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Hidden Gems: Meet Ellen Allen of Art of Modeling

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ellen Allen. 

Hi Ellen, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
I graduated from Pratt Institute in New York City and moved to Boulder, CO in 1992 at age 20. My path had branched off from art until 20 years later. It all started when my husband’s company took our family to California for a few years. It was there where a neighbor approached me with my three-year and introduced herself as a professional photographer from New Zealand, also temporarily in California for her husband’s job. She offered us a free photoshoot right there on our apartment grounds. My daughter Joy is mixed race, but with rare beaming blue eyes that were enchanting. The photographer took some amazing shots, which she shared with one of her clients who asked permission to photograph Joy for an upcoming clothing catalog. It was a fun experience, and she was invited to another interesting photographic opportunity, and then another. Joy wanted to continue this new activity, so I found a talent agency to represent her and ended up managing her decade-long stint as a fashion/commercial model, where I learned a lot about the industry and about working with a talent booking agency. 

It was also in California where I discovered a drop-in figure drawing group at an art center nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains a few small towns over from where we lived. I fondly remembered my core art classes at Pratt, of which figure drawing was one of. For my 40th birthday, my mom sent me a card with $100 cash in it, and (for the first time, instead of using gifts to pay bills) I treated myself and invested in to a newsprint pad, some graphite pencils, and a punch card to the drawing group. It was so enjoyable to dive into the artistic flow again and I loved it! 

After getting back to drawing figure for a few years, I noticed that some of the art models were very good at what they did, while others…not so much. I thought that I would be good at it and I was looking for a part-time job at the time. I reached out and was given a chance to “sit” for a group of artists at the Santa Cruz Art League and before I knew it, one art modeling gig led to another and soon I became a highly recommended and sought after local fine arts model in the Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Francisco Bay areas. It was challenging and rewarding work and I was a natural at it. 

We had been back in Boulder for a few years and I was again seeking employment; more than sitting for artists could provide. I was not having any luck. Two college degrees with honors, a work history, and tons of volunteering in both communities that I had made home did not trump the fact that I had chosen to ‘stay at home’ with my children for a segment of their most vulnerable and impressionable years, had apparently made me utterly unemployable now in my late 40’s. 

I had a folder three inches thick full of copies of rejected cover letters and job applications. The handful of times that I was invited in for interviews for less-than-ideal jobs were awkward and unrealistic. It was humiliating being interviewed, judged, and repeatedly turned down by interviewees who were the age of my eldest daughter, asking me ridiculous “interview” questions. I had more life experiences, education, and civic duty under my belt than these babes could ever even imagine. It wasn’t like I wanted any of those jobs anyway and it was as if the universe must have known that! 

One day I came across a Craigslist employment posting from Workforce Boulder County. If one had at least one child under the age of 18 (check) and earned under $75,000/yr. (check), one could apply for an “internship” at a variety of host venues that the county would flip the bill for. I applied and was asked what field I had interest in. I knew that it would be more fulfilling if I could find employment in one of my studied fields, preferably the arts one. 

I landed a six-month internship with the Boulder County Arts Alliance! It was an extremely valuable experience. The two women who were running the show over there (Charlotte La Sasso and Crystal Polis, who now runs her own arts consulting agency) were a wealth of knowledge. They knew a vast amount of people in the local art scene, and through the organization I was exposed to a broad range of things. The tasks that they set me off to do really gave me a great opportunity to a lot of research through which I gleaned a lot of useful information. I gained experience reviewing/scoring grant applications, hanging art in galleries, planning and running arts events, assisting at and attending several in-house ‘business of arts’ workshops, and more. These were all skills that I have since put to use at AOM. 

I was afforded a broad view of the arts in Boulder and was able to see who was doing what. Since nobody wanted to hire me, I was really hoping to start a business of my own so that I could hire my f*cking self. I noted that the local arts market was saturated and that almost every “idea” was already being done. I wanted to open a swanky figure drawing studio with wood floors, plants, a fireplace, cheese & crackers, and wine. It was something I had never seen before, but I didn’t have access to the funds to start up a brick-and-mortar business. Then one day it hit me-the already successfully running art schools, colleges, universities, centers, groups and solo artists all need quality fine arts models, and traditionally the only way to find them was through word-of-mouth referrals or want ads. I could start an art model talent agency to supply such models, who I could train to be professional art models. Bingo- I had found a niche! 

During some office chit-chat, I mentioned my idea to one of my two valuable mentors at the BCAA, Crystal Polis. Then one day she mentioned my idea in front of me to another arts colleague and it was at this point that I realized there was no turning back! It was beyond just talk now. I had to follow through on my then still lose idea, lest I appear flaky, or worse-someone else could potentially take my idea and run with it. 

