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A few good nudes

Art schools are body surfing, looking for models in all shapes, sizes, colors. Drawing diverse forms makes a better artist.

Model Heather Dierickx waits patiently as Fleisher Art Memorial art instructor Bernard Collins Jr. discusses the finer points of figure drawing with his introductory-class students. (Clem Murray / Staff)
Model Heather Dierickx waits patiently as Fleisher Art Memorial art instructor Bernard Collins Jr. discusses the finer points of figure drawing with his introductory-class students. (Clem Murray / Staff)Read more

Lora McKenna needs bodies. She needs big bodies and little bodies and old bodies and Asian and African American bodies. And the University of the Arts model coordinator is fairly shameless about approaching people about their bodies at parties, on the street, and in class.

"I met a woman at a party New Year's Eve - she looked like a character from a Tim Burton film," McKenna said. "She was about 50, with hair down to her waist and maybe she was 100 pounds. She was such a character, she'd be great to draw."

The general belief is that models for figure-drawing classes need to have picture-perfect figures. But across the region, colleges and art schools say they're in desperate need of different bodies to pose, usually naked but not always, for figure-drawing, anatomy, and animation classes.

It's a challenge that's been around since the aerobicized decades of the '80s and '90s, said McKenna, who has been model coordinator for four years. Women in particular feel they don't fit the model images of television (think America's Next Top Model) and magazines. But with the recent inclusion of plus-size models in some mainstream magazines, McKenna hopes our expectations will change.

"Currently, bigger women are seen in magazines looking spectacular," she says. "Attractive bodies come in all sizes, shapes, and colors."

The goal, teachers say, is for students to learn how to draw different bodies, learn a sense of proportion, and get a perspective on reality. You can't get that from drawing the same kind of body all the time.

When he was an art student at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) back in 1960, Charles Schmidt, now a retired Tyler School of Art teacher, had the opportunity to draw a variety of bodies, including a weightlifter and a pregnant woman who came regularly through the last seven months of her pregnancy. The experience made him a better artist.

"When you have someone who is young and well-defined, it's a great way to learn bones and muscles," he said. But the variety "teaches you to concentrate on the differences but also the similarities - how is the leg formed and what do you see on the surface."

Although Schmidt tried to get that same mix for his own students, most people who applied were college students who were modeling for the money - the going rate is $12 to $15 an hour. And college students tend to be thin and young. Even the thin and young weren't always comfortable at first, Schmidt said.

"What interests me the most is that several people who have modeled for my class had poor body images, and didn't think of themselves as having nice bodies and they're embarrassed," he said. "And they purposefully modeled to get over that fear. It's like, 'I'm ashamed of my body, but I'm tough enough to put myself out there.' "

About five years ago, Timothy McLaughlin was retired and working in a flower shop when it closed. His neighbor's boyfriend was an artist and needed a model.

Now, at age 64, with his shaved head and handlebar mustache, he's in demand. He usually works six days a week and is booked until April at drawing classes around the region. He says he's still in good shape and comfortable being naked, although he's often asked to bring costumes he wore in Mummers parades.

"People think it's easy, but it's not easy," he said. "Some of the positions are just unbelievable - like one time I was lying on my back nude with my feet up against the wall and an arm outstretched staring up at the ceiling."

Roger Roth, a senior lecturer at the University of the Arts, likes working with McLaughlin because of his age.

"He's retirement age and he looks different than the models who are very young," Roth said. "He's a little more round, maybe, and all the things that happen to us when we get older."

For Roth's class, figure drawing for animators, models do a lot of action poses, and have to hold them anywhere from a minute to 20 minutes. It's a hard job, and the teachers know it, because they have to stand in when the models don't show up.

That makes reliability even more important, said Emily Romick, administrative assistant for programming at Fleisher Art Memorial. Diversity is ideal, but if a model shows up regularly and can do the job, he or she gets booked over and over again, she said.

Most would-be models can apply by calling a school and filling out an application. It helps if they have a car or live nearby, coordinators said. Experience isn't always necessary, but doing yoga or dance or having some sort of movement experience helps. McKenna said many of her models are bicyclists, and one is a sword-swallower.

Heather Dierickx, 25, started modeling several years ago to earn extra money while freelancing theater production jobs. A size 10 to 12, she says she's often the largest-size model when doing group scenes or at the 12-hour drawing marathons held by the Delaware College of Art and Design.

"When I first started out, I didn't know what poses would hurt 15 minutes later. You really have to be aware of what your spine is doing," she said.

Along with Fleisher and Delaware, Dierickx also has worked at Philadelphia University, the Delaware Art Museum, and Moore College of Art & Design. This spring she's headed back to school full-time to be an ultrasound technician, but she will still model on the side.

Although Dierickx said she has a pretty good body image, it can be a little unnerving to see how students depict her body - sometimes her pear shape becomes more pear and less shapely.

That's why Katonya Mosley, 32, would pose only for portrait classes. A size 18 to 22 African American woman who stands 5-foot-11, she was approached by McKenna during a class they took together.

"It took a while to get used to people looking at me," she said. "I'm used to people politely overlooking what they think might be unflattering."

During one class, she was posed seated and clothed while a nude male model stood behind her. She describes the experience as a powerful process that was challenging and amazing.

"I enjoy the fullness of my body, but when people translate it onto paper or a photograph, it's surprising to me. The body was more dense in the pictures that I saw, but I feel more movement, more airy, more space in me."

Now that Mosley has taken a full-time job as a caseworker in the state Department of Public Welfare, she's not sure she'll have time to model. But McKenna is keeping her on the UArts books, just in case she changes her mind.

"I hope to have a smorgasbord of models," she said.