PROFILE : Octogenarian Still Leads a Model Life : Treasures: After a six-decade career, an artist's model decides to donate 75 artworks of herself for a benefit auction.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seaweed, straw hearts, rocks and begonias adorn the walls and shelves surrounding the tile coffee table and two white director chairs with beach-awning seats in Cleo Dorman's tiny apartment in Marina del Rey.

Until recently her walls were hung with paintings and drawings by artists she has posed for during six decades.

Now, Dorman has given herself, in 75 artworks, to the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design. Her lifetime personal accumulation of treasures will be auctioned Friday and Saturday. Proceeds will be used to establish a scholarship in her name for a minority student. "And, I prefer an American Indian," said Dorman, 81.

Cleo Dorman's career as an artist's model was a matter of survival. In the Depression her father turned to welfare. Hoping to alleviate the family financial pain, Cleo, then 15, quit school against her parents' wishes. She got a job hanging clothes on racks. "But they were so pretty, and I was so envious," she says.

A series of jobs--elevator girl, department store lingerie model, candy store, taxi dancer and office work--followed, before she learned that an art class needed a model. She agreed to model with a drape and eventually eased into nude modeling. "Everyone saw me so differently. I looked at their art, and I was impressed with what I saw," she says.

With encouragement from a woman painter in the class, Dorman visited the Detroit Institute of Art to look and study. "Renoir, Degas, Lautrec, Goya, Raphael--I call them my teachers," she says. She also bought a full-length mirror to improve her poses; and she took ballet lessons--all to become better at her 50-cent-an-hour job.

"A doughnut was a nickel, a cup of coffee a nickel. Sure I could survive. I've always been able to take care of myself," Dorman says.

Within several years she had modeled for the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Student's League in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and the art departments at Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Ithaca and Cornell universities.

At the old Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, she posed for animators who later went on to win honors with Walt Disney's "Fantasia" and "Pinocchio." By 1940, she was making $1.50 an hour. She also was building her own collection of artworks of herself. Instead of money, she'd sometimes pose for a painting as payment.

Peter Falk and Nelson Eddy hired her as a model. And such artists as Hans Burkhardt, Raphael Soyer, Howard Warshaw, Emerson Woelffler, Sister Mary Corita Kent, Joe Magnani, Paul Soldner and Charles White painted her and are represented in her collection. "I've been fortunate to be surrounded by creative people," Dorman says. "I was like an actress, the artists my audience."

During World War II, Dorman enlisted in the WACS medical corps and later became a Quaker to protest the atrocities of war. Married and divorced twice, Cleo Dorman claims: "Yes, my art is hard to give away. My paintings are like my children--and I have no favorites. They are my treasures . . . (but) I am not going to be here forever."

Dorman has a modeling engagement in January. "I say no, but they entice me. I don't have the esteem I once had . . . but when I am on the model's stand, there is a spirit that comes over me. I love it. Of course, to be needed, after all these years--I cannot think of anything more wonderful."

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