The Naked Truth About Art

Celebrating Human Shapes

. . .

The nude has appeared throughout the history of art. Female nude statues symbolizing fertility date back more than 29,000 years. Larger-than-life Greek and Roman statues idealize the athletic qualities of the male figure in the buff. The world’s most famous galleries are filled with countless paintings of both women and men without a stitch of clothing on.

In the 1920s in Paris, the Dadaists — the precursors to the Surrealists — regularly staged nude performances along with provocative art installations. Fifty years ago at the Academy Awards a streaker named Robert Opel ran across the stage, buck naked and flashed a peace sign. This month The Oscars paid an ironic tribute to that iconic moment as John Cena gave out the award for Best Costume — in his birthday suit, with the winner’s envelope strategically placed.

This past year two remarkable shows in St. Pete added to this long, illustrious history of arts and nudity – Naked Boys Reading Poetry Tampa Bay, held last August at The Studio@620 and Nude Nite, offered this month at Coastal Creative.

Both creatively confronted the naked truth about art – it’s supposed to be provocative.

Nude Night at Coastal Creative

Naked Boys Reading Poetry Tampa Bay


Organized by LGBTQ+ poet Nathan Truly, who hosts an open mic in Ybor City, Naked Boys Reading Poetry Tampa Bay was an offshoot of an international phenomenon that began in London in 2012. The British Naked Boys Reading had been inspired in turn by Chicago’s Naked Girls Readings, started in 2009 by a well-known couple from that city’s burlesque scene.

The London men, however, didn’t come out onstage and disrobe, burlesque style. They just strode out full frontal and started reading. That’s the model local organizers followed at The Studio.

Nearly 30 men reportedly signed up to read naked – but, in the end, only six had the courage to show up and undress. The audience for the evening was mostly men, although the top tier of the bleachers where I sat was occupied completely by women — a choice spot, as it turned out, for a wonderfully unencumbered view of the stage.

Never mind that the people reading weren’t boys but men and that only one of them read poetry. As promised, they were all naked.

The program began with “Fred” reading a chapter from the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Next up was a man with tattoos across his chest who introduced himself as a trauma nurse. He read a hilarious essay called “Bernadette Peters Hates Me” from Keith Stewart’s collection with that same title (subtitled True Tales From A Delusional Man). Finally, Lance, who in addition to tattoos had rings in his nipples, read a passage from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

In the second half of the program, a man au naturel read us a story about a book critic who worked with vampires. A man in the buff, who described himself as a former priest, read bad poetry by Peter Orlonsky, the lover of famed poet Alan Ginsberg, and a delightful letter written by Orlonsky and Ginsberg to Charlie Chaplin.

Finally, an artist in the altogether read the bittersweet ending of James Mathew Barrie’s Peter Pan.

The evening was the very definition of spectacular – “beautiful in a dramatic and eye-catching way.” My eyes (and I suspect everybody else’s in that room) were riveted not just on the speakers’ faces but on their whole bodies. Bodies of various sizes and colors. All without a stitch of clothing on.

Somehow that nakedness enhanced my appreciation of all the works that were read that night. Perhaps it was because the readers had made themselves so vulnerable that the honesty of the words leapt off the pages as well.

The evening, by the way, was entitled “Saints and Peters.” At my count the Peters (Bernadette Peters, Peter Orlonsky and Peter Pan) outnumbered the Saints (I only spotted one – Emily St. John Mandel), which seemed entirely appropriate.

Nude Night at Coastal Creative

Nude Nite


Nude Nite, an orgasmic pop-up art show celebrating the human body, was launched in 1995 by Kelly Stevens as a protest against the refusal by high-end galleries in Orlando to show nude portraits. “We’re conditioned to be ashamed of the naked body,” said Stevens. She wanted to empower people to feel good about their bodies.

Nude Nite became an annual event in Orlando, expanding to Ybor City in 2015. When Stevens died in 2021, the show was put on hold, but in 2023 Stevens’s 24-year-old daughter Sloan Warnach picked up the banner and rebooted the popular art show in honor of her mother.

This year Nude Nite came to St. Petersburg, from March 7-9 at Coastal Creative in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central Arts District. When I went to see the show on the third night, the first piece of art I spotted was a large, plain rectangular sculpture set on a pedestal. Just as I began to ask myself, “What has this to do with nudity?” the sculpture began to move, as a performer under the sheet began to shapeshift, creating variations on the unadulterated human form.

