Our model Julian Ali, senior media arts and design and studio art double major, poses in the figure drawing classroom.
Our model Julian Ali, senior media arts and design and studio art double major, poses in the figure drawing classroom.

By Jenna Danzig | Photo illustrations by Matt Schmachtenberg & James Chung

Being naked in front of a classroom of people is a literal nightmare for most, but for some students at JMU, it happens to them regularly.

The JMU art department uses both students and local residents as models for some of their classes, and about 90 percent of the time, the models are fully nude.

“Z”, a senior health sciences major at JMU who wishes to stay anonymous, started modeling her junior year to make some extra money after a model friend told her about it.

“I was really nervous,” Z said of her initial experience.  “It was kind of scary. I have a nipple piercing and I didn’t know how people were going to take that at first.”

The models are paid $12 an hour, and a single figure-drawing class-one of the most common classes models are used in, is 3½ hours long, earning them about $42 in a typical session.

Normally, professors pose the models in a dimly lit room with a spotlight of sorts beaming on them. The models sit or stand as still as possible, getting a five-minute break every 20 minutes to stretch. During winter and summer, they can request heaters or fans to be blown on them.

JMU art professor Lisa Tubach says she prefaces her students in the beginning of the semester about respecting the models, as well as giving them a context for why it is so important to have them in the classroom.

Having the models clothed “would be like if you draw a still-life and throw a sheet over it,” Tubach said, though clothed models are sometimes utilized.

Nude model

Students also understand the significance of live models in the classroom.

“Once you can see the human body as shapes and not as a body, you can pretty much draw anything,” said Jade Webber, a third-year graduate assistant with an emphasis in painting.

Before the session begins, as well as during breaks, the models are permitted to cover themselves with their bathrobe while they walk around and, if they desire, look at the portraits.

“My favorite that I’ve seen was that the class had to incorporate the human skeleton into it, and one person had me unzipping my own skin and you saw my ribs,” Z said.

Rick, who prefers not to use his last name, is a 45-year-old JMU alumnus who started modeling when still attending JMU. He specifically remembers how one student portrayed him.

“There was once a student about 10 years ago who drew me seated naked in front of the Episcopal church on Court Square,” Rick said.

Rick models frequently and has modeled at multiple places, including at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. for the Corcoran School of Art, Howard University, American University and George Mason University. He has bought or received numerous portraits of himself over the years and framed one he found particularly flattering of himself as a gift for his wife for their eighth anniversary.

Rick’s wife, whom he met standing outside Carrier Library, also posed for art classes when she attended JMU. She no longer models, but the couple used to pose together.

Webber, who graduated from New Mexico University with a degree in painting, explains that the art department rarely turns people away who apply.

“The only way we won’t hire someone is if when we interview them we feel like they’re applying for weird reasons,” she said, though that is rare.

Tubach has a strict no-cellphone policy in her classrooms to ensure the privacy of the models and prevent any photographs from being taken. Z was once asked by a student to take a picture of her to finish her drawing later, but was stopped by the professor from doing so.

Z says that the most challenging part of the job is simply staying in all the poses for so long and trying not to get bored.

“One semester I was taking anatomy and I was practicing blood traces in my head while I was posing,” she said.

Rick, however, says that his least favorite part of the job is when the artists draw him and make him look like he is pregnant. He says that this is particularly frustrating when one student depicts him as having a belly while “the one next to them will draw it and it’s what you look like in the mirror.”

Most of the time, though, Rick is happy with the way he is portrayed and believes that modeling has given him more self-confidence.

“Once you’ve been an artist model, you’ll never be afraid of looking like an ass in front of a group of people again.”