many art-lovers as possible to the gallery while the show's still up).
But we thought it'd be a good idea to talk to the paintings' subjects themselves, this time. To find out what it's like modeling for a living here in Austin, and what it's like to be painted by Balkan in particular …
Chronicle: How did y'all first meet?
Keffer: We met at an audition at Hyde Park Theatre.
Bland: It was my first play in Austin. I met with Ken Webster when I got here,
because he's from Port Arthur, and I'm from Port Arthur, too. So I met with him and he told me about the auditions.
And I went, and Keffer was there.
Chronicle: What year was this?
Keffer: She hadn't even officially moved here, yet.
Bland: Yeah, I got cast in this play, and then
I moved up here three days later.
Chronicle: You were in Port Arthur?
Bland: Yeah, being totally depressed. Sitting in my mom's bed and watching TV shows about parents who were sick and tired of their freeloading, artist kids that were doing nothing but sitting around and smoking weed. So I needed to leave, and as soon as I had a reason … and that's where I met Keffer.
Keffer: And I'm from Ohio. I moved here in December of 2004.
Bland: And then she needed a ride to Houston. That's how we really became friends.
Keffer: My car broke down, and I had a callback in Houston for a feature film. And I'd just moved to Austin the year before, so I didn't know a lot of people. And I was like, "Well, Kelli, I don't really know you, but …" And I told her, "I know the director, I'll get you an audition if you drive me down there." So she did.
Chronicle: Did you get cast in the movie?
Bland: I did not.
Keffer: I got cast in it, then got in a fight with the director and never ended up in the movie.
Bland: But, on the way there, we had a really good time. And when went to eat dinner that night, that's when we realized we had the same birthday.
Keffer: We wound up spending 22 hours together.
Bland: And since then we've worked on little things together here and there.
Keffer: We do plays.
Chronicle: And how did you meet Jennifer Balkan?
Keffer: Kelli met her before I did.
Bland: I met her through the Austin Figurative Gallery. And I'd seen her work before I met her. I believe it was at the Wally Workman Gallery, where the show is now. It was with a bunch of different artists, but I remember seeing this one painting of a man and just staring at it forever.
Keffer: Scott Ewen, who is also with Austin Figurative Gallery, he's the one who referred me to her. I'd seen her work previously, too, because I'd modeled for Karen Offutt, and Karen has some of Jennifer's paintings. So I'd seen them and I'd loved them, but I didn't realize it was the same person until I got to her studio.
Chronicle: And how did Jennifer wind up painting the two of y'all together?
Keffer: We started modeling for her at the same time, and we'd talk about each other at our sessions with her.
Bland: Bad things.
Keffer: When she found out we were best friends, and she was going to do a series about best friends, she figured we'd be comfortable together and she could get actual, you know –
Chronicle: How is posing for Jennifer Balkan different from posing for other artists?
Keffer: I find Jennifer to be more like a friend – she's very casual, she's very generous. Relaxed and thoughtful – mindful, you know? The first time I modeled for her happened to be for the last class she was teaching for a session. So she served margaritas to us!
Bland: It's just really comfortable. She was teaching in her studio, which is just a little place, so there's like five or six easels up, and there's a couch area. And we sit there on this little mattress.
Keffer: And she has this chair-massager set up for us, for when we're on break, we can sit and get our backs massaged.
Chronicle: Do you ever take classes yourselves?
Bland: I would love to take a painting class with Jennifer! I've taken one sculpting class, but I've never gotten to take a painting one, in all the years of modeling. I feel like I need to, now.
Keffer: I feel like I could, like, magically paint something – because I've heard every instructor in town.
Bland: Yes! And when I took that sculpting class, the modeling experience really helped. Because, after listening to Steve Dubov tell everyone, like, "The distance between her knee and her shoulder is the same length from her ankle to her bottom," that kind of thing, you're able to use your own body as a reference. So when I actually took the sculpting class, I think I did pretty good.
Chronicle: So y'all make a living by modeling for artists?
Keffer: With that and acting. A meager living. But, yeah, our income is from acting and modeling.
Bland: We don't have regular gigs.
Keffer: When school's in session, that's when other artists also teach their classes, so there's always a lot of work then. But when everybody's on break, everybody's on break – so it's really hard to find work then. And it's like that for acting, too.
Chronicle: Do you find that one gig leads to another?Like somebody will see you modeling and they'll cast you in a show, or someone will see you in a play and they'll say "Hey, will you sit for us?"
Bland: There's not as much crossover. I didn't get started modeling through anything to do with acting. I was looking for stitching work. And the designer asked me if I modeled, and I was like, "Uh, yeah, sure, I've posed for some photographs." So I went to Jim McIntyre's studio, and that was my first session. But those gigs lead to other gigs. And the same for theatre – you get one acting gig, you'll get another.
