Body Positive Life Drawing for Teenagers

I remember being a teenager. It was possibly the most exciting, exhilarating and intense time in my life. For many years after I thought nothing could ever match it, but as I have finally matured(!) I’m at last able to appreciate an abundance from the adult life I have created for myself. As a teenager I dropped out, rebelled, and fully immersed myself. I did go back to education after a while, but I probably should have waited longer to get the most out of it (both the rebelling and the education!)

Our teenage years are a very important time, and we ought to allow more space for them, hold them in higher esteem. The brain is undergoing some epic changes – shedding old pathways to make way for new programming – and neuroscientists have only realised in the last couple of decades just how much more change is taking place than was previously thought. They can see why it’s the time we frequently take the biggest risks, and care an awful lot what our peers think of us. Some studies suggest we’d do well to focus more on creativity during that period of our lives, yet there’s still so much for us to understand – especially when it comes to the effects of social media.

This article explores how life drawing may be a potential antidote for some of the identity or image problems that young people often experience, and which may be exacerbated by over-use of social media. Issues such as negative body image need to be addressed at all levels of society, not just in school, and not just with life drawing. Other discussions, techniques and interventions need to take place, but life drawing can be a powerful way to draw attention to human issues, starting with the body.

Firstly let’s take a look at negative body image in its most extreme form.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition whereby the sufferer is extremely dissatisfied with their appearance and/or body parts. They experience highly invasive thoughts, resulting in compulsive repetitive behaviours which serve to temporarily relieve them from their ongoing torment. BDD can be triggered by a number of causes and often begins in the teenage years. The condition also frequently leads to eating disorders, and drives an unhealthy demand for cosmetic surgery.

Many of us love taking a good selfie but you may well imagine – or perhaps you have experienced – how having BDD would clash with, or be triggered by selfie culture. We have never been exposed to so many images before, increasingly altered images and enhanced. Filters perfect our selfie ‘imperfections’ because we’re constantly comparing ourselves with each other as well as celebrities! We’ve become screen slaves.

The largely Western condition of BDD is concerned with an individual’s distorted self image – mostly physical, but the problem lies in the mind. It appears to derive in part from a perversion of society and its mainstream culture. For all the amazing positivity out there on the web, sadly a greater amount of degradation persists. One chooses what to consume and it may take some years for a young person to work through the endless distractions and temptations, to figure out what nourishes and what depletes.

Digital

Millennials have never experienced life without digital technology. They grow up at the same time as their online identity. It is pretty much a requirement for many avenues of life now so opting out, for the young, is almost impossible. This poses problems for those with body image concerns, especially girls, as society defines women more by their physical appearance. Teenage girls learn early on still that their self worth is very likely tied up with their physical attractiveness, which also has a monetary value. It may be their bargaining power at some unspoken base level, involving a contractual agreement to their perpetual self-maintenance. Sometimes it’s not so unspoken – for example, when legitimised in dress codes for work, though increasingly this is being challenged.

Analogue

When I was a teenager I was able to switch off from the judgement of people in school or college when I left the school gates, and found great comfort in discovering very different communities elsewhere. The consumption of mass media manipulations was still relatively opt-outable, looking back. In the 90s most of us weren’t online but mobile phones were coming in. I realise now how much headspace that afforded people. Getting information often involved visiting a library, borrowing books and videos, or making music tapes for each other.

With smart phones and social media we are more permanently contactable than ever. It’s harder to escape when there are scores of people potentially checking on us, all in our back pocket. We are carrying them with us – all this judgement – because we care so much about ‘likes’ and attention. If left unchecked it can consume our energy out of all proportion to what is useful or healthy. Of course there are also untold evolutionary purposes for these devices and technology, some of them indeed healing; it’s just about getting the balance right.

Life Drawing

How about if there was more life drawing in schools for art students or indeed any students? It could be the sort of life drawing that encourages discussion, making it more available to newcomers, drawing themes from participants’ diverse experiences – the kind of event that anyone would feel comfortable trying, led of course by an experienced practitioner. It’s taking advantage of the way life drawing presents the human body for examination. There’s human stuff to talk about; whether it’s about our perception of our own and each others’ bodies, caring too much about what others think or finding a greater sense of embodiment and how that gives you more personal power – all things that are actually important for living.

The Arts subjects – music, drama, dance, fine art and photography – are in danger of extinction in UK schools, but they are vital to our creative and spiritual selves. It is important to have balance and to nurture all of ourselves, as well as having a space to let go, through art! The arts are like a bonding glue that makes all the more cerebral, less feeling-based parts of life work properly.

