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Bikes and Nudes: Portrait of a Nomadic by Julia Selwyn

Julia SelwynBikes and Nudes: Portrait of a Nomadic by Julia Selwyn

It’s an unusual sight in this strange town called Eugene: once in awhile, you’ll see the “bike bus.” It’s an old school bus, painted green and covered the entire length with bikes strapped to the top like a spine, dangling their wheels and gears. “Photographs allowed” reads the sign on the bus. The man who lives inside, it is rumored, fixes bikes for cheap.

As I walked by the bike bus one hot day, I noticed an older man leaning heavily on a darkwood cane. He smiled across his broad face and said something about how I was trying to catch the shade. I responded playfully that his big bus gave him shade all the time. He guessed I was an artist. Our conversation moved to art and ceramics, then flowed into anthropology and the study of primitive pots. He introduced me to his favorite writer, Marija Gimbutas, who wrote Civilization of the Goddess, an anthropological study of a female cave dwelling where the first written language was discovered. He said it was hard to find a copy because religious fanatics buy them up and burn them. Then he introduced himself as RomTom, or Romani Tom (Romani is the name for Gypsies in their own tongue). I knew I was wandering into a very strange land.

He invited me inside his bus. An observer on the street might have thought me careless to enter. But I had a strong intuition that meeting this fellow artist would be a gentle experience.

The bus was very comfortable, as a bus should be when a man lives inside it. It had one large bed with a second small one overhead, warm lighting, cupboards overflowing with supplies, a small TV and VCR, tape player, and a laptop (all powered by a small generator). Most compelling were the photographs of nude women hanging from the ceiling and stacked against walls. They were truly striking and individual—some walking from the water, others resting on rocks or logs, or pulling themselves up into trees.

Viewing these pictures, I had the strange sensation of seeing them through RomTom’s eyes. They showed a respect for beauty and women unlike any photos I had ever seen. I felt peaceful here amidst portraits as finely composed as a watercolor, or clay molded by hand.

Of course the topic immediately became these pictures. I learned he had three art showings in town, in bookstores and restaurants. RomTom proudly told me that he was the only man to have an exhibit in Mother Kali, a feminist bookstore in Eugene.

True to the gypsy root of his name, RomTom has been nomadic for decades, starting in the late 1960’s when he hitchhiked to colleges protesting the Vietnam war. After encouraging students to resist the draft, he got prison time. “I didn’t like prison. It captured my free spirit. After serving one and a half years of a five year term, I was let go.” In the 1980’s, he took to the highways with his first bus, picking up discarded bicycles. He collected ever more of these on his bus, and fixed people’s bikes across the country. Even when the bus is parked, the bikes turn in the wind like kaleidoscopes, their old wheels creaking.

RomTom has seen many beautiful, confident women in his wanderings. When I told him I was a writer, he showed me a book he was developing with poems crafted to each nude picture. The poetic words tell each woman’s story with an achingly naked honesty. As the eyes, shy or challenging, playful or serious, meet the page, the words flow about the streams where they hold hands or kiss, the mountains where they dance. Here is a picture of a mother bathing with her children in a hot spring, and there, an older women holding up crumpled flowers. All are innocent and spiritual, yet the strong limbs of women pushing out from these pictures make them hardly demure.

One beautiful dark-haired woman, her eyes flashing, holds a violin to her cheek. Her pale nude body stands out strongly from the green earth. The image’s poem tells how her passionate gypsy ancestors were killed by prosaic crowds. And the result of that genocide? More passion. Though painful, this poem gives us the hope of a woman’s strength overcoming history, not bound to repetition.

As each woman’s image emerged from the pages, he told me about some of their modeling experiences. One woman, whose face burns out of the darkness with strangely wistful eyes, was a soldier. She confided to him that she was a sharpshooter, even when she played pool. She wanted to model because she had lost the feeling of being female.

RomTom related how women’s preconceptions of modeling occasionally got in the way. Some of them believed that they would get big glossy prints of their images, in return for his ‘erotic experience.’ For this reason, he rarely photographs erotic dancers because of their general preconceptions of nudity. “I view each modeling experience as a gift given to me by the Goddess, and it’s not about eroticism. I give the model a simple, small collection of the best pictures from the shoot.”