Keffer: I do find, though, that the studio artists come to see our shows, the plays that we're in. Whereas the actors do not come to the gallery openings.
Bland: And I've been telling people about this show in particular, because it's so good, and Jennifer deserves all the accolades she gets.
Keffer: And I'll go to gallery shows where there'll be one or two paintings – or drawings or photographs or whatever – of me, from one or two different artists, but this show, it's not just me, it's me and Kelli. And there are, like, six giant paintings of us.
Bland: And it's a tribute to our love.
Chronicle: Can you imagine trying to survive as a model/actress in some other city?
Bland: It's interesting, because they have unions. I specifically cite New York as an example, because I went there for a month to get some gigs, and I wound up just getting gigs with David Ohlerking. He hired me for a couple of gigs when I was there. But, the unions, to be a member of the union you have to be able to do an hour standing pose. For a full hour, without breaks. Which I can't do because I have leg injuries.
Keffer: I can't, because I'm human. They have robots there.
Bland: What's the hardest pose you've ever had to do, Michelle?
Keffer: I did a three-hour standing pose – with breaks. Where I was leaning up against a tree – for someone at ACC.
Bland: But you got to lean?
Keffer: I leaned, but, still, it was horrible – it was terrible. Because your body remembers how to get back into the pose, but it also remembers all the muscles that hurt. You can locate the proper position by the pain.
Bland: Mine was with Steve Dubov, where I did one day a week for three hours each session. A standing contraposto pose, full contraposto, so all of your weight is on one leg. And I'd just injured my legs a month before, so they were really fragile and, yeah, it was excruciating. I wore sneakers for the first four weeks, but they needed to be able to do my feet, so then I had to take them off – and it was rough.
Keffer: I wish they'd done sculpture of you naked with shoes!
Bland: I think that someone actually did, in that class. And put a towel on my head, too.
Chronicle: So all these different artists that you sit for – of various skills, especially if they're students – and now Jennifer Balkan, who's world class, and the paintings are huge and in full-color … how does that feel, to be captured in such a … ?
Keffer: It's a privilege. For someone to want to paint us like this, and then put it in their show – to me, it's very very flattering.
Keffer: Especially Jennifer.
Bland: She's brilliant, she's one of my favorite painters. And we're actually about to start work on a play that we're going to make, about the relationship between artist and model. So we're going to start researching and videotaping artists and like that. But the heart of what we want to make, what we want to say, is that it's not just there's the object, there is the painter. They're painting something that's a person, alive and breathing in front of them, and they're both forcing the work into being. Even though the model's still, there's still a presence that you're giving to the artist to make something together. And that's what cool, that we get to have a part of it.
Keffer: And that's why there are some models that are much more hire-able, that get a lot more work than others. We happen to get a lot of work, and I think it comes partly from being actors, too. But I'm also very conscious of my eyes and my face, of not becoming a mannikin, of thinking and feeling. It's harder for artists to capture your likeness if you're like a statue; you should be a person who just happens to be still.
Chronicle: What advice would you give to somebody, like right out of high school, who was thinking about modeling?
Keffer: Don't do it, because we need the work.
Bland: It's different for every model. I model without my glasses on, so everything is like a blur – which I love. Some models stare people right in the face while they're doing it.
Keffer: I would say that it's extremely nerve-wracking the first time you do it. I was shaking uncontrollably the first time I did it. I think the best advice to give to someone would be: Don't overthink it. Just do it.
Bland: It's all just figuring out your own body when you do it. If you've never posed for anybody, never stayed very still for a long time, you learn a lot about your blood flow, what things fall asleep, the way you need to put your legs so that your leg doesn't fall asleep. How much weight you can lean on, onto one arm.
Keffer: And I've told a few of my friends who have body dysmorphia or low self-esteem to go and try it out a few times, because the artists in this town are amazing people. They just make you feel that you're beautiful and they're just so grateful that you're there.
Chronicle: Are all the modeling jobs, are they all nude poses?
Bland: I would say probably 95 percent is nude, maybe five percent is clothed.
Chronicle: But Jennifer didn't add clothes to those paintings?
Bland: No, we were wearing clothes – the paintings were from a photoshoot that we did with her.
Keffer: But usually when we model for her, it is nude. And that's because, for class, people are working to know what the figure looks like.
Bland: Oh, and for the advice? Tell them not to take private sessions unless you know the artist personally. Please put that in the article, because that's a big one.
Keffer: And don't look for modeling gigs on Craigslist.
Bland: Oh yeah, oooooh.
Chronicle: Have y'all had any incidents that were, ah … ?
Keffer: I never have.
Bland: I have a couple of times. Yeah. And you get asked out by people, sometimes, and it's shady as all get out.