It's six o'clock on a Friday night, and Hannah Lindsey, a sophomore in Columbia College, is lying nude on a pile of cushions. Pencils scratch paper and charcoal smudges on sketchbooks as the Columbia University Artist Society hosts its weekly figure drawing night in Dodge Hall.
For Lindsey, this is an average weekend activity. In fact, for many Columbia students, alumni, and faculty, nude modeling has become a staple of the University's art culture and a method of self-expression and empowerment.
To become a nude model for the CU Artist Society requires only a simple questionnaire and the ability to pose for 20 minutes straight. "You can choose any of the poses you want, whatever's comfortable to you," says CU Artist Society Vice President Hui Yu Wong, a Columbia College junior. Each week, a new model is chosen for the drawing class, alternating between men and women.
"Both bodies present very different kinds of lines and shadows," Wong says.
A normal night in 501 Dodge starts with the model appearing from behind a partition, completely undressed.
"It always feels a little bit like, 'Am I doing something wrong? I am supposed to be naked right now, right?'" Lindsey, who has modeled three times for the CU Artist Society, says. "But it gets comfortable very quickly."
Artist Society President Natalie Pino, a Barnard sophomore, agrees. Last semester, after a miscommunication with a model last semester, Pino volunteered to take her place.
"I was really nervous, but it feels normal after," she says.
The class starts with quick one-minute poses, then five-minute, 10-minute, and finally a few 20-minute periods. "At the beginning of those, your nose just itches so much, and that's all you can think about," Lindsey says.
Behind her drawing board, Wong calls out different poses, making sure that the model is always comfortable.
Eric Hickam, a senior in the School of General Studies, has modeled twice for the Artist Society. "I've been doing ballet for three semesters," he says. "So that always gives me ideas."
As the session continues, music plays from speakers, and artists ranging from first-years to professors and faculty members bend over in the circle of drawing boards. Some use dark black charcoal, others colorful pastels, and one or two attendees are painting with watercolors.
A calm settles over the room, and Lindsey is sitting with her arms resting over her bent knees on a small painted platform with red and gray cushions laid over a draped piece of fabric.
"Your mind's clear, and you just think about your day," Lindsey says. "Meditation is a good word for it."
"It is a bit of a Zen moment," Pino says. "It's a bit like an alteration of consciousness."
At the end of the class, the music lulls and conversation ensues. The last dregs from the chip bags are eaten, and artists start sharing their work with the other participants. The model appears from behind the partition, fully clothed.
"The model wants to keep whatever you don't want," Pino explains in reference to discarded sketches. "I have a few that are up in my room," Lindsey says, referring to the drawings she's collected from different figure-drawing classes. "Maybe when I'm old, I'll look back and think, wow!"
Hickam says he also displays the pictures of himself that he's collected.
"I put one on my fridge," he says. "I use one as my Facebook profile picture."
But most of the unwanted art is thrown away. "We have an abandoned art show," Pino says. "We find things in the trash, we take it out, and then at the end of the year we go around campus, and we put up advertisements for the Artist Society."
Once Lindsey finishes gathering the discarded portraits from that evening, the sky has darkened to an inky blue. The cool wind flutters the stack of pastel and pencil drawings, evidence of a night well-spent. Nude modeling, however, isn't just for the free art, or even the $15 an hour.
"It's an empowerment thing," Hickam shares. "It helps with anxiety, body image, self-perception. It's relaxing."
Lindsey says that modeling has helped her to see herself in a more positive way.
"Everyone has negative body-image issues," Lindsey says. "And I guess I thought it would be a good idea to see myself through other people's eyes. It's a good experience because a lot of the time, we're a lot prettier than we think we are."