"I've never had a model so proud of his stuff," exclaims Maria Wilkerson, who has been sketching the guy's junk in charcoal all morning at the school's Carter Art Center. "It was the way he'd look you right in the eye and make it twitch. Like, 'Hey, draw this.'"
Jonathan Hart, a 24-year-old student, commiserates with Wilkerson. "At times throughout his modeling, it was clear he was happy to be there. Wasn't he almost spread-eagle last week?"
Another student, a preppy black guy in a polo who goes by the nickname Crush, laughs. Wilkerson chides him, "He could be twitching it at you, honey."
They start discussing another of the model's poses, this time a standing position. "I got the backside of that, thank God," Crush says.
"Well, I guess that's the way you have to be," Wilkerson says. "If you're embarrassed, you won't last two minutes. So that's probably how you deal with it. I'm glad for people like him. Otherwise, we'd be drawing wooden dolls."
"Easy money," Crush says.
"But it's not that easy to stay still like that. It's not as easy as it looks," argues Wilkerson.
It's undeniable. Paul Allen is having an up-and-down day.
As a figure model for various art classes around the Kansas City metro, Allen can spend three hours a day naked in front of strangers who draw, sculpt or paint his image. Sometimes his limbs fall asleep while trying to hold poses for 20 or 30 minutes. Other times, he gets to lounge, reclining on a pedestal on top of colorful pillows. And though calling this a hard day's work might offend some of the heavy-lifting construction workers in this orange-cone-covered town, Allen says the job comes with its own set of roadblocks.
At least if you're a man.
"Funnier things happen to male [models] than females," he says, sucking on a Parliament 100. "Sometimes you get groups with an agenda to get a rise out of you. It's not like it was when I was in school. Girls wear these short skirts. They'll sit in front of you, and there's nothing you can do. Last week at the [Kansas City] Art Institute, they had this thing where they fly high school kids in to see if they want to go to school there. And these girls come in with these skirts on and straddle the bench in front of them and pull their skirts up to here, and I'm like, four hours of this? I can only go through so many [baseball] box scores."
Allen, who is in his late 40s, has a Burt Reynolds-like grip on his masculinity. He wears Hawaiian shirts (curiously, so did almost every male figure model interviewed by the Pitch), with buttons left open to show off an ample amount of chest hair. He wears tennis shoes and no socks. He prefers beer to coffee. For a living, in addition to modeling, he produces low-budget corporate marketing videos and cleans tables at a local bar. He flaunts big, gaudy, class-ring-style jewelry on his fingers; chains around his neck; and gold bracelets (and a yellow Livestrong band) on his wrists.
Staying in shape is a priority for Allen, something he can't say for all the folks he runs into on the KC nude-modeling circuit. "If we all lined up, you wouldn't look at us and pick us out for going out together," he says. "We're a wide variety. We wouldn't find each other in the same bar or anything. There are large people, small people, thin people. I try to stay in shape so they [the students] aren't like, 'Aw, I gotta draw this guy?'" he says, laughing.
Allen has a salt-and-pepper mustache, bronzed shoulders and a hearty level of below-the-belt pride. Try as he might, sometimes he just can't keep it down.
"I try to think of bad things that happen," Allen says of methods he uses to distract himself and avoid untimely erections. "I don't think it's really a big deal. It's human nature. It's just when someone's got tunnel vision" -- he cups his hands around his eyes -- "and is staring right between your legs and their pencil's not moving, I'm like, God. Look somewhere else."
Allen says he started modeling for extra cash a long time ago, when he was at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He picked up extra jobs at the neighboring Baptist colleges. He liked to draw, and over the summers he'd model at the Art Institute. Some of the teachers would let him attend a class as a student on occasion, giving him pointers. Today, he doesn't always appreciate the drawings he sees of himself.
"The artists are better at the Art Institute," he says. "They spend more money to get in there, so they're not going to be in there wasting time. Some draw me, and I don't know what they're doing. It's all abstract. But they're doing these things for grades. Everyone has their own flair as an artist."
He thinks every artist should try modeling at least once, to know what it's like.
"Then you're just there, and a lot of times you get in these positions where your arm goes numb, your legs go numb, there's no blood flowing," Allen complains. "But when you fall asleep, that's the worst. Because guys just dream, and you don't know what's going on out there. Females can just be there -- nothing changes on them. It's not like the teacher is going to make them step down because it's cold."
Male models may face special challenges that females don't have to contend with. But there are still twice as many men lining up to be drawn nude as there are women.