So much significance is placed on exam results, a privileging of the academic and scientific, but real life usually seeps in via the arts… or pours in, gushing and foaming over, allowing us to process the complexity of our lives. More of that, I say, because it’s about looking after our mental health, which struggles as ever under pressure. Whether it’s to look a certain way or achieve impossible targets, we need a chance to unravel negative patterns which are easily exacerbated by spending too much time online.

I want to emphasise how helpful it can be to have dynamic, structured guidance for drawing within a life drawing session. Aside from all the body political aspects there are styles that can encourage freedom of expression and a pure enjoyment in the act of making marks. I find them very accessible, not intimidating, and I imagine there to be a primal sense of reward in gaining confidence through mark-making. If you didn’t have digital technology and you met someone with whom you did not share language in common, drawing could open up communication. A little art history interspersed with guidance on technique helps you connect to different eras and understand better others’ drawings.

I’m proposing sessions that are all about the journey, not the end result of drawing.

Meditation

Learning to focus intently on one subject for a period of time can also be beneficial for countering the often constant pull of digital devices. This brings me to meditation.

Life drawing and modelling can both help you to deal with life. You have to slow down and be in your body or in the moment of drawing. It makes you use a different part of your brain to the more usual left-brain logical stuff, and this can help you find much needed equilibrium. It is quite usual to find a meditative state in a life room; so while there’s space for people to share their thoughts, a reasonable proportion of quiet drawing time is sacred.

Real Life

There’s also the value of mixing with different age groups and, while I think that goes for everyone, there is a particular benefit for teenage girls and women. We have the answers to each others’ problems and can help each other feel connected to groups beyond our peers. That is rarely possible in school so finding sources of a ‘real life’ nature – outside rather than online can have tremendous impact. It’s about building confidence face to face, not just behind a screen. Seeing each other – real people in person ought never to be replaced by a digital interface always mediating, dividing. It’s very easy to remain opinionated or confirmed in our beliefs without actually going out and meeting others to challenge that status quo.

Before the teenage years, problems of a body image nature often begin in childhood, and more awareness needs to be raised with parents about how this may be prevented, as well as in schools and other institutions. Looking at the way we talk about our own as well as others’ bodies may shed light on how we may improve our example for children and younger people.

There are societal biases deeply entrenched in our collective psyche – as strongly as inherent racism, sexism, and so on, like – for example, ‘fat phobia’. The idea that fat is unhealthy, in fact, remains unproven yet despite various sources of evidence to the contrary, is given as fact, official and undisputed – so strong is the currency of the bias. It is a bias of our time and culture.

Why do we tend to evaluate gender instantly on meeting or seeing someone – very much in the binary mode? As if that may help us understand a person more. Finding a way to notice these patterns helps to reframe them. Is fat sometimes the way people are meant to be when they are at their best, and does it matter to us if a person looks male or female? We can’t change everyone else’s habitual internal biases, but we can work on our own by starting with ourselves. If a child displays an androgynous identity it would surely be helpful for them not to unlearn their most natural childlike instincts, but rather bypass that particular categorisation of society. In this way they may hopefully find self-acceptance.

Regarding nudity, many children are taught that being naked with others is shameful and dirty. The association with sex is not necessarily knowingly inculcated, but it lurks, the ever expanding neurosis in waiting. A result of the taboo is the hyper-sexualisation that children so often undergo, which is both wrong and harmful. It is therefore extremely important to normalise the perception they have of the human body, and the human body naked in a neutral fashion. Society and the media groom them to be physically and mentally abused whereas life drawing can help them to change their perception not only about their body, but also about their mind.

Households where families are relaxed about their own nudity, at least in front of each other, is a very healthy alternative – to grow up relaxed about our bodies instead of fearing and loathing them; to not feel ashamed or constrained to maintain rigid grooming standards.

Marinella Mezzanotte

My colleague, beautifully describes how life drawing may be beneficial for young people (or anyone in fact), not just for learning how to draw, but also as a way to address body image issues, and rewire conditioned gazes:

“I’m not a visual artist myself but I know that in order to draw something that’s in front of you, you have to stop seeing it as what it is to an extent, the brain has to reduce it to a combination of shapes so that the image can transition from 3D to 2D: for that reason I think, drawing from life models demystifies the body, and makes all bodies equal (body equality is something that Esther references in her recent blogpost about The Body Beautiful? event – and if you’ve watched that video, I’m the one talking about ‘in-between bodies’).”Working from nude models also weakens the very strong association between nudity and sex, because it isn’t about sex, it’s about drawing (or painting or sculpting) and the reason it’s one of the best ways to learn drawing is that the human body, with all its possible variables and all the different positions it can take and hold, is one of the most complicated collections of forms found in nature – and the fact that there’s a live person holding that position in front of you means that you only have it for a limited time and forces your brain to override all those associations so you can get on with the task.

