Melanie Polos takes off her clothes for money.
But she doesn’t pay the bills by dancing on tables. Instead, Polos, 50, is enriching the experiences of students in the School of Visual and Performing Arts. As a nude model, Polos poses unadorned for various courses offered within the college.
‘You’re actually teaching young people about movement and anatomy – the way fabric folds or limbs look in motion,’ Polos said.
Eight nude models work part-time for Syracuse University, posing for 10 different VPA departments ranging from illustration to printmaking; and while some admit their job has a stigma attached to it, they claim the work they do is about education, not nudity. While it can be physically taxing, a model’s work is essential in a fine arts curriculum. In VPA, an understanding of the human form and its movements is the foundation for upper-level classes.
‘It’s so important for students to understand the beauty and complexity of the human body; everything in nature is in the human body – once you draw the body, you can draw anything,’ said Kathy Tills, model coordinator and supervisor at VPA.
However, there is more to a nude model’s job than disrobing and holding a pose. Tills, who modeled to put herself through art school, said each model applicant must undergo 10 hours of training before beginning work. In addition to feeling comfortable without clothes, models must have a good awareness of their bodies and the space around them.
‘It’s kind of like acting; you need to be able to project yourself,’ Tills said. ‘For their audition, they must keep an interesting pose for an assigned period of time. They can’t just cross their arms and stand there.’
Models must also be able to deal with pain and a certain amount of boredom. In general, models in VPA do gestural and long poses. For gestural work, models assume dramatic poses for a few minutes, while longer poses might require the model to stay in the same position for up to five hours. The majority of classes using models, however, require them to hold a pose for three hours.
‘You really do have to be in shape, and even then you have to know your body’s limits, because you might get into a comfortable position but you’re not aware of how long you can hold it,’ said Karen Greenfield, 28, a VPA model. ‘I always am very overzealous because as an artist I know how important it is to be interesting to draw from on all sides, but the more interesting you are, the more painful it is.’
Along with having the stamina required to endure long periods of stillness, models said they must often find creative ways to stave off boredom.
‘Some days I’m bored out of my mind and every minute is just painful, but other times it goes by rather quickly and I use that time to work on personal issues and problems,’ said Mike Affleck, 54, an SU alumnus who has been modeling at the school since the early ’70s.
Once hired, models begin pay at $9 an hour, although Tills said she often bumps the pay to $10 an hour if the model has prior experience. Jobs are open to area residents and all SU students not enrolled in VPA. While the job pays more than most campus part-time student work, some models said the salary is not enough to live on.
‘It’s difficult to find a full-time job with benefits in Syracuse,’ Polos said. ‘Modeling pays well, but it’s only about 10 to 12 hours a week at SU, and that’s just not enough to get by.’
To make ends meet, some models work privately with individual artists or for other area colleges’ art departments. Most have completely separate careers – Greenfield works as a marketing writer, Affleck is an activist and Polos is an artist. Some stick with modeling throughout their careers to stay connected to the arts community or because they enjoy the job and feel no need to quit.
‘It is demanding work, but it’s not brain surgery,’ Greenfield said. ‘Usually people who model are really into it and have a lot to say about it; you want to justify what you’re doing. You must have a personal philosophy.’
For Polos, modeling has changed her life and the way she views her body. When she told her family and friends that she got a job as a model, they were impressed that someone her age felt comfortable working nude. As a mature model, Polos said she likes to work in a profession often equated with physical perfection because her body is the norm, not the exception.
‘Until a few years ago, I wasn’t comfortable with my body,’ Polos said. ‘It’s hard not to feel that way today – you open up a magazine and there are pictures of women who are 5’10′ and 110 pounds. I’m a bigger woman and I like to see how students choose to accentuate my large belly or sagging breasts.’
Freshman advertising design major Dana Beirle said models like Polos have changed the way she views figure drawing.
‘I love drawing larger people because they’re so different-you get to improvise,’ Beirle said. ‘I’ve found that things that are seen as bad, like being overweight or having a quirk about your body, are my favorite things to draw.’
Affleck’s motivations for modeling, however, were purely physical. As an undergraduate student, one of his friends suggested he get paid for his favorite activity – being naked.
‘I’m a person who doesn’t wear clothes that much,’ Affleck said. ‘I didn’t like to wear clothes in college and I still don’t today.’
In addition to figure study work, Affleck has posed nude in a Laundromat for a photography class and enjoys working with students who favor offbeat settings for their art. Despite his fondness for nudity, Affleck said he was nervous the first time he posed for a class.
‘It was a little awkward; I didn’t know what to expect or how the artists were going to react,’ Affleck said. ‘I quickly caught on to what the idea of this job was – the students took it seriously.’
Models said they felt VPA students treat models with respect. Although models’ work may still be labeled risqu, they are a bedrock in a fine arts curriculum. Both an aid to students and faculty, models help inject life into students’ work.
‘The main part is that we’re making art and doing interesting things together,’ Affleck said. ‘Art is all the parts of us: art is our sexuality, art is our absurdity, and we need models to help express that.’
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