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

Max Collins/Daily
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BY DAVID WATNICK
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. The strategies vary, but the models all have a few go-to methods for preserving their sanity while they arrest their motion in the center of the classroom.

For Merkin, who nonchalantly described the experience as “relaxing,” the cerebral downtime in the studio allows him to be surprisingly productive.

“I have my own mental exercises I go through, just sort of meditating. Or, I think about music or do whatever schoolwork I can do inside my head,” he said.

At this point, he’s so comfortable modeling that, while holding a pose, he’s capable of thinking through a lot of his homework and then just writing down those thoughts once he returns home.

Cirocco, on the other hand, takes an approach less steeped in reality, often role-playing characters as she poses for a class.

“Most of the time I direct my own poses, and I try to really tell a story with them,” she said. “I try to think of a person who might be doing this pose. Like, where are they? Who are they? Where are they going? And I try to create a persona.

“I don’t know if that comes across for the artists in the class,” she conceded.

In Cirocco's estimation, the role-playing method not only serves to keep her occupied, but also acts to the benefit of students because it lets her find more authentic human body positions. While she models though, she’s dedicated to remaining aware of her situation, because she appreciates the novelty of the opportunity. In her eyes, modeling lets her “walk the line between fantasy and reality.”

For other models, the mid-session mental aerobics tend toward banal survivalism. Jenny Cunningham, a recent University graduate, spends her time posing thinking through grocery lists, reflecting on her other part-time jobs and coming up with ways to make rent.

“It still gets boring,” she said, despite her best efforts to make the experience stimulating.

In addition to taking very ambitious steps to pass the time (like playing entire symphonies in his head), Steve Cunningham relies on a rather simple routine, listening in on professors as they provide input and instructions to students. A little coffee doesn’t hurt, either.

It “raises the threshold,” as he put it.

Still, even coffee can’t lift the brain beyond the deceptively strong pull of boredom, and Steve Cunningham and a few of his fellow figure models openly admit to drifting into the occasional inadvertent nap, especially when they are in reclining poses.

Most poses, however, do not allow the figure models the pleasure of kicking back in a reclining position. Instead, they often take positions which become surprisingly strenuous, especially when the model holds them for a particularly long amount of time. The models are given a few five-minute breaks every session, but, in the end, the physical exhaustion of modeling rivals the mental exhaustion.

In the most extreme cases, exhausted models have been known to faint on their feet and slump to the ground. Cirocco, who nearly lost consciousness while holding a standing pose in one of her first sessions for a sculpture class, recalled one story told to her by a professor.

“He told me about one time when a model passed out, she fell off the pedestal and he had to catch her,” she said.

Shockingly, none of the students in that particular class even rose to help the professor shoulder the burden of their fallen model, ostensibly because they were so ingrained in their work that they had begun to perceive of the model as an infallible object.

Of course, the models are never perfect in their posing, even if their injuries and mishaps don’t require heroic professor intervention. Most of the time, they simply get tired and sore.

“I learned pretty early on: Finding a pose right away that I know I can hold is pretty important,” Merkin notes, acknowledging how painful and unsustainable certain poses can become.

“At the end of the semester there were parts of my body that just kind of hurt, chronically,” he recounted, talking about a sculpture course for which he had to hold the same pose for the entirety of every class for a whole semester.

While Steve Cunningham prides himself on being able to endure physically demanding poses, most of the models seem to regard the numb toes and sore knees inherent in the work more as nuisances than badges of pride.

It’s natural to assume that the greatest impediment facing any nude model would be sheer nerves, but after talking to them, it’s no surprise that most of them claim to have gotten over their inhibitions in the first few minutes of a session and never looked back. Indeed, by allowing themselves to appreciate the artistic process they are making possible, or by temporarily perceiving themselves as merely a collection of lines and shapes, the models can approach their work high on satisfaction and low on reservations.

Impressively, the models all seem as cognizant of the importance of nude models as the professors and students do.

“It’s never about me as a naked person. It’s about the body in its natural state, and it just happens to be my body that day,” Jenny Cunningham explained. “It’s really professional.”

“I understand the importance of having live bodies to work off of. It’s totally different if they’re wearing a leotard, or if it’s a sculpture that’s already there. You really need an individual’s body so you can study how the muscles react when you shift weight, and how somebody’s bones look and where everything’s situated.”

Amanda Olson, an Art & Design senior who has studied nude models in figure drawing classes, agrees that studying nude models, as opposed to clothed models or objects, is essential to “understanding the form of the human body.”

Jeremy Daly, also an Art & Design senior, put it similarly: “There’s nothing like drawing from life."

In a form he hands out to students at the onset of drawing classes studying nude figures, Art & Design and Residential College professor Larry Cressman offers his feelings on the importance of nude models.

“Drawing from the nude model is considered an essential part of artistic training. It refers to the larger experiences of life, with all its shifting meanings and nuances.”

He also shows a deep appreciation for the figure models making the art possible.

“For the model it is hard work. We treat them with great respect.”

Given the propensity of part-time work to crush enthusiasm through monotony, it’s encouraging to see how seriously most models take their work — Jenny Cunningham quickly recounted how immensely guilty she felt after accidentally sleeping through a scheduled modeling session. Not to mention how much most of them enjoy it — Steve Cunningham said that, even if modeling didn’t pay, he’d pursue it as a part-time hobby.

Because of the professionalism and commitment of the models, and the context in which they’re working, there’s simply nothing weird about nude modeling for the parties involved. The study of nude figures is a time-honored educational technique that endures for good reason: The students, professors and models all find it constructive.

Fortunately, university education can provide a learning environment free of taboos, and in Jenny Cunningham’s opinion, nudity is no exception.

“It’s totally normal here in the art school.”