We discussed the differences between Playboy’s photo projection and his photography. For me, the chief difference was that his photographs were mainly sensual, showing how the body reaches outside itself to nature. Men’s magazines, with their sexual, coy poses, show the model as a projection of someone else’s erotic thoughts, not her own.

RomTom talked about the spirituality of counter-culture women. “Almost every counter-culture woman has climbed a mountain or been deep in a forest alone. She’s high and she’s afraid. And at this point she makes a promise to herself—‘Goddess, please allow me to survive this, to share myself with you, and I promise to take life more seriously.’ She is cut by an edge she has mishandled in the past. She puts that edge deep within her, so it won’t slip. Such experience makes for wonderful photography.”

A man with a strong Celtic background, he composes pictures of women and nature twining together, as in legends. In one image, a soft-skinned black woman fans a fire, her eyes bright as if caught in a personal summoning of strength. Women pose with their Wiccan wands or with unusual masks that seem carved out of caves. Women are painted, in mud or in clown greasepaint.

There are many rich, personal symbols and rituality in RomTom’s photographs. Although ritual comprises a rich body of his photography, women are often depicted dancing or moving, as if drawing upon their own strength, already gained and full. He has a few pictures of women menstruating, including a strong image of a woman with her legs split on a high wall with a streak of red dripping down the white paint. The accompanying poem conjures a culture in which blood is not perceived as dirty or shameful, but as a sign of life. The immediate visual recoil is matched by gentle words “At one time, this would be seen as natural.”

Nudes in Public?
Do nudes have a place in public art? Once the exclusive privilege of the rich (who could afford paintings for private salons and apartments), art depicting nudes can now be found displayed in restaurants, bars and coffee shops, in addition to the traditional galleries.

When I asked him how people responded to his art, RomTom answered, “Women usually love it. Women come into the galleries and walk around, and they come back bringing their ten-year-old daughters. Men look at a few nude photographs, then walk to the center of the room. They’re afraid to be seen looking at the pictures. Such a man is not eloquent in standing up to his wife. He needs to say ‘I have a right to look at these photographs, just like you do.’”

RomTom has generated both controversy and support for his photographs. Izzy Harbaugh, of Mother Kali Bookstore, expressed some criticism of RomTom’s work. I interviewed this pioneer of good feminist reading before her untimely death a few months ago. The picture she most admired was “The old woman with the beard,” observing that the model seems very comfortable with her identity.

When I asked her about the pictures of younger women, she expressed some concern. “They don’t seem like the older woman. They aren’t as sure of themselves.” She hinted that perhaps the composition of these works was more from a male perspective than the model’s.

Scott Boyes, of Keystone Cafe, also had initial reservations: “When you display art with breasts showing, it causes a certain amount of trouble. You try to stay away from that because it’s a family restaurant. I hung up a whole restaurant of nudes once and it caused an uproar.”

I asked “Was it a majority or a minority of your customers?”

“A minority, but very vocal.”

Nudes make some uncomfortable. Context is the important thing to keep in mind. Camera angles, suggestive lighting or positioning, and close-ups can all contribute to the difference between “fine art” and “pornography.” Does the woman appear posed to elicit a purely sexual response, or does she seem natural and comfortable with herself? Often parts of the body not normally revealed (breasts, pubic areas) are automatically viewed as erotic, although they may have other meanings (birthing or mothering).

The Art of the Nude
In photography, art is created in the mix of the model’s mood and the photographer’s skill. If a woman isn’t comfortable with nudity it will show in her eyes, or in the tense poise of her body. Sometimes, people strolling around an exhibit will resist pictures of beautiful young women because they become excited (and uncomfortable) by what they see. I’ve seen people in an art gallery wince and turn away from the unexpected. I wanted to examine where the intent of the artist and our perceptions divide.

In an interview with Joelle, one of RomTom’s models, she defined this artistic intent quite well. “RomTom and I talked a lot about how the nude is vulgarized. RomTom has the opposite intent—he wants to bring the nude out as a higher spiritual form.”

Joelle’s take on sexual exploitation was unambiguous: “No, I don’t think nudes are inherently sexual. I believe they are whatever we make them. And the models contribute to the mood of the photograph. Some of RomTom’s pictures feel sexual because the women themselves felt that way.”

I asked Joelle about her personal experience modeling for RomTom. “I come right to the present for most of the shoot. I have to be aware of my feelings and to process them, and not be afraid.”

