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Nude models help artists see the truth

| Sunday, May 1, 2011

When it comes to her part-time modeling job, Laura Stokes has nothing to hide.

Stokes, 27 of Pittsburgh, models in the nude for art students at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. In the past four years, she's posed for at least 25 different sessions.

"You kind of get past that feeling of awkwardness," she says. "It's so funny; you catch yourself by surprise by thinking, 'Wow, I'm naked in front of a bunch of people I don't know.' "

The nude -- descending a staircase in a Picasso canvas or writhing in hell in Michanegelo's "The Last Judgement' -- remains art's ideal. Aspiring and established artists still submit to the stern task of sketching the human figure by hand, much as their forerunners did in DaVinci's day. It wouldn't be possible without the patience, professionalism and stamina of models, who say they are collaborators in the process rather than mere human still-lifes.

While an instructor or monitor at a session may suggest a pose, with input from the group, good models have their own repertoire, says Stokes, who majored in dance at Slippery Rock University.

"I really enjoy dance, and that helps," she says. "I look at a lot of classical and contemporary art. I make shapes with my body. A lot of yoga poses are particularly stunning and interesting to draw. To be interesting is to be a very, very important thing."

Most of her assignments last three hours, which include breaks. Sore muscles and numbness in the extremities are occupational hazards. Space heaters are often provided for drafty classrooms.

She makes an average of $18 an hour. One perk is that she, sometimes, gets to see the sketches of herself afterward.

"I am curious to see what the artists come up with," she says. "I usually walk around the room and take a look at what they did if they'll let me. I stay pretty detached from the paintings, because I know, sometimes, it's the artist's interpretation of you. Sometimes, it's not your body. You have to look at things objectively and appreciate it as the art that it is."

She's been immortalized in a painting by Steve Boksenbaum of Squirrel Hill. Stokes was the guest of honor at an open session at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside, where Boksenbaum painted her image directly onto the canvas. The graceful, crouching nude in the impressionistic painting may evoke luminosity and repose, but Stokes says her feet went numb 35 minutes into the session. She says she took a break to shake out her limbs.

Boksenbaum, 60, of Squirrel Hill, did some nude modeling as a student. He's been drawing models from life since high school, when he attended a summer class at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It's challenging, and it's also personalized," Boksenbaum says. "That's what we humans do. We recognize each other. It's one thing to be able to draw a landscape and put the trees in the right place, but the nude figure is a lot more specific than that. You can't make the same kind of mistakes that you can with the tree."

Lauren Toohey, 24, of Lawrenceville has posed nude at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Panza Gallery in Millvale, where the group ranges from students to artists in their 70s. She says her own background as an artist helps her contribute to the process.

"It's not a sexual thing," she says. "You just have to be OK with you. I'm OK with me. I enjoy helping artists learn and create. Basically, my job is to be a teaching tool, to help them learn about anatomy and proportion and drawing the human figure. If you can draw the human figure, you can draw anything."

Nude models need not resemble Adonis or Aphrodite, says Claire Marcus, education director at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts where models are paid $15 an hour.

"It's really pretty diverse," Marcus says. "We have everybody from students who are trying to make a little extra money to people in their 40s and 50s who have made a career out of this."

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