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Philadelphia in the Nude

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By Ada Kulesza

I'm not afraid to get naked. I needed spare cash, so I sold my body - to art.

When I moved to Philly, I had no contacts; just my wits and mounting expenses. Posing nude for artists was on my bucket list anyway, just under eating a fried Oreo and above sky diving. At least I could get paid for this. I called a few places, and soon found myself sitting in on the Sketch Club's Saturday open session as an observer.

My comfort with nudity I'd discovered trolling along the coast of Sydney, Australia. My friends and I got onto the sand, and were confronted with a beach littered with naked breasts, like sunny-side up eggs frying under the fierce sun. We looked at them, looked at each other, and burst out laughing. It was only a matter of time before the first of us deftly untied her bikini strings. Two seconds after settling on the towel, in fact.

Of course, Australians and Americans are different animals. Traditional Aboriginal garb means wearing no garb at all. Americans regard the naked form with less ease. Nudity gains bemused acceptance through stunts like the Philly Naked Bike Ride, and otherwise gains leverage, ahem, from the fine arts.

Nude Artist Model.jpgIn front of a colonial brownstone at 235 South Camac St. a placard reads, "Sketch Club, established 1860." The club is the oldest artists' organization in the country. The second-floor studio, flooded with sunlight, has a baby grand piano in the corner. Artists grab easels from the wall closets and set up in a semicircle around a low platform. Framed artwork covers the walls. I meet Vince, the model coordinator, a no-nonsense guy with a salt-and-pepper moustache. He lays down the law.

No talking between the model and the artists during poses. Pose adjustments must be addressed to Vince. The model can only address Vince during poses.

Money and tips go to Vince, who passes them to the model. The pay is $15 an hour for a three-hour session, so I make $45 before tips.

Models sit in on sessions for free. Everyone else pays nine bucks.

I nod my understanding and we take places against the wall, across from the platform.

The artists range from white-haired men and women to students, all of different races and neighborhoods, talking and setting up. The wall phone rings. Vince answers and buzzes in the model. She pounds up the stairs, face flushed pink under her blond bangs. She beelines for the changing room in the back, trailing apologies for being late.

Like a butterfly, back she flits. She steps onto the platform, nods to Vince, and flicks off her robe. Conversation stops. The only sounds left are pencil scratches, charcoal strokes, and jazz from the radio.

In the art world, it's perfectly kosher to stare at a pair of breasts, so long as your hands do something constructive. The goal for an artist lies in rendering the nude, her skin tone, anatomy, and expression, within an ideal balance of light and shadow. An artist always tries to engage our eyes, which makes the nude an ideal subject. The naked body is universal yet taboo, profane yet sacred, commonplace yet controversial. Some artists render so skillfully, you can nearly touch the figure. Bonus: you may look as long as you like.

Artists have used nudes to portray vulnerability, mortality, and virility and as a readily acceptable and appropriate metaphor for the human condition: the frailty inherent in life. Its beauty was accepted as truth, and its truth, beauty. Increasingly the nude communicated struggle, dissipation, anomie, and of course, sensual love, among other things. Any way you slice it, art viewers enjoy looking at naked people, so nudity remains a vital component to art study, and a viable way for slackers to make extra cash.

To model for artists, keep one golden rule: don't move. This seems easy, but it isn't. Someone within the annals of art history discovered that the average person can stay completely still for 20 minutes at a time, and so 20 minutes per pose remains the standard at art classes. Any longer, and ferocious, potentially debilitating pins and needles may set it. Staring at a wall for this long has other consequences; vision blurs, and things change color, resulting in something akin to hallucination.

Even at age 26, the neck stiffens, muscles begin to scream. Unless you regularly practice transcendental meditation, you get bored. Perhaps many art models found their way to enlightenment through modeling, but after a while a model faces the inevitable: this job's going nowhere.

That said, seeing the way an artist interprets the body can bring body image into perspective. Here I'm a cartoon; there I'm a line drawing. This artist used watercolor, and I look like I'm gazing, wistful, at a mountain. Oh, I look like Dilbert in that one.

A mirror becomes superfluous in the long chain of me to artist's eye, to artist's hand, to canvas. That's what I really look like; something different to each person. Mainstream standards of beauty shatter at the reality of perception, that no two people perceive alike, nor do their perceptions necessarily stay the same from moment to moment.

Perceptions change from class to class, too. Each studio and club has a different style. The beginner classes at Fleischer Art Memorial, for example, feel relaxed, because these people, mostly retirees and hobbyists, are so grateful to have a naked person to draw. At Studio Incamminati, the model feels a little like chopped meat. The professionals there are completely unimpressed. At the Sketch Club, the tone is convivial, but these people want imaginative poses to make it worth their money and Saturday morning.

Two weeks after observation, it's my turn under the lights. The robes drape over my shoulders. My stomach performs acrobatics. My mouth is dry. It's funny I'm so nervous - all I have to do is stay still and be naked. I'm punctual, abashed, and blushing from what can only be described as a complete lack of assurance.

I nod to Vince and fling the robe off my shoulders. I put my hands on my hips, and do my best impression of a victorious Highlander surveying the battlefield. Sweat trickles from my armpits - will they paint that? But within moments I'm at ease. My jitters vanish. What was I so nervous about? It's just like another day at the beach. Naked.

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