Wendover Project 2015, Paul Butler
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Some experiences take a long time to fully process. I've been wanting to write about this art project I was fortunate enough to participate in in September of 2015. I've wanted to write about it many times. I'm still not sure I have adequate words to describe how this one day last Fall impacted my life.
Paul Butler is an artist out of Ogden, Utah. A friend tagged me in his Facebook post asking for models to drive out to the Salt Flats by Wendover, Nevada and let themselves be painted and photographed. He has a vision of helping women to see beauty in their being beyond what society shows us. To quote Paul, "Our bodies are beautiful - no measures or scales are necessary - we exist - we are beautiful." After scrolling through the photographs and articles of past year's projects I was sold. I asked for my name to be added to the list of models. Besides Paul, and his assistant, everyone involved was female. The painters, the helpers, the additional photographers. No men were allowed on 'set.'
I had never been involved in a large scale photo shoot and project like this before. I had no idea what to expect. There was a lot of standing around, getting lost, not being able to hear (That is a personal issue as I have slight hearing loss in one of my ears.), being hungry and thirsty, sweating from places I literally had never felt sweat drip from before, laughing, chatting, and being naked. It was a long day and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Why? The lessons I learned about myself and human bodies in general changed my life forever.
We first took photographs clothed. Easy. I love being photographed. We then went back to the main staging area and were asked to disrobe. That's when I became a little hesitant. If you can believe it I wasn't sure what the right way to disrobe was. I'm laughing at myself right now remembering that. Should I take my top off first because breasts aren't as private as vulvas? Should I undress slowly so that nobody thought I thought too highly of myself by ripping my clothes off and daring to be totally comfortable in my bare skin? I snuck quick looks around me to make sure I was "doing it right." I really hope you're laughing right now. The point was to get naked, stay naked, and be photographed naked to show beauty and confidence in every body, and here I was trying to make sure I was doing naked right.
What I realized in those moments of undressing was that I wasn't as secure in my own skin as I thought I was. I signed up for this. I knew I was safe. Fact of the matter was that I had never been that exposed in front of anyone in my life. I had been naked before. I had been naked in front of friends and lovers. This was different. This is where I'm afraid my words are going to fail me. This was something bigger than me. I wasn't going to get sex out of this. I wasn't with my best friends who were going to put clothes on immediately. This was being truly naked, in nature, with strangers. This was a powerful lesson.
The clothing we wear day to day is a kind of glamour, armor, costume, mirage, message. I had never realized how important and comforting clothing was to me until that point. Until that moment I had not considered my clothing that big of a statement of my life. From my perspective I'm a pretty classic jeans and t-shirt kind of girl. In the summer I can be found in a tank top, shorts and flip flops almost exclusively. Dressing up and wearing makeup are very low on my list of fun things, unless they involve cosplay. As I stood there in my bare skin I realized that nobody knew anything about me. Nobody knew I was laid back and relaxed. The way I dress is much more intentional than I had understood. I want to be approachable. I do not want people to think, by my clothing, that I'm stuck up or think I'm better than them. There I was without that message and I didn't know what to do.
Soon I realized that I had covered my body with religious garments for most of my adult life and that that clothing also sent a message to others. By choosing clothing that covered my body in certain ways, I was not just sending the message to God that I was keeping my covenants with him, I was sending a message to those I encountered that I was 'good'. "Look at me. I cover my body this way and that means I'm nice, clean, healthy, righteous, safe, a good mom and wife, etc." "I'm one of you" or possibly, "I'm different than you."
There was also the message I was sending myself. In order to be 'good' I had to cover my body. The promise was that my body would remain covered by the religious garments twenty-four hours a day. They were not to be removed (there are exceptions). I had not fully realized until that moment that what I had internalized was that my body needed to stay hidden in order to be 'good.' That if my shoulders, stomach, or upper thighs, etc. were showing that I was not 'good.' In order to be in good standing with God I must cover my body. If my body was uncovered I was not in good standing with God and everyone knew it just by looking at me.
Clothing says a lot. We may think we're laid back and not caught up in trends. That may be true. Our clothing choices, whether intricate and labor intensive or sweats and a ponytail, still represent who we are to the world. Whether we want to admit it or not, we make judgements about people based on the way they choose to present themselves. People judge me based on the way I present myself. I've always known that and hated it, however, the true power of clothing did not resonate with me until that day.
I quickly got over my initial, "Am I naked in the right way," concerns and then focused my anxiety on not looking at anyone. Of course I was curious. I absolutely wanted to know what other women really look like. I did not want to be staring at everyone's vaginas and breasts though. I either looked at their foreheads, past them, or at the ground. I was so afraid of being a pervert that I intentionally made myself unapproachable. Again, I really hope you're laughing at this. I am.
The first couple of shots were everyone in a line with paper bags over our heads and then with masks on. No paint. Just our naked bodies. I did not get to talk to Paul Butler about why he had us do this. Someone mentioned that it was to take our faces away. Most of us are comfortable with our faces being beautiful, even if that means applying makeup daily. This way the focus was on our bodies. I loved the idea. What was amazing is that when those shots were done I had lost all inhibitions about being naked myself and everyone else being naked. From the moment the masks were taken away I rarely thought about accidentally staring someone in the vulva. I just was. They just were. Done. That easy.
I caught glimpses of all kinds of bodies. Cellulite, scars, insulin pumps, bruises, bones, skinny bodies, fat bodies, short bodies, tall bodies. Bodies. That's all they were. Bodies. And then, they became more. They became people. As I talked to the women around me they became nurses, teachers, students, bankers, people. They were people. Simple, complex, people. By taking away the messages of their clothing people were able to tell me who they were without as many preconceived notions. Obviously there was still hair, makeup, tattoos, piercing, etc. Those are second nature to me. Maybe not to others but they can write their own blog post.
I walked away from this project counting down the days until the next one and wishing we could completely cut clothing out of our lives. The experience was freeing not only for my self image but for my feelings towards other's bodies. I then remembered that sweat and sitting are a major part of life and decided that I like clothing, I just wish we had more widely accepted opportunities to bare our bodies and learn to love the human form in all its varieties. I have a greater appreciation of women and their bodies. I finally saw for myself, on a bigger scale, that naked bodies aren't necessarily sexual. They can be if we want them to be. If we don't, they can simply be the fleshy vessel that our souls walk around in. They can even be art.
Find Paul Butler here: https://www.facebook.com/paulbutlerphotographyworldwide/