"It's either feast or famine," acknowledges Karen Horton, who is in charge of hiring the Art Institute's models. She fields calls from the school's usual suspects, who phone her often, hungry for work. Artists get bored drawing the same five or ten people all the time, Horton says. There's a core group of about ten who circulate among the Art Institute and art programs at Penn Valley, Johnson County Community College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Art Institute is notorious for paying the least, starting at $12.50 an hour; other schools pay between $15 and $18 an hour. But the Art Institute is the place where most models first enter the circuit. If they strike interesting poses there, they can hope to be hired by artists themselves to model in private studios, jobs that often pay better.
Models who work regularly become well-known among Art Institute alumni and can be remembered years after classes end. A group of former art-school students at a dinner party recently sat around reminiscing about the models they recalled only by physical attributes -- Naked Bear Guy, Four-by-Four (a woman who, someone unkindly says, seemed to be as wide as she was tall), Black Girl, Smurf Tattoo, Eye Patch, Hot Model. A couple of models were actually remembered by their real names: Clint and Catherine.
And, of course, these alumni remember Allen. His nickname? Boner Guy.
Emily Lauren is one of the Art Institute's rare female models. It's unclear whether the pretty, petite 25-year-old has yet earned a nickname of distinction among students. She's a street performer and a clown-college grad. Before modeling, she worked as a "living statue," earning tips in the River Market by wearing outlandish costumes and ... not ... moving.
"I realized I could hold still for a long time, and people were always kind of amazed by it because it looked difficult, but it came to me really easily," Lauren says. She's sitting in a Westport coffee shop, fully clothed in a black dress, a rainbow head wrap that covers her inch-long hair, and lots of green beaded jewelry.
She went to UMKC to study theater, and as a theater person, she says nude modeling wasn't a new concept. "I always understood it, so on my own I decided to check it out, and it was really easy to get hired," she says.
Lauren jokes about the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Will Ferrell plays a figure model with a hairy beer gut and a flatulence problem. She knows the awkwardness that accompanies nudity, when a model reveals his or her body to a roomful of new students. "It's got to be such a talking point for the new kids, who probably have never seen anybody naked except for themselves and their parents," she says. "There's such a wide range of bodies. Fat old men. Beautiful, tall, statuesque models. There was a pregnant lady last semester. She carried all the way through."
"Enlightened exhibitionism" is what Lauren likes to call the ways that she earns a dime, which also include dressing as tarted-up characters in her one-woman burlesque show, Sugar Puppy and the Lovely Dumpling. That gig is all about putting stuff on -- different wigs, heaps of makeup, masks, fishnets, pasties. Modeling is just the opposite.
"It's exhilarating the first time. It's like, whee! That one instant," she gasps, miming throwing her robe off. "But then, for me, it's all calmness. Neutral is the best word I can think of. It's not at all sexual for me. I'm sure that the aspect that is interesting is that it's public nudity. But it doesn't excite or repulse me. It means almost nothing. There's a big stumbling block for people, nudity without sexuality."
There's actually very little that is erotic about posing naked, she says. The average figure-drawing class lasts three hours, typically beginning with a model acting out a series of minute-long poses to get the artists' fingers warmed up. The next poses last ten minutes, then 20 and, finally, a pose that might last the rest of the session. Sometimes the students are instructed to study one part of the body in particular, such as hands or feet.
Only once has Lauren felt like someone was looking at her for more than the higher calling of art. "I was in a laying pose," she says. "And you can tell if someone is looking at you in a way that is different than just observing you. It's hard to describe. Becoming an object is the purpose of it. Women talk about how they dislike being objectified, but that's the goal in this. You put yourself up there to be objectified. And if someone's not objectifying you, you can tell."
Some days she is sculpted. Some days she's drawn with charcoal. She has been hired for other modeling jobs through the Art Institute, posing for private classes taught in a home. She can't stand conventional jobs, so it feels good to be one of the few sought-after female models in town.
Among the male models, competition is fiercer.
Mark Smith once walked into a modeling gig to find Allen waiting in front of his classroom, just in case he didn't show up.
"Like a vulture," Smith says.
Smith is 40, but he looks younger, thanks partly to his long, dirty-blond hair. He considers himself an aging model, and he regularly questions whether he should still be parading around naked in front of people half his age.
"When I was younger, I danced and stuff like that, you know, modeled just on the side for a lady who had a boutique thing for men's and women's clothing. That's when I was a young buck," he says shyly, eventually admitting that he was modeling lingerie. "After that, as I got older I was getting like, well, I can't model like that, but it kind of grows on you. There is something addictive for me, anyway."
