Naked people making art at Georgia State

“Now, I actually prefer to be in less clothes.”

Emerald Phoenyx is a figure model in Atlanta, now affiliated with the Pangea’s Garden art collective. Emerald Phoenyx is a pseudonym, used here as her artistic identity. Much of her art can be seen on her Instagram, @emeraldphoenyx.

“[Starting out] was definitely very strange because I’m scared as f— and I’m very, very shy,” Phoenyx said.

Figure modeling is to model the live body, often in the nude, for artists to study and render in sketch, etch, painting and photography. It requires an eclectic mix of skills, incredible submission to vulnerability and exploration of confidence.

Phoenyx began modeling through an unexpected source, but to say she has made the most of it is an understatement.

“I was working at a very sh— Applebee’s in Douglasville, and the first photographer I ever worked with actually sat at one of my tables,” Phoenyx said.

At Georgia State, Ralph Gilbert is the interim faculty coordinator for figure modeling. The professional relationships among figure models and the art and design department appear more peer-to-peer than boss-to-employee. That holds true throughout the surrounding region, where what some might call a “scene” has emerged.

From figure models to artists, the connections are made on relationship and recommendation. Georgia State pays figure models $15 an hour, but Gilbert said he is advocating to have that raised to $20 an hour.

Working in class, Gilbert noticed there are two key elements that make a model good at their job. First, a model needs to know use the body to communicate. It doesn’t do anyone any good for a model to sit blankly.

“[Modeling] requires a feel for the body as an expressive medium,” Gilbert said.

An expressive figure can be exciting, but it also comes with challenges. The hot lights and long hours are cause for some discomfort among many models, not to mention grappling with health problems.

“I have rheumatoid arthritis so a lot of contortionism and certain stretchy looks and walking around a lot in heels, I can’t do stuff like that,” Phoenyx said.

Gilbert said the second thing good models do is have input in the artistic process. The more experienced the models are, the more input they usually have.

“They can’t think of themselves as an object,” Gilbert said. “They’re involved, meaningly in the collaborative process.”

That’s a dynamic Phoenyx is familiar with. She is dedicated to exploring her own process and wants the project to be a collaborative one.

“I tell photographers I’m going to put the look together if I can, I will do my own makeup, I will take care of my grooming, I will get my own transportation,” Phoenyx said. “I really just need you to have your idea up here and make sure the lighting is right.”

To Gilbert, the conversation and interaction are necessary because of all that is at stake. The rich subject offers much to explore.

“There is so much psychology in the subtlety of the human body,” Gilbert said. “When you draw objects, you know, a still life doesn’t have an inner life, the model does.”

For many students Gilbert works with, this is their first experience in figure drawing. There are several things he emphasises to each new class.

“I don’t want you to approach this in default mode, concerned with the outline and form,” Gilbert said. “A gesture drawing illustrates a sense of connections between the forms.”

Jack Michael is a graduate teaching assistant educating printmaking at Georgia State. She worked on her undergrad at Sewanee: The University of the South, where she received experience as a figure model.

“There was not an abundance of people available from whom to choose figure models that were not part of the student body,” Michael said. “Undergraduates were allowed and even encouraged to be figure models in front of their own peers … When I was introduced to figure modeling, it was the norm.”

She sees a stark difference between her experiences during her undergrad and what appeared to be the norm at other colleges in the South.

“It surprised me as I started to figure model at different places around the Chattanooga area after I graduated that most institutions did not have undergraduates posing for the department,” Michael said.

At Georgia State, the Administrative Coordinator of the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design, Torie Zoph, said only two undergraduate students regularly model for the department.

“I was walking through the dining hall line with my tray and I said, ‘Hey Mike!’ and this guy, Mike, from the figure drawing class he turned around and looked at me,” Michael said. “He looked at me for like two minutes and he goes, ‘Oh, oh, Jack! I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.’”

Phoenyx said her modeling experiences have almost all been in private practices outside of the academic setting. Expanding into that social space and negotiating with friends and peers was trying for her.

“It’s been challenging and frustrating and interesting and also rewarding in a way but it’s mostly figuring out who’s willing to compensate you, is the theme worth your time and what are you contributing to the shoot,” Phoenyx said.

As she has grown as a professional, she raised her professional standards for who she works with, too.

“I really can’t put that much energy and effort into my going to Alpharetta to take a shoot in the woods and you expecting free tits,” Phoenyx said.