In the buff

321 Sketch Club in Northern Liberties gives artist an opportunity to practice drawing nude figures

By Lindsey Nolen

After locking the door and closing the curtains so that it’s impossible for passers-by to get a glimpse inside, the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association Community Center, located at 700 N. 3rd Street, is transformed into a studio space for the 321 Sketch Club each Thursday. At these meetups, local artists are given the opportunity to practice their figure drawing skills and unique styles by depicting the body of a naked model onto their individual sketch pads.

Held from 6:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m., with the only stipulations being that each artist pays a $10 walk-in fee and that they bring their own supplies, the 321 Sketch Club has created an impetus for expanded nude sketch opportunities throughout the city. In fact, it has become so successful that Victor Perez, organizer of “Nude Night Philly,” an event celebrating the beauty of the nude, has asked the club and its participants to join in this year’s gathering on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 1714 Masher Street.

While the idea of nude modeling and sketching might strike some as distasteful or as borderline pornography, members of the 321 Sketch Club instead view it as pure artistic opportunity. As each night’s model takes off his or her robe, the artists in attendance immediately begin glancing up and down, from paper to model, transferring every detail as best they can while maintaining the utmost professionalism.
“When I walk around I don’t feel awkward because I know I’m just a bunch of circles and lines to these guys,” Kat Mansfield, the organizer of the 321 Sketch Club and a model herself, said. “People tend to make a big deal out of the naked body, when it’s something that doesn’t have to be. The naked body is a beautiful thing.”

Although not a trained artist herself, Mansfield believes her club has challenged her to create art and to build upon the artistic talent she had already possessed. Having not drawn in years before her club’s formation, the opportunity has forced her to sit down and to start drawing again. To date, she now has many sketchbooks filled with drawings and believes she has improved steadily with time.

In providing others with this same opportunity, Mansfield’s involvement with the 321 Sketch Club dates back to 2011 when neighborhood artist, Nick “Otto” Brown, 65, voiced his desire for a local figure drawing venue after Bell #3 Figure Drawing had closed its doors. In response, Mansfield knew they would need to find a large, heated space that was secure from prying eyes, and that the venue would also have to be free so that they could afford to pay a $50 fee to participating models.

In 2013 she found the space she was looking for in the basement of the Northern Liberties Recreation Center, located at 321 Fairmont Avenue. Grateful for the space and opportunity, Mansfield appropriately named her club the “321 Sketch Club” and began organizing weekly meetups. Yet soon after, someone from the Department of Parks and Rec discovered the group one evening and put an end to it because it could not condone nudity in such close proximity to children.

“Next, I approached the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association with a proposal to install drapes in the windows of the Community Center so that we could meet there instead,” Mansfield said. “They welcomed the idea, and we’ve been there ever since.”

Soon after establishing a space, she requested Brown’s help for ideas on how to acquire models, and he was able to introduce Mansfield to a handful of people who had been modeling throughout the city. Discovering that booking models for her club was surprisingly easy, she now receives emails from dozens of men and women who wish to take part in the modeling opportunities.

“I book them unseen, and would like to book more of them, but we only meet once a week so I can only hire 52 or less,” Mansfield said. “Their poses range from three to twenty minutes, and I never know if even five people will show up. I had to float the club a lot at first.”

Similar to Mansfield’s lengthy involvement in the figure drawing scene, one of her participating models, James Andrew Dunn, also became involved in nude sketch modeling several years ago. An oil painter himself, he explained that he has always possessed an appreciation of artistic anatomy, and of the use of positive/negative space and work with lighting.

The 47 “years young” Center City resident noted that a common misconception of nude modeling is that it’s easy and that anyone can do it. However, he stresses that the practice takes a skilled amount of patience and grace, especially when holding a position for 20 to 30 minutes at a time and having to later return to that same exact position.

“It’s not for everyone. If you’re the slightest bit insecure, modeling isn’t for you,” Dunn said. “As for me, [it’s never awkward] so long as things are kept professional then I’m comfortable.”

Although holding poses for extended periods of time, during which limbs often fall asleep and muscle cramps develop, can be difficult, Dunn noted that what keeps him coming back is the collaborative spirit of the groups/classes he’s worked with and the step back from the constant rush that today’s society operates in. He added that the opportunity to earn additional income is another plus.

Also in appreciation of the side income, 25-year-old Taylor Seals first began her nude modeling career when she was looking for a part-time second job. While she briefly considered retail, she was turned off by the sometimes crazy schedules and thought she might be too shy for the sales aspect of the job.

“I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the idea of life modeling, but I started emailing various schools and drawing groups around the city and started getting calls back right away,” the University City resident said. “A lot of people think that it’s salacious somehow, but really it’s just another job.”

For Seals, she has found that her second job has led to a love of seeing herself represented in art. Working in pharmaceuticals by day, she has always possessed an interest in seeing what others can create, and says seeing what the sketch groups are able to produce provides her with a feeling of accomplishment that’s hard to explain.

“Nudity really isn’t on my mind when I’m modeling, other than noticing how cold the rooms can be,” Seals said. “Really, the best thing to do is realize that you’re here to be an example of a human body, and no one’s thinking about your nudity in a sexual way.”

For more information on the group and weekly meetup opportunities, visit the Facebook page of 321 Sketch Club or email 321sketchclub@gmail.com. Images from its events can also be found on Instagram under the hashtag, #321SketchClub.