Smith says that being naked in public doesn't get any easier, no matter how many times he does it. The way he describes it, the experience is downright terrifying, time and time again.
"As I get older, I kind of force myself to do it. It's mentally more difficult," he says. "I think to myself, I shouldn't be doing this, but yet it's like, I don't know, to spite your face you do things sometimes. Because I go up and in the first five minutes I'll break sweat. I get real hot. I don't know what it is, just nerves, and then it goes away. I know it's like, why do you do this?" he says, anticipating the next question.
Is the scary part also the fun part, like riding a roller coaster? Or is the scary part just something to grit your teeth through?
"That's the part I have to get through," Smith says. "Every time is like the first time. It's not old hat. I've done it for five years ... I'm just a nervous person."
Smith doesn't come off nervous. He comes off kind of ... stoned. If his laid-back speech gets him pegged as a pothead, Smith says, it's purely coincidental. He doesn't drink or smoke to relax for a modeling gig; if anything, he'll go to the gym beforehand.
He likes to check out the impressions he has left on students by surveying their sketches. "Sometimes I'm not happy with what I see," he says. "You face that reality -- 'Oh, I need to go work on this or that.' It drives me to try to stay in shape. I'm really at the point where things could start to go south. It does push you to go to the gym," he says.
A 63-year-old figure model tells the Pitch that the best advice he ever received was "Don't ever tell anyone that you do this." Smith keeps his nude life under wraps, too. "It's kind of a secret," he says. "My family, the guys I work with, they don't know. I spend about as much time dressed as I do undressed."
Smith truly loves art, and other artists can tell. That's partly why he has earned one of the coveted private jobs, modeling for a group of artists who drive their easels out to a lake on a farm north of the city and throw down a few bucks each to pay models. It's private enough to get several models up there at a time, posing in the natural light without fear of neighborhood children stumbling in and scarring themselves for life.
Smith's connection to the lake session is a guy named Duane, who bears a resemblance to the late Rodney Dangerfield. Duane is a veteran figure model. Over the years, the perfect, enormous orb of his belly has been drawn by countless aspiring artists.
He's also a Vietnam vet (1968-69, 101st Airborne), a proud gun owner, a trainer of Dobermans, a former Shell Oil laborer in Africa and a current General Motors employee at the Fairfax plant. Over his many years modeling at the Art Institute, he has amassed a hefty Rolodex of both models and artists, and he often helps connect the two sets for gigs. At his buddy's lake, he's content to cook burgers, drink Coors Light and act as a stage manager of sorts for the drawing sessions, with tasks that include spraying mosquito repellent in the grass and aiming spray bottles of water at the models while they're frozen in long poses under the sun. He still models sometimes, too.
On a recent weekend, two artists set up easels in the grass clearing on the farm and prepare to sketch Charity, a 30-something female model who is having trouble posing with both of her hands clasped on one knee. It's over 90 degrees, and the oily bug spray that Charity has coated herself with causes her hands to slip and slide. Smith lies on a picnic bench in the shade, off to the side, naked except for a green Salem cigarettes towel around his waist. He's psyching himself up before his turn to pose.
A cluster of parked trucks and cars blocks the view from the road, just in case a stranger mistakenly turns down the unmarked and overgrown trail leading to the farm, just off Interstate 29. Smith has left the radio in his truck playing.
"I never thought I'd be drawing to George Thorogood. Works pretty good though," says Barry Brandon, one of the artists, who stands behind his easel and sketches Charity. He works with a lightning quickness he learned from studying under a courtroom sketch artist. He often compliments her poses ("That's a nice composition") and jokes with her ("That looks so innocent").
Charity delivers singing (read: stripping) telegrams for a company called Bash-A-Grams and dances at a bar on Front Street called the Smuggler's Inn.
The other artist, an older fellow named Jim Gubar, recently started practicing figure drawing, though he prefers drawing landscapes. He's all business, the figure taking shape on his sketch pad like a developing Polaroid.
Posing outside presents its own set of complications in the form of heat and bugs, but it also makes for a relaxed setting -- except, of course, that half of them are naked.
Smith and Charity attempt a two-person pose, with Smith sitting in a blanket-draped plastic chair and Charity at his feet. Brandon starts sketching with inspiration. "Guy models are not really in demand," he explains. "But they're so much more reliable, and they're cheaper. We like Mark, and he likes hanging around with artists, I think."
"Sprayer boy!" Smith calls, and Duane ambles over with a blue bottle, misting the pair.
