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Laid bare: The art of nude modeling at the 'U'

Max Collins/Daily
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Daily Arts Writer
Published April 7, 2010

“You know that dream that everyone has when you wake up and you’re in the middle of a classroom and you’re naked?” Colleen Cirocco asked rhetorically.

“I’m over that.”

Cirocco, an LSA senior, is “over” the age-old naked-at-school nightmare because she faces it head-on. She gets naked at school, and she does it a lot. Cirocco is one of about 30 models employed part-time by the School of Art & Design to pose nude before students in figure drawing, painting and sculpture classes.

Naturally, the idea of walking into a well lit classroom, mounting a stage and disrobing in front of a group of University students doesn’t appeal to everyone. Nude modeling pays well, though, and it offers an unorthodox employment opportunity in a college town where part-time work can be excruciatingly normal.

Nude modeling gigs at the University are available to students and non-students alike, and while many models came to pose after hearing about the money-making endeavor through friends, others stumbled upon it as a new avenue to self-enrichment.

In the case of Steve Cunningham, a 57-year-old electrician from Hazel Park, nude figure modeling was the beginning of an entire new career. After suffering a minor heart attack and undergoing a quintuple bypass surgery four years ago, Cunningham parted ways with the Detroit-area communications company he had worked at for years and began modeling as often as possible.

“My wife suggested — because I was in pretty good shape and had good balance, having been a student of yoga for a while — that I might try figure modeling,” Cunningham said.

For Cunningham, who half-jokingly refers to himself as a “minimalist when it comes to clothes,” the move paid off. Instructors were impressed with his knack for modeling, and through referrals he quickly found himself modeling for art classes at more than a dozen schools and institutions throughout Southeast Michigan, including the University. He now gets booked for about eight three-hour modeling sessions in a given week, and he’s come to appreciate the job because it forces him to keep his body in shape.

“I’m at that age where the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ is no longer academic,” he deadpanned.

In Cirocco’s case, nude modeling offers the chance to interface with art and participate in its creation.

“I really am interested in helping people learn how to do art,” she said. “This was another way for me to offer myself, to show people a different skill and to help the students learn how to draw better.”

When she’s not modeling, Cirocco commits her time to the Prison Creative Arts Project, through which she gets another chance to contribute to the conception of art by assisting prisoners with writing. Nude modeling offers her something different, though, because it allows her to challenge her self image.

“Growing up, I always had body-image issues, and I think I overcame a lot of those in college,” she explained. “And modeling — being naked in a room full of people who are looking at you really closely and drawing all of your imperfections — was a way for me to sort of conquer that, once and for all.”

Of course, not all models approach their work with such personal conviction, even if they take the job seriously.

“Well, it pays pretty well, especially for the type of job you can get in college,” admitted School of Music, Theater & Dance senior Jacob Merkin, alluding to the $15-an-hour wage paid to models by the University.

“I’m a fan of mindless labor,” he noted.

That ability to embrace mindlessness of modeling suits him and his colleagues well, because three-hour modeling sessions can be an exercise in brain starvation and sensory deprivation. Simply, modeling can be quite boring.

More than self confidence and social courage, what models depend on to survive a posing session is a creative mind capable of keeping itself stimulated.