Letter from Venice — From the November 2013 issue

Showing a Little Leg

A pilgrimage to Ellen Altfest’s body paintings

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The ad had appeared on Marfa’s online bulletin board in January 2010, in the quiet after the holiday tourism rush. An unnamed artist was seeking a male “leg model (clothed)” for three months’ full-time work, paying fifteen dollars an hour plus a two-dollar-an-hour bonus on completion. These are killer wages in a rural Texas county without any oil, but most of the underemployed regulars at Padre’s, the local bar, were wary. Performance-art pranks are a regular hazard in a town with a fake Prada store.

But I was broke. I had come to Marfa the previous spring to write a novel; when the ad appeared, I’d burned through my savings and retreated to grad-school applications. I had nowhere to go until fall. I emailed two photos of my legs taken with a self-timer out on my front stoop in the cold winter sun: one in shorts and one in a pair of thrift-store Wranglers I was immoderately proud of that year. Altfest wrote back two days later.

Ellen, as I came to know her, arrived in town on April 1 to begin her residency at the Chinati Foundation, a museum of minimalist art in an old cavalry fort at the edge of town. We met the next morning and spent several days stomping around Chinati’s 340-acre grounds, auditioning the dead yuccas that littered the desert floor. Ellen loved their exhausted slump and weathered spines. She’d brought me a little chair — really just a foam cushion with a blue canvas back, the kind I used to sit on to watch TV on the floor of my grandparents’ den — and I posed next to each stump for a sketch. As she drew we took turns holding a flattened cardboard box to shade my leg from the sun, fierce even in April. She paints exclusively in natural light but said she had never been exposed to so much. Besides the overalls, she worked in a sun hat, special UV-blocking gloves open at the fingertips, and, until it got too hot, a sort of mask made of the same nylon as the gloves and covering all but her eyes.

We finally set up camp in a far corner of the property with the view of a quiet county road and the plains beyond. Each morning I staked down the dew-damp tent, carefully arranged my chair and stack of books, and laid my right ankle between two barbecue skewers jammed in the dirt. Then, for the next eight hours, we sat inches apart, painting and being painted. Every twenty-five minutes, Ellen’s iPhone announced a five-minute break with the strum of a harp.

There was a boss-and-employee dynamic I hadn’t expected. Besides modeling, my duties included duct-taping the tent as it tore in the spring gusts, gathering the foil wrappers of Ellen’s instant-curry lunches, and providing just enough conversation to keep her sane. While mixing dozens of skin tones a day, she would let the rest of her mind wander to subjects like celebrity gossip and Marfa’s frustrating organic-yogurt selection. I began to understand my role one dawn in late April. As we were walking to the site, Ellen clipped her right foot against a prickly pear. She stood on one leg, peeled off her shoe, and waited silently until I took her foot in my hands and pulled the fat spine from her pinkie toe, releasing one tiny, perfect drop of blood.

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lives in Shanghai. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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