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City Folk

Studio Muse

An art model reflects on 30 years of posing in Baltimore

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Michelle Gienow

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It was the mid-’70s and Viki Ford-Strange was living in the city, majoring in music at Essex Community College, and playing keyboard at Dundalk dives like the Monument Show Palace on Northpoint Road. “Go-go girls. A woman dancing on the bar with a python. Bikers. Drugs in the parking lot. Yes, that was the place,” she says.

The musician had never thought about modeling, much less figure-modeling for artists, but when her friend at Essex got pregnant and quit posing for the college’s art department, Ford-Strange signed up.

“I think I got paid $3.25 per hour, and I remember having to take two buses to get there, but it was exciting,” she says. “I loved art and being around artists, and I was OK working without clothes.”

Ford-Strange says that, in retrospect, her becoming an art model is not surprising. “As a kid, I spent a lot of time at museums. My brother and I grew up hanging out at the Walters and—should I even be saying this?—crawling all over the cast of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ at the BMA,” she recalls.

The fact that art modeling in Baltimore was thought to be a bit seedy back then didn’t faze her.

“A lot of us models were students, but honestly, there were homeless people and hookers too. At the end of the week, we all got paid cash in little manila envelopes,” she says.

Ford-Strange, who grew up in Middle River, didn’t tell her parents about the nude modeling for years.

”It was something I couldn’t share with them. No parent wants to say their daughter takes off her clothes for money, let alone their Catholic, church-organ-playing daughter. It was bad enough I was playing rock ’n’ roll,” she recalls.

Her cover band, Poetic License, was making money and won second place in a battle of the bands at the old Civic Center (now 1st Mariner Arena) in 1976, and she gigged through the ’80s at old eastside joints like the Seagull Inn and Hollywood Palace.

In 1990, she did a three-week Department of Defense armed-forces entertainment tour of South America. Her friend (and future husband) singer Amory Strange, who was performing with the DOD then, set her up with that job.

Like most serious musicians, her career has ebbed and flowed, but ultimately art modeling (she started modeling for MICA in 1979 and later began coordinating MICA’s models program) became her de facto profession.

In some circles Viki Ford-Strange is one of the most recognizable art models in Baltimore, having posed for the city’s preeminent portrait and abstract artists—and more MICA students and life-drawing classes than she can count.

She posed for the late Reuben Kramer, a sculptor in Bolton Hill who exhibited all over the world, and Polly Mitchell, the Ruxton portrait artist who died in 2002.

And she posed for Ann Schuler, co-founder of Schuler School of Fine Arts. “Ann taught me about the foundations of art and also about posing,” she says. Schuler, who passed away in 2010, came to Ford-Strange and Amory’s wedding.

“She wanted to paint me in my wedding dress. She painted famous people like Rosa Ponselle, the opera singer. The Ponselle painting hangs in the lobby of the Lyric,” she says.

Ford-Strange’s wedding portrait hangs in the Hanlon Park home she shares with Amory.

These days, her modeling resume reads a bit like a requiem for Baltimore’s dead artists—a fact that she acknowledges and one that makes her a little sad.

“I spent so much time with them over the years. I went to their homes. They came to my parties. When they die, it’s like losing a family member,” she says.

Ford-Strange has modeled not only for Baltimore’s artists over the years but for photographers too, and she even acted in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.

“I was the naked, bludgeoned victim in the dumpster in the white-glove murders episode,” she says. “I booked a lot of bodies for that show too.”

And who could forget Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, a 1992 point-and-click sci-fi adventure from then-Hunt Valley-based game company MicroProse?

“It was before video games got big. It’s a cult thing now,” she says. (’90s gamers take note: She posed for Rox—the female version of Rex after he comes out of the gender bender— not the busty redhead wielding the club.)

As MICA grew, so did its need for figure models. The school has around 60, ages 18-96. Nowadays, she books up to 20 models a day and teaches technique and professionalism. Some instructors use the same models over and over, she says.

Such has been the case with Ford-Strange and Baltimore painter Raoul Middleman. She’s been one of his models since the 1980s. Middleman’s oeuvre is diverse: landscapes, cityscapes, portraits. His work is influenced by the city and the time he spent living on the Block, but he is, arguably, best known for his lurid and provocative narrative paintings.

She and Amory are the models for Middleman’s “Adam and Eve,” the 10-by-16-foot museum-size painting featured at Artscape in 1992, and she’s the redhead in his painting “Sacred and Profane Love”—part of City Limits, Middleman’s 2012 exhibit at American University.

When asked if it ever bothered her to be depicted in a distorted way, she says: “As a model, you have to get over yourself. When you’re working with an artist, it’s about what they see—not how you think you look. Another thing, I did ‘Adam and Eve’ with Amory. We posed together. It was special. I mean, how many couples get to be Adam and Eve together?”

At 61, she still poses nude. Artists sincerely tell her that she hasn’t changed much over the decades. Her hair is shorter. Maybe she carries a few more pounds. But the face and the voluptuous body are intact.

Middleman says of her appeal: “There’s this luminosity about her, her flesh glows. That’s exciting for an artist to paint.

“Viki is also good at transforming herself into a persona—a cowgirl, Eve, whatever. Modeling is not just sitting there. You have to get in the character of the pose and sustain it. As an artist, you’re trying to get to that . . . that otherness, your fantasy. You have a vague idea but you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to lead,” he says. “The model helps you get there.”

To hear Middleman tell it, she’s also good company.

“You become friends with some of your models. There’s a simpatico,” he says. “Viki’s open and she has empathy and good humor and she likes to talk. I like a model who talks—not some frozen rigor mortis person sitting there. She’s a musician too. I’m a terrible musician, but when I was playing the violin, she would accompany me and try to help me. I thought that was terrific.”

Ford-Strange credits the artists she’s modeled for with revealing in their art parts of herself, attributes that she didn’t always see.

“Artists show you the particulars: the bone structure, the detached ear lobes, the glow of your skin, the wrinkles on your face. Some can capture your expression—your anger, your joy, your discontentment. But even more than that, a good artist can capture your essence,” she says. “If I ever retire from MICA, I’ll probably pick up a paintbrush.”

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