In an asymmetrically-lit room with paint stains on the floor and stacked easels in the corner, class starts as the model disrobes and a symphony of charcoal and graphite gliding across paper begins to play.
The model is illuminated on a platform with students — some sitting, some standing, some kicking off their shoes to settle in — positioned in an arc around the model, translating the shapes and shadows from the model’s naked body onto the paper in front of them. One of the oldest forms of art and anatomical appreciation is preserved and celebrated through the nude modeling program in the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia.
“If you study art, the first thing you learn to do is to stop viewing things as things. You start viewing them as combinations of light and shadow. That is all we are seeing, a combination of light and shadow and where one ends and the other begins,” said Kat McCormack, a third-year history student who modeled nude for a semester.
The models in this program come from many different backgrounds, from dancers and art historians to athletes and even exercise and sports science majors.
Zack Carlton, an exercise and sports science major, described his first class as similar to the first drop in a rollercoaster.
“It seems abstract filling out the paperwork, just like another job, but then, like, five minutes before the class starts, your heart is beating really fast and then it's time to start. It was like on a rollercoaster when you first drop off the hill. When you drop the robe and step up on a well-lit platform, it feels like that,” Carlton said.
"It was like on a rollercoaster when you first drop off the hill. When you drop the robe and step up on a well-lit platform."
-Zack Carlton, UGA student
For Sarah Aldama, a junior studying architectural history, her first time had a similar initial thrill to it.
“I was really nervous my first time. It is like your first kiss or when you lose your virginity. It is being completely vulnerable to someone else — in this case, it is just a classroom of people,” Aldama said.
After overcoming the first few minutes of nerves, the models said the transition from consciously fixating on the fact that you are naked and that strangers are looking at you naked for the first time, to the meditative mindset of serving the purpose of art education as a live body, takes place as the model begins to settle in.
“You are just standing there and after a while you don’t feel naked. You’re just your own person, in your own skin and you just stand there and say ‘This is me,’” Aldama said.
For multiple models, experiencing nudity in this isolated environment allow the models to see how nudity in varying contexts means different things to both the one who is nude and the onlookers. Nudity in varying contexts translates in different ways.
Gabriella Andino, a UGA alumna who is a museum interpretation intern at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, found a stark contrast between nudity as an act of expression versus nudity as an act of service for an artist.
“There is a real difference between being naked and being nude. Being naked, you are about to offer your entire being, all vulnerabilities. But when you are nude, it is more just the surface level,” Andino said. “I think that surface level is what you are offering and a lot of people are still unlearning all of the connotations with just not wearing clothes.”
McCormack said they experience a similar dissociation between differing contexts of being naked.
“The biggest thing that you feel is that you are not a sentient being at all. Everyone is viewing you not as a sexual object, but as just an object. Nothing about your personality, nothing about who you are, is in the work that they are doing,” McCormack said. “You are getting stared at by all of these people and maybe even making eye contact with them and while in normal nudity that would be an intimate experience, it is very different.”
Through this program, experiences vary from person to person, but the end takeaway seems to marry well with the model’s ability to understand themselves and how others view them on a deeper level.
“The biggest thing that I came away with is that I look exactly how I thought I looked like. You have this tendency to morph your body into however you are inclined to just by staring at yourself long enough,” McCormack said. “After somebody draws you, all that boundary and protection from yourself or harm you cause yourself from how you perceive yourself is completely gone, you are just looking at the form of who you are.”
“After somebody draws you, all that boundary and protection from yourself or harm you cause yourself from how you perceive yourself is completely gone, you are just looking at the form of who you are.”
-Kat McCormack, UGA student
During the class, models can take five- to ten-minute breaks where they can put their robes back on and walk around the classroom to see what the artists have created so far.
This experience shows that no matter how someone sees themself, there is no control over how others are going to see them. For some models, this was a liberating feeling, though this liberation comes in different forms.
“I found liberation in that everybody around me is celebrating not me, but my body as a vehicle to understand their art better,” Andino said.
For McCormack, the relationship between their body and the way they feel is very different. McCormack identifies as agender and doesn’t feel attached to the way their body looks as female. Most of the time, they said they are not particularly enthusiastic about the fact that they have a womanly figure. In their mind, if they could, they would look a completely different way from the way they look as a woman now.
“I can’t escape that when someone sees me they are going to see someone with breasts and hips and that is fine,” McCormack said.
Being subject to the perception of others allows some models to be kinder to themselves and their own bodies.
“This was sort of a way to cement the fact that no matter what I look like, I am worth at least this much. I have this much value at least and I have a lot more respect for my body and how much my body can do rather than what it looks like,” said Savannah Guenther, a 20-year-old history and Native American studies major.
Similarly, Kara Joyce, a 21-year-old international affairs and English double major, is now able to more gentle with her body.
“It makes me a little kinder to my body. I am usually pretty harsh on myself,” Joyce said. “It is nice to know I look a lot more graceful than I feel.”
Sarah Aldama, a junior studying architectural history, stands during an art class at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia…
Not all universities have a live modeling program, so the ability to have this integrated into the curriculum at Lamar Dodd helps the skills of art students evolve. Kinzey Branham, a part-time instructor at UGA, reinforces the importance of live modeling in the curriculum over just still life. To him, if you can draw live models, you can draw anything.
“I am partial to people rather than still life. We are complex, we have moods, we have emotions and for that reason it is more fun to draw people than still lifes,” Branham said. “It is not always the same, sometimes you might not feel good, or you might be depressed, or you might be elated and it is just a whole range of things to be captured that you don't get with still lifes.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Gabriella Andino's position was misstated. She is a museum interpretation intern. This has since been corrected.