“While a life model’s nudity isn’t about sex, it is about attention, which brings me back to body equality: having a variety of bodies nude in front of you over a period of time, a variety of shapes, genders, ages and ethnicities, really drives home the concept that any human body is worthy of that particular type of attention, in exactly the same way. As the brain focuses on picking up those 3D shapes and transferring them onto a 2D surface, it also does some very important rewiring: those very tight circuits between certain body shapes and sexual desire, between sexual desirability and a person’s worth, between female and passive=to be gazed at, between male and active=entitled to gaze, slacken and become contaminated by different images, different responses, and different priorities.

“We are all bombarded by visual messages, and young people have had less of a chance to develop the boundaries needed to deal with that in a healthy way: I’m not suggesting life drawing in schools as an infallible shield, but as one of several ways of disrupting those very exclusive narratives, proposing alternatives, and creating the mental space needed to develop self-awareness.”

Schools

Not all schools offer life drawing, and certainly not usually to students who aren’t studying art or design; but that is what I would like to propose – a widespread campaign to bring life drawing to as many teenagers as possible, involving as wide a selection of models as may be available, and ideally with a little speaking by the models in order to underline that they are people, not objects.

It would be a good idea if students were free to share any thoughts that the experience may bring up, either during the session or at the end, so the class would be run by a facilitator or teacher who is switched on or trained in managing an inclusive and body positive environment capable of handling the many sensitive human issues that could emerge. It’s about being able to speak openly. This is not just good for individuals; it helps everyone present to grow socially, responsibly and sensitively. This could be an art class, but it could also be PSHE (Personal Social Health Education), which will soon be incorporating body image as well as sex and relationship education.

Research

These ideas are backed up by some empirical research by Viren Swami, who measured the effects of life drawing on a group of teenagers.

Particular points of note made in the feedback of the study by the teenagers, suggest that the life drawing would be better off taking place outside the school as they were so uncomfortable with being teased by their non-art friends afterwards. They also wanted to be able to talk about how awkward they found it to be confronted by a naked person. It’s such a shock, overwhelmingly real and more than they have ever been exposed to before, especially so long in the same position! There may be many layered reactions to the experience and if they don’t have a chance to surface and be acknowledged, they remain somewhat buried. Unpicking could reveal more than they can at first see. How do we feel seeing this person, and why? The teenagers also wanted to draw more varying physical types as had only had two models.

These results align with my own beliefs, which is really encouraging.

Interviews

And finally, here I am espousing the benefits of life drawing for teenagers on Sky News and Mexican channel Televisa – with the help of some teenagers and friends!

The Male Gaze in Life Drawing

It’s 2018 and we need to call time on life drawing groups that operate too much along the lines of the male gaze. To be clear, while this is about what heterosexual men typically fantasise about, so ingrained in our society’s psyche is this paradigm (patriarchy has been dominant for the last several thousand years) that many (read most) women and in fact people have internalised it too. Even when we are aware of it, the effects of this most insidious structure are very hard to eradicate.

The Male Gaze is the idea developed by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. This says that Western art and literature have massively privileged men as active viewers, relegating women to the status of objects to be consumed by the senses, sexually. Women have value by being looked at, objectified and compliant for heterosexual male pleasure. In order for anyone to identify with this long history of art and writing, they must put themselves in the position of the heterosexual male viewer who is also white. Since this art has dominated our culture for so long, and compulsory reading materials  and works for study at all levels of our education system have been mostly comprised of it, it has hardly been possible for anyone in our society to avoid being conditioned somehow in this way. Even if you avoid all education, the same phenomenon exists in all our mainstream media. We are only really starting to see some change in relatively recent years.

Being valued mostly for our looks rather than ideas, for our bodies and not our agency, it has been very difficult for women to rise to positions of power – beyond the means of their appearance. This is further hampered by the way that we have been pitted against one another, taught to compete with each other for male attention, instead of joining forces to support one another. I know first hand how long it can take to break free of such cycles of misery. The best female friendships I have took several years to bond, with a considerable period of falling out in the beginning, before we were able to reasonably look past our differences and cease to feel threatened by each other. It is so easy to feel jealous of another’s success, when you ought simply to feel admiration and joy for your sister. I think, especially when we have been marginalised, it may be harder the more insecure we have been, to move past those painful feelings of resentment for another’s success. To stop feeling that their progress hinders our own possibility of advancement, as if there were a finite number of positions of power for women. Actually that can be a very real feeling, more than a feeling – that predicament is precisely the world we are still living in, so it is no wonder that getting past jealousy is such a bitch!

