Standing stark naked in front of a room of college students sounds like the kind of nightmare that leaves you anxious even after you remember you’re only dreaming. With the exception of random Sunken Garden streakers or the occasional exhibitionist, it’s safe to say most students avoid arriving naked in places where everyone else is clothed.
And yet there are the brave few who, every Thursday, shamelessly bare it all in front of students, professors and community members in the name of art. The College of William and Mary offers nude figure drawing, and yes, the models are students you’ve probably seen around campus. Each session lasts about two hours, although people are welcome to drop in and out as they please. But the drawing sessions, which cost $2 an hour, are not as scandalous or shocking as some might assume.
“It’s a very low-key environment,” Jacob Armiger ’10, who has experienced the session as both a model and artist, said. “At least for me, a body is a body, so as long as you have a big enough perspective it’s OK.”
Anna Wagner ’10, the session’s coordinator since second semester of her freshman year, goes to great lengths to make sure each session is a comfortable environment for the models and artists.
“I want it to always be friendly,” she said. “I like getting to know everyone who’s there, so talking and joking around is always allowed.”
The figure-drawing session is a valuable resource for anyone who is curious about art because of the casual environment and accessibility to live models.
“I think it benefits anyone who wants to draw because the figure is one of the most difficult things you can draw,” Wagner said. “It takes more practice.”
Each session usually attracts about ten to 15 people, so it’s not comparable to arriving naked in a packed lecture hall. While showing up to class naked would inevitably generate weird stares or catcalls, during the sessions the model’s lack of clothes is not an awkward ordeal. People attend the sessions to practice their art, and the bodies are regarded as simply another figure.
Being a naked figure is probably the most unusual part-time job you can have on campus, but the job perks are pretty good. At $10 an hour, it pays more than most jobs on campus and requires significantly less work.
“I usually talk to the artist or just think about stuff,” Thomas Dickens ’10 said about the experience. “It depends on what they’re drawing, if no one is drawing my face, then I can just read.”
Dickens has been modeling since his sophomore year when he decided he needed some money and figured modeling would be interesting. He says baring his body was easy to get used to.
“Some people think it’s not fun to be naked in front of other people,” Dickens said. “That’s a complete lie, it’s fun to be naked.”
Dickens enjoys seeing how his body is drawn differently in each person’s piece. The drawings vary from full-body sketches to sketches that “stop at your navel.”
“You learn volumes about who you’re sitting in front of by what they draw, and it’s fun,” Dickens said.
Although not everyone might regard the situation with such nonchalance, other models and artists say they are unfazed by the prospect are unfazed by the prospect of nudity.
“At first there’s always weirdness because it’s an unfamiliar situation and there’s nudity, but it’s gotten to the point that it’s not a big deal at all,” Armiger said.
Armiger has been involved in the sessions since freshman year, so by now he’s accustomed to the idea of drawing people in the nude.
There are five or six regulars, but attendance varies from session to session and is made up of a diverse group of people, which Wagner encourages.
“People are also intimidated because they think that you have to know how to draw, and that’s not true,” she said. “It’s more of a place to learn to draw.”
The majority of participants aren’t art majors, and some have never taken an art class before. In fact, some aren’t even enrolled at the College but are community members interested in testing their creativity.
For example, one somewhat regular participant is a caricature illustrator at Busch Gardens who attends the sessions to practice his figure drawing. According to Wagner, this year the sessions have grown in attendance, and many of the new participants are underclassmen who have never taken a figure drawing class before.
Although the College offers a figure-drawing course, it is difficult to get in with only nine seats available. The sessions are meant to be a casual way to practice drawing without the pressure of having to produce an A-worthy piece of art. Instead, the sessions are entirely student-run and do not offer instruction, although participants confer with each other and are often willing to hand out advice.
Because the session is student-run, it’s easier for participants to offer suggestions on what they want to get out of the class. To keep it diverse, the models pose with different props, and Wagner takes requests to help decide how the models will pose that day.
“A lot of times it’s just like, ‘Hey, what do you think would be funnier?’” Wagner said. “And sometimes people bring in their own props — like one guy is really into ornithology so he brings in his pigeons sometimes.”
The props help the models pose in a variety of ways so that the artists get a diversity of angles and shapes to draw.
“When I modeled junior year, I was wearing a big wolf mask,” he said. “And the other day, I modeled with the statue of a curly-locked infant boy.”
Whether standing with pigeons or wearing a wolf mask, some people might still be intimidated by the idea of sitting in a room drawing a naked stranger. But in the end, Wagner said, the session is about having an opportunity to draw people in their most basic element.
“There is kind of an idea that you’re not drawing a person, but you’re drawing a figure,” Armiger said. “But at the same time, you know the figure is an actual person who goes to this school.”