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Art & Life with Shadia Ghantous

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shadia Ghantous.

Shadia, please kick things off for us by telling us about yourself and your journey so far.
I came to LA about four years ago from the Midwest, where I grew up in Illinois. I have been stage acting since I was five years old, and have worn many hats throughout my professional life, but while my title has been a variable, art has been my constant denominator. I grew up heavily involved in the arts back home, doing everything from modeling, to drawing, and acting, and even sewing my own clothes. I had achieved many art awards throughout my childhood and became very fond of drawing portraiture. Eventually, I received a college scholarship for Theatre, and for writing as well. I left college to get my Cosmetology license and was a hairstylist for years. My specialty was doing shaved designs. While I was quite skilled at my profession, I did not have a love for it. Meanwhile, I had still been modeling locally, and my love for modeling was growing. Even before college, I had begun posing for my town’s local art studio and posing for my college art classes on the side as well. As my passion for this art medium grew, so did word in town that I was nude modeling.

Even though I had already been posing nude for years at this point, my family was unaware of this factor. You see, I am a first-generation American in my family, and they are from the Middle East. My family’s culture does not take to nudity too kindly, and news of my artistic endeavors turned my home upside down. My mother and grandmother went a very long time without speaking to me – I think about a year passed before I spoke to my other again after this. I moved away from my hometown Peoria and went to Chicago. Where, per my mother’s request, I went under a different name, as to not further tarnish my family’s name. I went under the alias Fur Elise for a long time. I chose this name because my middle name is Elise, and when I was very little, I used to think that the Beethoven song was actually FOR Elise! To the little me, it was FOR ME, haha, and had been one of my favorite songs since. I remember doing a local fashion show in Chicago, and seeing the name Fur Elise on the call sheet, and it not sitting well with me.

This was not my name, and I had gone through so much internal shame, and questioning over the time that my family did not speak to me. Questioning my morality, social constructs, and digging myself out of so many layers of shame that each took its own form to peel back and painfully dissect. I stopped going by Fur Elise and took on my legal name again, this time, with a conviction and pride in what I do as an art form. This gave me a fire and a force that radiated when I would model. Each pose I took was a piece of myself that acted as a journal entry and figuring out who I was by way of my figure. Eventually, my family came around to accepting this the best that they could, but of course, even to this day, its a topic that danced around, and at times met with an unfair slander, laced in misconception, and misunderstanding.

Chicago, on the other hand, was very generous in receiving my art and reciprocating that passion. I started art modeling more and also signing with a wonderful agency, Model Logic. The artists in Chicago were incredible, but I was ready to take my art further, and after a couple of trips to model in LA, I decided to make the move out here. I moved here with the intention of pursuing acting: sci-fi, and creature work, with some art modeling on the side. I would have never imagined that within 6 months of moving here, I would be a full-time art model, completely submerged in the hidden magic of the art world. Los Angeles was the best move I have ever made as a creative, and my life has been nothing short of a dream come true thus far.

My art and my passions led me to LA, where so many like me have also come to collaborate with one another, and tell their story. I am a full-time artist; a storyteller. I work with many different mediums, but my main art medium is my flesh & bone. I have been working as a professional art model for the last 16 years, going full time for the last 4 years, which I never imagined would be the case if you would’ve asked me five years ago. It’s a constant hustle, around the clock job, physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging practice, and a daily commute all over Los Angeles. And it is entirely worth it a million times over! Art modeling has been my sanctuary, my meditation, and the biggest blessing in colliding with magic every day out here.

Art models are the artists behind the scenes…and I am always surprised when so many people say they never even thought about what I do as a job that even exists…yet we are right in front of everyone face every day. When you go into a museum, and you see a painting of a person, I or someone in my line of work was the subject matter for that painting. Behind the animated movies, I am striking two minutes, five minutes, ten minute gestures in a room full of animators, while they practice drawing how to the human form looks in motion, to bring that to life in a movie or show. I am holding poses for sculptors, painters, fashion illustrators, video game designers, comic book illustrators, you name it….if an artist has a canvas or a sketchbook in hand, they have probably drawn an art model at some point. I rarely get days off here, which I am grateful for, and most of my free time is spent creating costumes for the themed drawing sessions, and transforming into my next character. I always joke that I love Halloween so much, that I decided to make it my profession!

My craft has made my daily life fascinating, and surreal….doing things that I never imagined I would get to do.

However, getting to this point has not been a very smooth journey. My passion is a very misunderstood one. I was born a first-generation American, from a Middle Eastern family. Now if you know anything about art models, or if you have had a figure drawing class in college, then you already know…I mostly work with…my figure. Even the most open-minded people have given wide eyes, asking how I can be comfortable working nude. This has not been an easy pill for my family to swallow. In my family’s culture, one does not comfortably let someone else see them nude. When my family first found out that I had posed nude, it did not go over well. I had already been doing it for years, but when they caught wind of it, they were disgusted, to say the least. My immediate family did not even speak to me for at least a year and demanded that I go under an alias, or have my name legally changed, since what I was doing, in their eyes, had tarnished the family name. So for a few years, I went under the alias “Fur Elise” after my favorite composer, Beethoven. I had thrown every slander possible, my family, sometimes friends, lovers, and strangers that just simply did not want to understand what I do.

