The Naked Truth: How Art Modeling Transformed My Self-Image

Editor’s note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Student Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide these students with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By ANNA PENNER-RAY

I stood by the white block in my pink cupcake robe, shaking, but not with cold. The professor introduced me by my first name only and then asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I managed.

I was about to be naked, and sketched by strangers for the University of Montana’s art department.

The idea of modeling for an art class seems slightly taboo. Most people view nudity as unmentionable, especially when someone is getting paid for it. I think the human body is beautiful, and if someone wanted to draw my body, I’m okay with that.

I’m 22 and comfortable with my 5’1” body. Artists need to know how to draw the human figure and there are only so many times you can stare at a photograph or draw yourself. That is where live models come in.

“It’s extremely helpful to have a live model. I think the best part about it is having a real live person in front of you is having the proportions of a human being to draw,” Chelsey Von Ehrenkrook, an art major, said.

The School of Art at the University of Montana posts the job every fall semester on the student employment website. From the applications the school receives, they create a ‘model pool’, because student and art class schedules don’t normally mesh. This semester, according to the School of Art secretary Janis Davis, the pool has 15 people in it, for two classes, Ceramics and two classes of Figure Drawing. The School of Art also offers Figure Painting some semesters.

The ceramics studio seemed gigantic. Former projects hung on the walls; a sink was dripping in the corner. Newly created projects were covered, waiting to be fired in the kiln. Clay spattered the ceiling. There were five tables forming a circle around the white block.

In my nervous state, I counted 11 art students, but there may have been more. The professor, Beth Lo, told me to take off my clay-dusted socks. I did. Then I readied myself to take off my fleece robe.

Clay sketch of AnnaPenner-Ray

A deep breath and then the robe dropped to the floor. I stepped on top of the white block, feeling incredibly awkward and desperately trying not to make eye contact with anyone.

“Okay, pose!” Lo ordered.

I was frank. It’s easy when you’re naked.

“Um, I have no idea what you want me to do. Can you give me a suggestion?” I replied.

A student wearing a fedora called out, “Put one hand on your hip! And place the other like you’re fastening something to it. Stick one leg out.”

I was able to do that, and held it for one minute.

I could feel their eyes scrutinizing my body. I tried to focus on the clay spatters on the wall, on the bright ceiling lights, trying to pretend I was still clothed, like in The Emperor’s New Clothes. However, when I looked down and saw my exposed body, that didn’t work.

I had two more one-minute poses, and then moved on to three-minute poses while the artists drew on clay, focusing on what’s called gesture drawing. Von Ehrenkrook described this technique as drawing “a quick sketch, a quick overall impression, not too detailed.”

After about 45 minutes of posing, I got my first break. I gratefully put my robe back on, and was able to wander the room, looking at sketches in clay.

Seeing myself through an artist’s eyes, a stranger’s eyes, I felt beautiful. Granted, some had taken the artistic license to make my chest bigger than my head, and another decided to make me appear nine months pregnant, but most of the sketches were wonderful. Climbing back up on the block, I felt transformed. Seeing how others saw me made me feel so good about myself.

Von Ehrenkrook, who has also modeled for art classes, said she had the same kind of moment, calling it “oddly reaffirming.”

“It allowed me to feel more confident about my body. I felt a little nervous at first, and the whole atmosphere was really respectful, reassuring, and professional,” she said.

After the sketches, it was time to move on to clay sculptures.

I did three 10-minute poses for the sculptures. In the last one, I was in half-fetal position, holding my torso up with my left elbow. That hurt. I was still trying not to make eye contact, because I didn’t want to disturb the students. I made it to the end, and some students made a point of thanking me after the class, when I was fully dressed. I asked two of the students if I could take pictures of their work. They said they would be honored.

Talking to Lo after class, she told me she has been using models for the University art classes for 20 years. She said models are “incredibly helpful for the students to learn what different body types look like.”

After I put my clothes back on, one of the students told me that I had done really well, and said, “Don’t worry, we weren’t looking at the parts you think we were looking at.”

The guy in the fedora smiled and said, “I hope this was okay for you, we really appreciate you being here. How are you feeling? You were awesome up there.”

I looked him straight in the eye, and said, “I feel beautiful.”