From this point, I spent a good year immersing myself in the market research and business planning that I had been formerly just dabbling in. Post internship, I took a very part-time job at the Arts Hub in Lafayette, where I was inspired by the owner, Lori Jone’s success. It was exciting watching them expand. 

I finally reached the point where I had to just dive in and actually start my fine arts model booking business. Since I didn’t have a lot to lose, the risks were very low stakes! I was already 90% unemployed, and apparently, no one wanted to hire me so I had to create a job for myself! There are no stakeholders to piss off or disappoint or chances of falling behind on a loan payment since I wasn’t eligible for a loan. I had watched and supported my husband as he took a few entrepreneurial risks of his own (in fact, he is currently on his third attempt), so I felt like it was only fair if I took a similar risk and he was ultra-supportive. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
At this point, there were several hurdles to clear. Even though I could run my business idea mainly out of my living space, I still needed some amount of funds to pay for some minimal things. I lacked capital, investors, and the creditworthiness to apply for borrowed capital. There was the additional challenge of finding fine arts models to take a chance and sign up with me even though I didn’t yet have any clients, and it was hard to find clients without any models. Then there was the fact that I didn’t have a website yet, so when anyone that I reached out to wanted to look into this business there wasn’t anything to see. Another challenge was that I wanted to raise the pay rate in the industry, and people don’t like to pay more than they are used to, even if it’s fair so I had some convincing to do. I was going to have to tap into some skills that I had learned as a single-parent to grease the wheels. 

I waited for a Black Friday sale to purchase a build-on-your-own website and then bit by bit drove myself crazy trying to figure out how to create it (I am not technologically inclined). I offered a handful of fine art models who I was able to locate an “inaugural model-member” deal, where, if they joined now while still in the early start-up stages that I would waive the first year’s model-membership fee and they would only have to put down a third of the required refundable model deposit that was set in place to help ensure that no one would flake out on a scheduled booking with a client. A few models took the offer, and I also treated their deposit (refundable at the time we end working together) as interest-free capital with which to help pay for the first year of the website, for business insurance, etc. I also tapped into as many free resources as I could; using community calendars instead of paying for advertising, finding sponsors, utilizing volunteers, trading services, keeping my eyes peeled for free supplies, etc. I did a lot of wheelin’ and dealin’! 

Aside from these regular challenges, I had launched AOM just prior to the immergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has posed its own roller-coaster ride of challenges. 

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Art of Modeling is a professional fine arts model booking agency for Boulder and Denver metro area art schools, art centers, colleges, universities, and studio artists. We are also a fine arts model training provider, and we are a regular host of a variety of unique figure drawing opportunities, including weekly drop-in figure drawing at the NoBo Art Center, monthly figure drawing “marathons”, and figure drawing pop-ups. Last year we held a figurative exhibit group show at the Bus Stop Gallery. 

We are a woman founded and run, mission-driven, for-profit arts service business whose mission and goals include: 

To promote fine arts modeling as a legitimate and artistic profession

To encourage models’ safety and respect

To raise the level of professionalism within the fine arts modeling industry

To educate artists & models on industry appropriate conduct

To promote a wage that is equitable to the profession, and to pay Black models at the highest paygrade

To facilitate both the hiring of models & the finding of work as a professional fine arts model

To create and provide figurative drawing opportunities for the local arts community

So maybe we end on discussing what matters most to you and why?
Respecting the dignity of all sentient beings; but in respects to my business, what matters to me is creating an ecosystem in which both the artists and models can feel comfortable enough to get lost in the moment while in that flow state that one finds themselves in when engaging in an enjoyable activity like creating art, making music or dancing. Everyone should take opportunities to achieve this state as regularly as possible because going there is incredibly therapeutic and has the aftereffect of contentedness and happiness. 

What matters to me is sharing the joys and personal growth benefits of the practice of fine arts modeling with aspiring fine arts models. It is a unique, challenging, and rewarding performing art. Because of the aspect of nudity, this artform is also frequently misunderstood, and what matters to me is dispelling misconceptions others may have about it and promoting fine arts modeling as a legitimate artistic profession. 

If we gather frequently to engage in our common figure drawing/painting activity together, we could spark a 21st-century figurative renaissance here in Boulder! 

Contact Info:

  • Email: ArtofModelingInfo@gmail.com
  • Website: https://www.artofmodeling.org
  • Instagram: @artofmodelingboulder
  • Facebook: @BoulderMetroArea
  • Yelp: Art of Modeling

Image Credits
Ellen Allen

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