This was a catalyst for self-reflection, questioning of my morals, and really peeling back social constructs. Over time, my art had become my own beautiful rebellion, and accidental activism that built a backbone and a thick skin. I had been willing to lose any respect and relationship to do what brought me joy and felt right, and that has paid off tenfold in so many ways.

It wasn’t very long before I started going under my legal name again for work, with a conviction and pride laced within my name, and it wasn’t long before my family came to accept it…even though that still has its ebbs and flows even to this day. I don’t need them to agree with it, or even understand it, just as long as they accept it.

I think having fought to pursue this so strongly has carried through in my artwork, and given my work its edge and passion. In conjunction with my daily modeling gigs, I was finally able to launch my own passion project called Shadowbox last November. This is my figure drawing event that takes place once a month, on the 11th, in my home. I invite a small group of artists to my home, and for three hours I combine theatre, and figurative art to tell a story by way of posing. I illustrate the flyer, create the set, build the costume according to each month’s theme. Shadowbox is focused on our shadow aspects. Shedding light on the darker aspects within all of us; the things that people don’t want to see…the truth is always hiding in the shadows.

Please tell us about your art.
I am a full-time artist here in Los Angeles. My medium of art is performance art, known as an art model. My daily craft involves posing for: Painters, animators, sculptors, video game designers, toy makers, fashion illustrators, special effects artists, film/ television, art classes, etc. I have also created my solo performance called Shadowbox. This takes place once a month, in my home, and is invite-only to artists that I know. I illustrate the flyer for the event, create a poem that explains the concept for the piece, create the costume, build the set, and create the environment for the show. From 8 pm – 11 pm, the artists draw me in various poses that act out my poem. I got the name Shadowbox because I wanted my events to focus on the shadow aspects of life. We as a society tend to be drawn to things of beauty, and w do our best to ignore or rid of the not so beautiful aspects of life.

Everything in life contains its opposite, and I wanted to shed light on those things: our shadows. Things like death, heartache, war with others and within. Not only are recognizing the shadow aspects so important for balance, but shadows have played a big role in my life. Shadow is the family nickname that I have had since I was a little girl; even playing Rumplestiltskin’s as my very first role on stage at age five! I hear about shadows all day at work, in art classes, learning of their significance in grasping the reality of something existing, and how powerful its subtle changes are. Shadows are fascinating, and allow us to know that light is present. My Shadowbox performance is very hard work, but very dear to me. It will be one year old this November!

Before moving here, I had no idea that there was such a demand for my line of work. Art models aren’t just displayed in paintings or sculptures that you’d see in a museum. When you watch a Disney movie, and you see an animated character dancing around, the behind the scenes is that there was an animator drawing an art model while he/she/they were in a five-minute gesture pose. The artists have to know what the human body looks like while it’s in a certain motion so that they can turn that into a believable character that w can relate to. Same with video games; I remember a room of character designers for a video game company drawing me, that said they received complaints that their females did not look realistic/ believable enough. So I come in, either nude or costumed, and strike poses anywhere from 30 seconds, to 25 minutes at a time. Often, it is the same pose for hours on end. I am also acting as a nude AI on various episodes/seasons of Westworld since we are good at keeping still, and comfortable in the nude..we make the best AI’s!

It takes a lot of physical strength in order to keep your whole body still for this; it is true meditation. You have to go within the self, and you spend a lot of time alone with your thoughts, perfectly still, while everyone around you is in constant motion. I always think that it is so interesting when an artist is drawing me finds out that I also draw, and they say “Oh, you’re an artist too?” I always think…what do they think I am doing up here, onstage for them? The amount of creativity that it takes to generate a new, and interesting pose, that inspires an entire room of different people, making sure everyone in the room gets a fair angle. Or when we make our own costumes, for requests like Apocalyptic Space Warrior! When we spend hours outside of the actual drawing session, sewing the costume, or buying the props to make anyone’s idea come to life. Sometimes, I do not know how to answer people when they ask what I do for a living. To say I am an art model is a fair generalization, but we are so much more: storytellers, costume designers, prop makers, silent actors, living statues, mimes, makeup artists, and we can’t forget the artist’s favorite title: “muse”. I like to say, I am an artist.

There’s this beautiful sacrifice that it takes to get in front of a room of artists, allow yourself to be physically exposed, and use whatever emotions you have to channel into your posing. There have been days where I want to cry, and sometimes I have onstage because the daily life you encounter does not care what job you have booked. But it’s such a field to work in, that I can get onstage, use whatever emotion that is flooding through me, strike a pose that expresses that thought/ emotion, and get it out… like one would do by writing it down in a diary. Then a few minutes later, I get to let that previous layer go and let another layer to who I am breathe for a bit. I get to be hundreds of different characters and bring so many different layers of myself to life constantly. There is something so healthy, and freeing about that.