The Body Beautiful? event at The Mall Galleries was a brilliant opportunity to address issues of disfigurement, female objectification and the male gaze through the lens of figurative art; as well as how this art can be therapeutic for transforming self-perception and powerful in changing attitudes. It took place alongside the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society Annual Exhibition. We were a varied group of panelists – one (transgressive) figurative painter, two disfigurement campaigners, and one body positive artivist I might call myself. The thing I mainly wanted to speak about apart from describing what I do with Spirited Bodies, is how to decolonise life drawing of the male gaze – and by putting it that way I implicitly link the gaze with (post)colonialism. I do see the patriarchy and colonialism as inextricably interlinked in our UK culture; as historical establishment mechanisms for controlling women, people of colour, minority genders, sexualities, abilities and class… I was also asked by portrait painter Alastair Adams who was chairing the discussion, about how the rise of social media has affected the life drawing scene, and my response to that.

I spoke of the responsibility of model bookers to ensure they have as wide a variety and diversity as possible of models, especially if they are large, influential, well-established groups. Such groups are likely to have a considerable number of artists attending who run their own groups elsewhere (in London and beyond), so that models may often be sourced from the larger group, and as well artists pick up standards of practice there. Naturally this means there is a greater responsibility in terms of social conscience that lies with those who book models for bigger groups. Where naked people are being selected to be drawn, I don’t think anyone in London in 2018 can claim that this is not a political choice. Whose bodies are they? Which genders, which ages, colours, sizes, shapes and abilities? There is a huge amount of choice available here in London, and that needs to be completely recognised, and not simply left for the more politically switched on groups out there who make the effort to take risks. With a climate increasingly embracing diversity and inclusivity, the risk is less and less a commercial one, and in fact more one of being called out.

That said, some smaller groups can’t afford to take (commercial) risks as attendance of artists/drawers may drop off if they book less conventionally attractive models more frequently, or simply book male models on consecutive weeks for example. I warned that we all need to be mindful of how the male gaze can affect the decisions of model bookers as it can be insidious, within all of us, so we need to keep questionning our ‘normal’.  What is deemed normal in a lot of (slightly old-fashioned) groups is having a much higher proportion of female models than male, and this is because the male gaze (which as I said is in women as well) prefers to look at women. It wasn’t always so however in Western art, as up until about the 16th century, male nudes were far more common and acceptable than female. The other predominant ‘normal’ nowadays, is a preference for young, slim yet curvy women; so that for example if larger women are booked consecutively this may be considered remarkable, but if several weeks of slim female models go by, no objection is raised.

In our patriarchal society we have learned to live with the prevalence of some people’s presumed right to consume the female body in some form or another; in particular the body of females who need money, and that sense of power becoming encoded in a particular and often very narrow aesthetics. Then ‘artists’ are free to say, “That’s just what I enjoy drawing,” without investigating their preference. That’s something which we at Spirited Bodies very much want to question and raise awareness about.

As a group of life models, some of us jointly prepared for ‘The Body Beautiful?’ event in a discussion group. How to tackle the unconscious bias of the male gaze, and how do we want to talk about bodies – which words are we using? So often the descriptors for life modelling jobs fall into extremes of plus-size, slim, athletic, dancer, young, voluptuous… but what of the vast majority of human bodies – are they not interesting to draw as well? When we draw a person, we don’t just draw a body but the unique energy which that person has. The average, in between size, ordinary everyday bodies; these ought to be celebrated and called for if we are to truly embrace body and human positivity. The concept of body equality feels important to us, and this was something which resonated with fellow panelist Henrietta Spalding of Changing Faces as well. Despite the name she said her organisation are very concerned with bodies too, as is Sylvia Mac’s Love Disfigure.

As a model I know the places where I feel most comfortable posing – where general working conditions are positive including pay, model consideration when it comes to choice of pose, breaks, set-up (furnishings), heating, changing area… and where I enjoy a good relationship with the artists, and feel appreciated for who I am and my very real ability as a model. There are also places where I do not feel that the male gaze is influencing booking or working practice, and that makes a really positive difference to me. The atmosphere is wholesome and I can relax more. I know that such groups are only interested in drawing the best possible variety of talented models available, without exception. They are somehow neutral and unaffected by the male gaze, which is a healthy breath of fresh air. I don’t find myself thinking, “Soon this group will be bored of me and find me too old,” and I don’t feel a pressure to push myself beyond what is reasonably comfortable because of some unrealistic expectations by group members about what constitutes a decent pose. I often enjoy making challenging poses, but there are times when I can’t do them, or I just need to rest; and it’s always best if I decide when to do which poses.

