Artists studying the human form find their muse at Hipbone Studio

Finding a nude model when you need one isn't easy. It's even harder to find a good one.

Artists almost everywhere have that problem. But in Portland they have Hipbone Studio.

For 16 years this unconventional business, tucked away in a residential Southeast neighborhood next to a popular Italian restaurant, has catered to artists who wish to study the human form with expert models.

Professional models, who charge fees a lone artist usually can't afford, are accessible here because the cost is spread among many.

Hiring the models is the domain of Jeff Burke, who founded Hipbone in 1987 with then-partner Sharon Chalem.

'A good model has stage presence,' says Burke, 49, speaking from 25 years of art modeling experience. 'I see this as a theatrical event. The platform is a stage. The models have to be good actors. They have to evoke a certain narrative or an emotion with their bodies. They have to demonstrate a variety of ways of being in the body. And obviously, they have to be comfortable being still.

'But even more obviously,' he adds, 'They have to show up on time.'

The open drawing sessions, where artists can spend three full hours drawing their fingers to the nub for a paltry $8, have been Hipbone's big draw since the beginning. The sessions take place each Friday evening and Saturday morning. They begin with three-minute gesture poses, and gradually evolve into longer poses lasting from five to 45 minutes.

The brief poses lend themselves most readily to media such as pencil and charcoal. Extended poses, in which the models hold exactly the same position on three consecutive Thursdays, are preferred by artists working with slower media such as paint or clay.

Hipbone's clients often find themselves signing up for the studio's other offerings, such as Burke's anatomy courses, in which he illustrates muscle movement on his own body, the body of another model, a reconstructed skeleton named Mort and a collection of bones.

Before moving to Portland in 1987, Burke was a model for 15 years in New York City, where he was immersed in so many art classes that he became a serious student of art education. He was exposed to a

variety of methods, styles of teaching and student populations.

He and Chalem dreamed of opening their own studio and began looking for a medium-sized city with an art community. They were attracted to the Portland area's climate, its proximity to the ocean and the environmentally aware political atmosphere. After a few years renting spaces downtown, they found their current nook at 2342 S.E. Ankeny St.

In the beginning, Burke and Chalem filled the roles of both models and managers. But now he focuses on running the studio and hiring the models.

Wanted: 'Real people'

When Hipbone opened, there was a scarcity of models. Now there are so many that he has to say no to a lot of them, but he often wishes there were a more varied selection.

'I'm interested in particular body types or different ethnic origins. Someone especially heavyset, notably bony or of a different color. We get very few African-American models, and no Asian or Hispanic models. Probably there are stronger cultural taboos about nudity in those cultures.

'Also,' he adds, 'a lot of people hesitate to do it because they're all hung up about the beauty ideal. But most artists don't care about that Ñ people that fit the current beauty standard are not always that interesting to draw. They want real people.'

Like most businesses, Hipbone has had its ups and downs, and it didn't escape the economic fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Attendance at modeling sessions plummeted until at one point Burke was almost ready to pull the plug.

Instead, he chose to revitalize the studio by restructuring and expanding, and bringing in new blood. While he had been the sole instructor of classes held there, he now invites others to use the space to teach their own courses.

Most recently he's introduced the Life Drawing Theater, in which two models act out a series of dramatic poses in a narrative sequence. He periodically schedules nonstop modeling Ñ called Model Marathons Ñ for 12 hours running. And in August, he plans to run a 24-hour marathon in celebration of his 50th birthday.

Cozy quarters

'If there's one complaint about this place, it's that it's too small,' Burke says. It can handle no more than 20 working artists at a time.

But it has a certain charm.

Filled with diffuse light from an entire wall of north-facing windows, the 14-foot-high interior accommodates a mezzanine where some of the artists can draw from above. The smells of paper, charcoal and clay hang in the air. Scattered across the floor, easels and drawing benches hold large boards and drawing pads. And the walls are covered with student masterpieces from over the years, as well as the work of the professionals who teach there.

'This space is a kind of sanctuary for people to come and chill out,' Burke says. 'It's a place for being still and focused, where they can contemplate their own humanity and encounter the model as a symbol of humanity in a nice safe and nurturing atmosphere. It's a relief for them to come here and work quietly alone or rub shoulders with other artists.'

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