“Sculpture” that moves into a human form

As I moved through the sprawling space of Coastal Creative, I spotted an artist painting the bodies of two models a bright pink, a juggler tossing rings and clubs in the air and a woman who had transformed herself into a blue dragonfly holding up a light in the shape of a giant white and yellow flower.

A dragonfly carrying a flower light poses for photographs at the Nude Nite main stage

Downstairs there was a skin-painting booth where you could use gold paint to turn your scars into art and a bank of telephones where you could call your younger self and leave a message.

There was a spot where you could pick up a postcard addressed “To: you, From: a stranger that loves you at nude nite.” (One message read – “Do the things that make you feel happy especially dancing naked and eating pasta.”) Or you could write a message of your own and leave it for a stranger.

Station where you could receive or send a love note

Upstairs, a giant board entitled “What Formed You” was filled with signs of life-changing events (Getting Dumped. Therapy. The Loss of a Child. Taking That Job. The Relationship That Never Was. Michael Jackson Dying) that were crisscrossed with yarn strung by guests who were invited to connect all the events that applied to them.

But the real eye-candy was on the walls — nudes everywhere, of every size and color and gender, captured in oils, acrylics, collage and photography by artists from across the country. No body shaming here.

Thang by Samantha Churchill – aluminum and wood

None of us viewing all this non-stop intoxicating mix was nude, but our own color, size, gender and choice of dress were as varied as the art. A man sporting a Greek sailor hat with notebook in hand was sketching a painting of a nude woman lying on a couch with her black and white cat. A young couple, holding hands, stared intently at a wall of nude drawings.

A man with a mohawk haircut, wearing black sunglasses, stood at the Buy Art booth, perhaps contemplating a purchase. A woman moving with the aide of two walking sticks was admiring a collage by Clearwater’s Terry Carter entitled Mistaken Identity, featuring a nude woman made from newspaper and magazine clippings.

Mistaken Identity by Terry Carter – collage

At the top of every hour, burlesque performers Misty Rose and Gaea Lady entertained on the main stage, but throughout the night there were plenty of non-stop opportunities to create your own performance at this art installation and rave party rolled into one.

You could grab a headset and dance to your own music, along with scantily clad Nude Nite troupers, while dance scenes from old movies — Fred Astaire soft-shoeing, Shirley Temple tap dancing, Gene Kelly in Paris —projected on a giant screen, played in a loop behind you.

Dancing with the stars, everyone to their own music

Or you could hop onto one of two giant swings as another loop of moving images — red, yellow and purple flowers, their petals bursting open, a kaleidoscope of butterflies swooping in, and swirls of pure color — splashed across an entire wall behind you.

Swings beckon with a non-stop video filling an entire wall as a backdrop

All the art was for sale, with prices ranging from $150 to $45,000. Bottoms Up, an acrylic and vinyl painting by St. Petersburg’s Tristan Walsh, Thang, a twisted sculpture of aluminum and wood by St. Petersburg’s 4 and a photograph of a crouching female nude by Palm Harbor’s Sara Burton entitled Thank you for the tragedy, I needed it for my art all had red sold stickers on them.

Thank you for the tragedy, I needed it for my art – photograph by Sara Burton

My favorite piece was still for sale – a photograph by Tampa’s Jamie Jackson of a man standing stark naked with a bejeweled mask in the same place as that Academy Award envelope for Best Costume. Its title? Masked.

Masked – photograph by Jamie Jackson

Not everyone is comfortable with these displays of naked glory — even when they only appeared on a canvas or carved in marble. Just last year in Florida, Hope Carrasquilla lost her job as principal at the Tallahassee Classical School after parents complained about her showing Michelangelo’s full-frontal David to sixth graders (one parent called the statue “pornographic”).

After Carrasquilla was asked to resign, her husband and two children were invited by the director of the Academia Galleria in Florence to see the actual David for themselves.

“The statue of David has artistic and historical value,” proclaimed Alex Lanfranconi, communications director for the Florida Department of Education, weighing in on the Michelangelo controversy with a statement first posted by Florida’s Voice. “Florida encourages instruction on the classics and classical art, and would not prohibit its use in instruction.”

I want to be comforted by this state response to Carrasquilla’s dismissal, but given Florida’s recent track record in suppressing free expression (see Book Banning and the latest news about court battles over DeSantis W.OK.E. bill), Lanfranconi’s words just left me wondering – what would he feel comfortable prohibiting?


Become a Creative Pinellas Supporter