"Doing a three-hour portrait in pastels, you really get a chance to know the people you're drawing," Brandon continues. He says that this group of artists and models hangs out regularly, going to First Fridays, out to dinner, to art openings and to comedy clubs. "Mark, I've been drawing you for about two years now," Brandon says.
So what about this problem that plagues male models, particularly ones posing for pretty female students?
Smith contends that he's never raised his mast during an artists' session.
"It's not sexual. It's up here," Smith says, tapping his temple. "Modeling for art is a mind thing. It [a public erection] hasn't happened with me. It could, if I sat there in a pose and drilled myself with thinking of something. Usually, though, I'm tied up with what is being taught, what is being said. I'm learning. I always get asked about that, but I've never had that problem."
This group is familiar with Allen, aka Boner Guy.
"I heard he popped a boner in M.J.'s class and she banned him," Brandon says, referring to another private artists' session. "She asked him about it, and he told her, 'They seemed to like it.'"
"Kat called him the Model of a Hundred Erections," Charity says, talking about another female model who recently left town.
Gubar, the landscape artist, speaks up. "I saw him get an erection once," he says. "I've been drawing for 24 years, and he was the first model I've ever seen that happen to. Wait a minute -- I bet I've got a picture or two of him in my car."
He disappears momentarily and returns with two large pieces of paper ripped from an artist's notebook. It's all Allen, from mustache to package.
"Look at that pose," Brandon says and laughs. In the sketch, Allen appears to have one leg up on a chair just to allow for an unobstructed view of the main attraction.
"OK, we're standing around drinking and sweating," Charity says suddenly. "Am I going to get to take my clothes off again or not?"
Back at Penn Valley, Jonathan Hart is having trouble concentrating on the artwork in front of him. Others are shading their renderings of Allen's left buttock and thigh as he reclines on top of a pile of pillows in the center of the room beneath a crown of bright lights. Hart and another woman, however, have the full-frontal view of Allen, and they're doing their best to completely ignore him, working instead on drawings for other classes. With a blue pencil, Hart shades in the color of the bedspread in a drawing of his bedroom. Next to him, his classmate draws eyelashes around an eyeball that takes up the page.
"It makes you a bit uneasy, having him sit there and look at you like that," Hart whispers. Sure enough, Allen's heavy-lidded eyes are aimed straight at him as Allen shifts slightly, making his penis jiggle. "Quit looking at me," Hart says softly, not kidding.
When class is over, Allen rises from the pedestal and unhurriedly gets dressed, shirt first, facing the class. He rubs his tailbone, complaining that the pillows were behind his back, not under his ass.
Outside, Allen puts on wraparound sunglasses and sits down on a picnic bench in the sun. He tells the Pitch that, yes, there is one private artist who won't allow him back to her studio because of Paul Jr.'s excitable nature. "It took her awhile to get the words out," he says. "She said, 'Is this something that might happen again?' and I said, 'Well, I guess.' And she said, 'Well, I can't use you.' It's the artist's call. It's not like I'm erect for the full two or three hours. Wanda [Simchuk, the Penn Valley instructor] will tell you, yesterday I had a pretty up-and-down class."
It's not like students call him Boner Guy to his face. Allen found out about his nickname only recently, but he wasn't offended. He can think of worse nicknames.
"I guess that would be better than Small Guy Who Can't Get It Up," he says.
Getting it up is clearly on his mind much of the time, judging by a list of questions he offers to the Pitch as suggestions of questions to ask other models -- queries about models' sexual fantasy lives and their sexual preferences, about whether they've had or would consider having affairs with students. Nearly all of the questions have something to do with a penis.
And hey, there's Allen's member, poking out from one leg of his ultrashort jogging shorts, as if it has come out to hear what's being said about it.
A week later, Allen gets a call telling him he won't be hired back to model at Penn Valley.
Todd Simchuk, Penn Valley's media-relations contact (who is Wanda Simchuk's husband), tells the Pitch that the reason Allen won't be welcome at the school is his inability to stay completely still while modeling. "His behavior in class threw up some red flags as sexual harassment," Simchuk explains.
But Allen's story is different. He says he was fired because he didn't tell Penn Valley's upper administration that he'd invited a reporter to check out his class. (In a later answering-machine message, Allen says he knows that bringing a guest wasn't the only issue.) He says he won't change the way he models. However, Allen seems to be under the impression that it was size, not flexing, that got him in trouble.
"Apparently, in this world where all these women want bigger, longer, harder, whatever, the Art Institute -- not just them, but other places -- all want the smaller and softer. I mean, that's not generally life. So no, I can't change what I do and, you know, it just can't happen. It's just impossible."