Students bare all

By Marissa DeCuir
The Daily Reveille
March 13, 2008

Dressed in only a white robe smudged from black chalk, Phil Russo walks into a Foster Hall classroom with 16 art students eager to begin drawing.

Without a hint of modesty, he drops his robe and sits on a box.

Naked.

His left hand holds up his stiff torso, his right hand rests on the middle of his right thigh. His left foot lies in front of him, the other – blackened from the dirty floors – arches to his right. His head tilts left.

It’s 1:40 p.m., and he’s been modeling since noon.

He’s only done this twice. And Russo says he’s still getting used to fully-clothed people drawing him nude. But the philosophy junior enjoys art – and the $12 an hour with a $1 raise each year. It’s hardly a white collar job, but it’s more than double the minimum wage. And for the average college student, that’s not too bad.

The School of Art has hired nude models since its inception, allowing 20 inexperienced students of all shapes and sizes to earn quick cash. The models say posing nude for three hours isn’t glamorous, or easy.

The human figure

Pencils start moving and blank canvasses fill with circles portraying each curve of the model’s body.

It’s 1:41 p.m.

His breathing is barely visible. If it wasn’t for his blinking, one may think he were a piece of artwork.

Then again, he is. At least to the 16 students circling him.

“Before you can paint somebody with clothes on, you have to realize what their body looks like underneath,” says Shannon O’Keefe, another nude model.

The history sophomore began modeling nude her first semester at the University.

“It’s art serving art,” O’Keefe says. “It’s just for educational purposes.”

Nudity in art dates back to at least 3,000 B.C.E., says art professor Rick Ortner.

“Human beings have been trying to get a handle on ‘who are we,’ by making representations of themselves, of other human beings,” Ortner says. “The human figure is key.”

It’s that figure the students learn about when nude models enter the classroom. They learn about the body’s structure – the bones and muscles – before drawing clothed people.

Clothing is simply another layer of skin, Ortner says.

“I go over easel to easel and try and help. Sometimes I help the students. And sometimes, I don’t,” he says. “But the model always helps because they’re always drawing the model.”

‘You’re in a dream’

The only noise in the room comes from pens scratching on paper.

The only light in the room comes from three large, antique-style windows.

The only decoration – other students’ drawings, paintings and artwork tacked on the walls.

The teacher slowly walks by each student as outlines turn into shadows, and the picture of a naked male starts to appear.

It’s 2:00 p.m.

“I was always the weird one in the family,” Russo says.

Russo says his dad raised him like a “Southern” man.

“He took me hunting until I graduated high school every winter,” Russo says.

But Sam Russo approves of his son’s work.

“I’ve always let them make their own decisions in life. Sometimes you’ll make bad decisions,” he says of his children. “Hopefully, this won’t come back to bite him.

“Maybe if he runs for president, and there’s a picture of him posing nude.”

Beau Lemoine’s loved ones also accept that he strips in front of strangers.

“It is an odd feeling just to take off your clothes in front of somebody,” Lemoine says. “You feel like you’re in a dream.”

Russo says he couldn’t work if he wasn’t comfortable with the artists seeing all of his body – more than in an intimate relationship.

“I don’t know of any relationships in which the girlfriend sits there and studies the boyfriend as he sits in one position for 50 minutes,” Russo says.

His girlfriend Ashley Braquet, architecture student at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, says her first question to Russo was, “Are there girls in the class?”

“He calls me a prude,” Braquet says. “I was a little upset at first, but if it’s really something he wants to do, that’s cool.”

Well, as long as he doesn’t pose with a female, Braquet says.

“That’s drawing the line,” she says. “If I was in the room drawing you, maybe.”

No pain, no gain

Fifty minutes have passed since Russo took a seat baring all. The bell tower tolls, and he wakes from his trance.

“Mind if I uh, take a break?” he asks the class.

He slowly lifts his hand from the box and bends it back and forth. Then he wiggles it. He stands, stretches and grabs his phone.

Still naked.

The students also take a break, some running after one another with charcoaled hands.

It’s 2:37 p.m., and it’s almost over.

“The students have seen these models a number of times. I have to wonder if they have those moments of … awkwardness,” Russo says, “in which they’re standing there fully clothed next to a person absolutely naked.”

Maybe, says studio art senior Natalie Bonvillian, but the situation really isn’t that weird.

“We’re not judging them,” Bonvillian says. “We’re just looking at what we see and doing the best we can to render it.”

Russo says he was surprised to get the job.

The models don’t have to be experienced. They don’t have to be athletic. They don’t have to be good looking. They only have to be in “good academic standing.”

“There really are basically no qualifications. We take all body types,” says Catherine Wells, coordinator of the nude modeling program.

That’s not to say anyone can do the job, the models say.

O’Keefe challenges anyone to hold a position for more than 20 minutes and not be uncomfortable.

Russo’s second day at work gives him a battle wound. The middle of the inside of his left hand has a small blood spot from where it rested for an hour.

Ortner says he likes to think most models work for the love of art.

“But I think if they weren’t paid, most of them wouldn’t do it,” he says.

Lemoine took the job because he needed weekend spending cash. O’Keefe applied after modeling for a friend who told her she could get paid for it.

Most models work a few classes a week. A handful serve as alternates.

The art school gets approval from the Office of Student, Aid and Scholarships to start models at $12 because the maximum a University student worker can make is $8 an hour.

Wells asks for the higher wage “because they have to go in and take their clothes off.

“I would want to be paid a little bit more money for that.”

Beauty

Russo reassumes position after his seven-minute break.

His left hand holds up his stiff torso, his right hand rests on the middle of his right thigh. His left foot lies in front of him, the other – blackened from the dirty floors – arches to his right. His head tilts left.

It’s 2:45 p.m.

Russo’s hand lifts slowly as he wiggles it.

The students organize their materials into plastic containers, close their notebooks and grab their bags.

Russo stands up and walks directly to his smudged white robe hanging on an orange chair behind him.

Next for the models: law school for O’Keefe, graduate school abroad for Russo and the insurance business for Lemoine. None plan to pursue modeling.

“These are everyday people,” Russo says.

And in the U.S., those people aren’t usually thought of as models.

“Unless a person is flawless, there is no beauty to be found there,” Russo says. “But the human form is abundant with beauty. And these people that aren’t seeing it have just never tried to look for it.”

It’s 3:00 p.m., and Russo is dressed in brown pants, white socks, black-and-white checkered shoes and a navy shirt with white birds on it. He grabs his brown backpack and walks out the classroom.

All in a day’s work.

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