‘Living art’

Huizi Li, an international student from China, works as a nude model for WSU art students. 

REBECCA WHITE, Evergreen managing editor

The soft sounds of charcoal on sketch paper and smooth jazz filled the art studio. After a nod from the instructor, Huizi Li timidly slipped off her red night dress and stepped onto the pedestal, assuming an elegant pose.

The art students averted their eyes to their sketch pads, but the instructor told them to keep their gaze on the model, not their papers.

Li, a sophomore digital technology and culture major hailing from Qingdao, China, said she feels many Chinese students don’t go beyond their comfort zone when studying abroad.

“I am definitely different when I speak English than when I speak Chinese,” Li said. “I’m more open-minded and open to adventures than the Chinese version of me.”

Modeling is not her dream job, but more of a chance to try something new and take advantage of a unique job opportunity. Li said when she talked with her family about her job, her mother was hesitant at first, but doesn’t feel nude modeling for art is something to be shameful about.

“I think in a way it’s kind of important for art students to study the anatomy of human bodies,” Li said. “I just feel like it’s a natural thing to do, like any other kind of job.”

Hiromi Okumura, instructor of foundations and drawing, said she keeps her art students focused on human anatomy. Before they can draw live models, she has them draw a self-portrait and a skeleton still life. She wants them to focus on the inner structure and then imagine outward, concentrating on the way the shadows move across the shapes of the body.

“They are looking at her as living art,” Okumura said.

Li said it can be slightly strange looking at all of the students’ drawings of her. When she models, she tries to focus on holding completely still and posing, remembering from when she was in art class how tough it was to accurately capture a pose on paper when the model moved or when it was time to switch poses.

“I know no matter how realistic it is, in 30 minutes, there is no way you could capture everything as it is,” she said.

Li said she had been approached by a graduate student studying photography to model for her project. She is still unsure whether she will take that job; she feels modeling nude for photography is different from painting and drawing.

“Most artists I know … they don’t really pursue the absolute re-creation of the exact person,” Li said. “Usually there is some kind of idea or mood they want to convey through the model.”

Li feels that modeling for painting and drawing has a little more privacy to it than modeling for photography. She said she does not think most art students could capture everything, and even the best artist would not be able to re-create her exactly.

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Art student Sidney Westenskow said her pet peeve during art class is people sexualizing or objectifying nude models. When she looks at a model, she views them from an artistic and aesthetic perspective, rather than a sexual perspective.

Westenskow identifies as asexual and said objectifying models is not really a problem for her. She said she sometimes finds herself making her depictions of their bodies conform to a societally accepted ideal.

“I try to wean myself away from stuff like that,” Westenskow said, “because I want the figure drawing to be accurate and I want my artwork to look like them and not my perception of them.”

Westenskow said she is considering nude modeling next semester and looks forward to the opportunity to be the inspiration for someone’s art.

“Being someone’s inspiration for anything is really empowering,” Westenkow said. “Not necessarily being nude would be the empowering part, it would be the fact that your body is inspiring the artwork the person is making at the time.”

Li was a student in a figure drawing class over the summer and drew several nude models there as well as in open drawing classes. Li was inspired by another nude model she recently saw.

“She wasn’t like the perfect Victorian model body type,” Li said. “But she was confident and when I was drawing her, I felt like she is beautiful because of who she is and who she believes she is.”

Li said she hopes that with more experience modeling and trying new things, she can become more confident in her own body image.

“There is a sense of confidence coming from her,” Li said. “I think I really admire her because of that. I guess in a way it kind of inspires me. I hope next time I will feel less self-conscious about myself.”

Li said she was relatively calm for her first modeling session at the beginning of the semester. She said she joked to her friend that she would save any panicking until an hour before. She called him and asked him to be there so she would have someone in the class she knew.

She had to remind herself that an art studio isn’t a place where the students and teachers were going to judge her or her body. She compared her first time modeling to skydiving.

“When I took off my clothes and stepped on the pedestal to do the art modeling, I actually didn’t feel nervous anymore,” Li said. “You become really nervous because of the anticipation … but when you actually do it … there is nothing to be scared about.”