She went on, “RomTom is a very good friend of mine and we have shared some incredible moments talking in his bus for hours. There have been so many little signs here and there that have told me this is right—I think that’s why we’ve developed this great connection. Because we are both artists, we look at it as pure art—what does it symbolize or represent?”

Asked about the work as it evolves over time, Joelle said, “The pictures are changing and getting more bold and confident with each session. There was such an innocence to the first few . . . but as they progress, I’m standing there and I’m strong . . . and I believe in this.”

Who Can Create Nude Art?
I wanted to discover how much negativity was directed at RomTom because of our expectations about who can photograph nude women. In my interview with Scott Boyes at Keystone, he admitted: “I avoided him at first because I thought he was a big old stinky hippie—to tell you the truth. Then I sat down and talked to him. He’s a very articulate, intelligent person and I got over that little hang-up.”

“I think that’s probably a lot of his problem with his critics. Perhaps if he was a woman photographer, or a more attractive man, he’d get a lot less flak.”

I asked Scott “So it’s his presentation, his appearance?”

“Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with why he has so many critics.”

“Yeah, if he fit the mold more.”

Joelle, the model, agreed that there is a perceptual problem in the impression of RomTom, an older man, working with typically young female models. “Oh yes, it’s come across strongly in my mind even. You have to get over that. You have to ask ‘where do these thoughts come from?’ Even though he’s a good friend of mine and we’ve hung out for two years, these old thoughts from society come up like ‘you shouldn’t be trusting him.’ But I’m totally glad that I do. I continue to do this because it still feels right.”

It is ironic that, because the young models fit the mold (of what is beautiful), some people judge his photos as exploitative. Yet because the artist doesn’t fit the mold (of professional photographer), others reject his artwork. This combination of an older, less attractive man taking pictures of young beauties is seen by some as ridiculous, by others, obscene. The art is unbalanced by our own stereotypes, and these perceptions can affect both model and artist adversely in the community.

Joelle said, “One of my biggest fears has been that I would somehow become ‘known’ in my community, that someone would go back in the records and find out that I had done nude modeling, judge it wrongly, and taint my reputation.”

RomTom’s response to such negative projections is confident. “People think that because it would be their ultimate fantasy to take pictures of nude beautiful women, it must be mine too. They spread rumors—that I photograph twelve-year-old girls, that I sleep with my models. I have a model’s consent from each of them, they’re all adults. And I see them as my friends. I’ve had friendships lasting years, and when I come back through town they always stop by and say hello.”

RomTom admits, with frank, boyish honesty, that he can be stimulated by the women he photographs. “The libido is like a radio. If we are talking, you and I, and we can’t hear each other over the noise, we will turn the radio down so we can communicate. And if we happen to hear a song that we both like, we will turn the volume up. When I’m photographing a woman, I might be aroused by her body. The volume’s too high, so I turn it down and concentrate on the beauty of her body. Some models have expected it to be this erotic experience and have been surprised that I wasn’t feeling that way, that I was actually there to create art.”

Like his friendship with Joelle, many of RomTom’s relationships with his models are enduring. There have been a few abrupt endings: one woman became a born again Christian and felt she must burn her photographs so she wouldn’t go to hell. A few jealous boyfriends hate anyone who has ever seen their girlfriends nude. But he has largely kept his friendships with these women going. He has seen them age and mature over time.

RomTom has also photographed older women, with striking results. One gray-haired woman, with a body as tight as a young dancer, is actually a grandmother. Another, with breasts peaked in wrinkles and a small tuft of white beard, has eyes smiling and wise. They are some of his best portraits, as film releases a lifetime of experiences in gestures and expression.

I noticed something unusual about RomTom’s cane the last time I looked at it. Partially hidden in the dark wood were carvings of women he had modeled, their arms stretching out into the wood. They form a circle that curves, then playfully withdraws into the handle. You cannot tell where the natural knobs of bark end and their feet begin. They grow out of wood, stone or water, as models of nature.

Just so, his photographs draw you into a world where artwork was not hung on a wall but naturally formed, in movement, in song, and in the comfortable body of a woman at rest. It is an authentic world that goes beyond, yet is held within, our modern eyes.

Julia Selwyn is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon. This article is part of a series on the impact of images in a media-driven society. She can be reached by email.

Alternatives Magazine - Issue 9