The energy that you can feel from the artists in the room…that’s what makes all of the hard work worth it. I can’t explain it… but you can feel it, it’s tangible. To be able to interact with other humans as we were intended to interact with each other – in the nude, creating together, without the unhealthy social constructs that the outside world places on us daily…its such a gift to be able to experience this in my life. I have never expected others to understand something that they do not want to understand, but i wish more people would open their mind and experience what it feels like to be completely nude, and have someone not look at your body only in a sexual way, but rather, look at your eyes when they speak to you while you’re nude, and see your figure as an art form, rather than a sex object… I know this is my reality, so I know the benefits it comes with, and I am so grateful for it. Sure, there are issues within my line of work, as with any profession, we have our not so good aspects. What I do as my art is not easy. Being called the horrid names by your own family on a regular basis, having some people approach you in an offensive manner when they learn what you do for a living, being misunderstood not just by outsiders, but also by lovers, and friends, asking you to show some self-respect and quit this line of work. Having everyone say that I won’t find someone that wants to settle down with someone with my profession, getting the wide-eyed look from people when I say what I do…its never easy to get those thrown my way, but overall it is worth it a million times over.

Now my art happily consumes my daily life, with my project Shadowbox, the freelance modeling/ acting jobs, and my side hobby taking street photos : ( on my alternate Instagram: _xadow_)

Do you think conditions are generally improving for artists? What more can cities and communities do to improve conditions for artists?
Being an artist is like being a magician, and creating for a living is the magic. However, all magic comes with a price. In our world, we have an abundance of magic as a way of life, and so we have a hefty price tag that comes with it. When art is a big enough layer to the self, its almost as if you do not have another choice. You make a decision with yourself that you are not going to leave yourself other options. You don’t know what the outcome will look like in your art piece, just as you don’t always know what your outcome will look like in your journey as an artist. The artist is chosen by the craft, so you do what you have to do to make it so.

It often means living check to check, sometimes having no idea where that next gig is going to come from. So you take what work presents itself, and when you aren’t at the job, you are still creating…the artwork does not end. We wake up, network our asses off, cover ourselves in our mediums, and try not to think about those unpaid bills piling up as we create something from nothing. That’s why we are magicians because we can take emotions, concepts, thoughts, and experiences…and explain it tangibly…we transform the unexplainable into something that can move a stranger without verbal explanation. We wear art, we drive art, we eat art, we look at art, we listen to art, we read art…everything around us started from an artist bringing something to life. Sharing it with others without the promise of anything in return other than the story being told, and hopefully seen/ felt by someone else. Art is simultaneously a selfish act, and a selfless act by wanting to share who we are with everyone.

It’s not easy, and someone is always going to try to scribble across your masterpiece one way or another, but keep creating that masterpiece. If you are in it for the accolades or the riches, you might be disappointed. But if you are in it because you know it’s going to be a bunch of question marks and yet its the only option that appealed to you…then you’ll be just fine, if you hustle. To work as an artist, you have to be willing to hustle…and hustle HARD….every day. You have to represent yourself, talk to people around you, network like crazy, and take the time to create. You cant create things that resonate with others in life if you don’t get out and really experience life. Let things knock you a couple of notches at times, and really allow yourself to be vulnerable, and really feel things. And you have to also be willing to isolate, spend time with yourself to know how you feel and where you come from so that you have the depth to what you have to say. That’s where you get the content to create. So I suggest getting out and living, meeting people, exchanging ideas and viewpoints, and learning how to build your barriers….because, with as much as you need to allow yourself the flow, you also need boundaries in the art world. Because if you don’t know your worth, then you can’t expect anyone else to, and you’ll forever be selling yourself and your art short.

I recently saw a tent under a bridge in LA, and this moment stuck with me as a visual representation of what it can mean to be an artist. This tent belonging to someone homeless did not have much around it…some dirty clothes, some trash, but one thing they had a lot of was paintings. Underneath the bridge, alongside the tent, were tons of paintings, paint, and makeshift art supplies. I thought…anyone that loves their craft as an artist does, we will find away. The artist will always find a way to create. Whether your bones are shattered, and you are painting on your body cast like Frida Kahlo, or you’re truly a starving artist, living under a bridge with only your paintings to call your riches…you do it because you don’t have another choice. It’s a beautiful sacrifice, and we can only hope it pays the bills, but either way, we are going to create,

What’s the best way for someone to check out your work and provide support?
Monsterpalooza
San Diego Comic-Con
CTNx
Nude Art LA
Rome Sculpture Workshop
Various art openings throughout Los Angeles

Contact Info:

  • Email: shadia.elise@gmail.com
  • Instagram: shadia_elise

Image Credit:
Red lips portrait: George Mario / Chicago
Olive green shirt headshot : Gershon Kreimer @gershonkreimer
Blue background/ black dress : Gershon Kreimer @gershonkreimer
Black and White nude : Allan Amato : @allanamato
Ice Queen : self

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1 Comment

  1. val wolf

    September 26, 2019 at 21:11

    We had the pleasure of having Shadia as our model for a painting workshop. She is so professional, gracious, fun, a true talent! Congratulations, Shadia on this feature article!

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