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Trans nude models challenge beauty standards in San Francisco, Oakland

Trans model Alida Pepper poses during a sketch session at Madrone Art Bar, in San Francisco. Sketchboard, a local organization, employs art models with nontraditional body types to defy conventional beauty standards. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Quinnie Collaço is a sexual health counselor at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center. Every few weeks or so, she commutes to a San Francisco bar and disrobes before several dozen would-be artists. 

For Collaço, who identifies as transfeminine and nonbinary, the work is part personal and part artistic statement.  

The 27-year-old aspiring physician’s assistant has dipped her toes in various fields, from acting to phlebotomy, over the years. Art modeling is the one gig that has helped her get by. But it’s more than just a job—it’s a way for her to embrace her body as it is.

“Life imitates art. Art imitates life,” Collaço said. “I want my body, and the way that I am ambiguous, to be normalized.”

Artists have documented her transition as she’s taken hormones. Their drawings of her donning sports bras, yoga shorts and glittery jewelry show her feminine side and have helped her affirm “who I am on the inside reflected on the outside.” 

“Being able to see the different stages of my body in my physical transition has been kind of like a love letter to myself,” Collaço said. 

Drawing People 'Who Look Like Me'

Collaço is a model with Sketchboard, a 10-year-old organization that began with the aim of making the artsy pastime of figure drawing more accessible in the Bay. Over the past five years, Sketchboard has broadened its mission to center on marginalized groups. It hires non-white, queer, trans, intersex and disabled art models and aims to help more artists see—and feature—unconventional bodies.

A timelapse of digital drawings of live models by Brendon Metcalf. | Source: Courtesy Brandon Metcalf

The group attracts a range of hobbyist sketchers and professionals honing their skills who convene several times a month at bars and community spaces throughout the Bay Area in order to draw people whose bodies express the full range of human experience.

This mission has been championed by multidisciplinary artist and model Natalie Gavidia, who took over leadership of the organization in 2018. 

“To put it very bluntly, there’s a lot of white artists that have been running these events for a long time,” said Gavidia, who identifies as Latino and nonbinary. “I just always wanted to draw people who look like me. I want to draw people on the bus, who I live with.”

Sketchboard bills itself as “the only known workshop series in the Bay Area reflecting the full vibrancy of San Francisco, featuring the bodies of people existing at the intersection of multiple identities.”   

The figure-drawing workshops cost between $15 and $25 and regularly sell out, attracting about 25 to 45 participants per event.  

The array of models from all walks of life is a draw for participants like graphic designer Josh Abess, who attended the group’s recent Renaissance-themed “Baroque Delights” event at Monument, an artist live-work-event space in SoMa. Crowned by flower wreaths and surrounded by faux fall foliage, plus-size models posed as Rubenesque figures evoking such famous art historical scenes as the artist’s Three Graces.  

“It’s not just about drawing or painting. It’s also about meeting new people and sharing your work,” said Abess, who sketched a likeness of a nude woman dangling a cross. “I think it’s great that they highlight the types of bodies that have been excluded from museums and art history books.” 

Earning a Living and Feeling Comfortable in Her Skin

Alida Pepper, a trans and intersex woman, thought for years about being an art model but didn’t act on it. 

“I had a long history of having a really hard time connecting with my own body,” she said. 

Then a near-death experience forced her to reevaluate her life path. 

After nearly dying from a surgery-induced staph infection in 2017, she decided to audition for the nonprofit Bay Area Models’ Guild and focus on a profession that brought her joy. The move into modeling not only gave her life new meaning but also helped her feel more comfortable in her skin as she was transitioning. 

“I found it incredibly healing to get in this kind of state where I was like, just really quiet, pretty focused and thinking,” she said.

It also gave her a job. 

Trans model Alida Pepper poses for artists at Madrone Art Bar in NoPa. Pepper thought for years about being an art model but didn’t act on it. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

She now earns a living as a full-time art model, posing for art schools and studios throughout the Bay Area. She has also done modeling for animation and video game production companies such as Pixar and Electronic Arts. 

Pepper joined Sketchboard five years ago and helps run the group alongside Gavidia. 

“They didn't really make a big deal about the fact I was trans,” she said. “It was just something that was kind of perceived as normal.”

Express Yourself

Pepper credits the organization with helping her to find art modeling gigs when art schools and other mainstream outfits were reluctant to hire a trans model. Sketchboard prides itself on employing a diverse range of models at a generous wage: It pays $120 per session plus tips.  (The going local rate is $80 to $100, according to Gavidia.) 

The group also encourages models to bring their own artistic sensibilities to the sessions. On a recent Tuesday evening at Madrone Art Bar, Pepper donned a feathered mask. Later, she transformed into a Dirndl-sporting waitress, knocking back a beer after a long shift. 

Makaile Bishop and other artists sketch during a session at Madrone Art Bar. The group attracts a range of hobbyist sketchers and professionals honing their skills who convene several times a month at bars and community spaces throughout the Bay Area. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Nor are the models expected to remain like statues for the artists. They can talk during the sessions, and they’re encouraged to speak up if they need a glass of water or a break. Sketchboard begins each session by introducing the models and sharing their pronouns.  

Gavidia hopes to eventually turn the venture into a nonprofit and expand it into a platform for art models to unionize and find gigs. With each new endeavor, the group aims to challenge conventional standards of beauty, observes Angelina Moles, a communications professor at San Francisco State University who has collaborated with the group.

“What Sketchboard is doing is showcasing the wondrous works of art that all of our bodies are,” Moles said.

On a recent Tuesday night at Madrone Art Bar, patrons listened to mellow cafe jazz and sipped cold ones while a group of artists concentrated on sketching Pepper, who sported an apron over a satiny slip and clutched a chainsaw as a prop. 

One mystery doodler, who would not give his name, described himself as a queer artist. He remarked that Pepper was helping him feel seen.  

“It’s like family,” he said. “It makes me feel like home.”  

Sketchboard is showcasing artworks made by its participants during a 10-year anniversary gallery show at Syzygy through Jan. 13, 2024. The organization will also hold a free, first-come, first-served figure drawing session with clothed models at the Oakland Museum of California on Oct. 6