There can be a lot of silent (or sometimes slightly vocalised) judgement about models’ bodies and the shapes they make. The attitude that some artists have that because they have paid money, they have a right to choose what the model looks like and does with her body, feels postcolonial, patriarchal. I am not averse to a discussion about making a pose, but I should always have the final say (and do). Me being vocal does cost me some jobs, because there are more compliant models out there, and that fits with a lot of ‘artists” agenda.

Such groups may seem driven by a male fantasy. There are models who may naturally fulfil that desire, or angle themselves towards it out of a need for income and because they can. In our super-consumerist culture, female objectification and self-objectification have become normalised from a very early age in girls. This sharp end of capitalism is responsible for a lot of problematic health conditions including eating disorders and low self-esteem, which studies have shown affects political efficacy. This means that women are readily rendered as mere objects to be consumed which amounts to the pornification of women’s bodies and contributes  subtley to the global condition of violence against women.  – Here I shall refer to the remarkable artivist (and life model) Lidia’s recent article on the subject of global violence against women.

There is the apparently unconscious sense of entitlement that some people feel about having some control over another person’s body – and that body being naked in front of them, and often of a person who depends on the income from modelling in order to make a living. This dynamic is the one we would like to raise awareness about and transform, because sometimes it is less obvious, just subtle, but nevertheless apparent. It passes for acceptable oftentimes because a tutor wants to please all class attendees for fear of losing them otherwise. Without pointing out individuals, I simply want to put this out there, to encourage greater awareness and capacity for embracing a truly empathic and body-kind, human-kind atmosphere of utter respect within the life drawing arena. I ought to add heartfelt gratitude to the artists who have always been leading the way when it comes to working with models in a positive exemplary fashion.

Sometimes groups do invite a variety of models, but it is the more glamorous and overtly sexy ones who dominate on social media, gaining the most likes, comments and shares. Which further drives the trend as artists vie for popularity and are encouraged in their choices (e.g. which models to book and images to post). While this may suit a bunch of men (and some women), there will be a considerable number of people who are negatively affected due to the comparison effect. Some will unfollow or opt out of particular platforms – or social media altogether. For others the effect may contribute to troubled feelings and behaviours. On the panel I shared that as a model myself I have stopped being so free with posting images of myself, since I noticed that I feel uncomfortable if I see too many images of other models of particularly mainstream beauty standards – and I do mean life models! I hardly consume any regular media channels so I am less exposed to fashion models and celebrities for example than many people. Perhaps that’s why I have a low threshold for consuming images of life models, although I would stress that I do mean online, not in real life as it were. Screen fatigue perhaps. I do not want to be part of the problem. I do not need extra attention for my appearance, nor do I want to feed negative comparisons in others.

What else can one do about this? Ask the organisers in question to be yet more varied when booking models. What if a greater balance of models is achieved and some members of a group leave? Nevermind; other more open-minded types may arrive. Model bookers could also do more to set the expectations of their groups, and certainly raise repeatedly the diversity of bodies in mainstream ‘recognised’ great art so that their group does not stick on the association of ‘nude means young slim female being looked at by men.’ They could discuss the role of artists in society, which is often about challenging cultural norms and raising uncomfortable topics, like ageing or flesh.

There are groups hidden from view, able to continue their old ways as no one involved wants change – neither the artists nor models. I only know because occasionally I have gotten a taste, but tend not to get favourited in such places being neither pretty, young or curvy enough, and also being too outspoken. Not everyone has this social conscience and other models enjoy the work, or need the money too much or worry about their right to live in the country post-Brexit, so effectively choose less freely. But where groups are visible and there is a chance of leverage, action may be taken.

Empowering Models?

Experiencing new confidence and being found attractive perhaps for the first time in their lives, happy to be sexualised, to have this relatively safe attention… can be empowering. But… when a model conforms to a male gaze fantasy in her pose, and she is staying still, there may be some objectification happening on at least two levels. I am suggesting that what happens on the micro level also affects the macro – the bigger picture. What we allow in our tiny London art scene may be sending a message of condoning the wider objectification of women (and people) globally. In other words – we are all connected, very much so now, and you might not be aware of it, but there is a growing underground trade of women and children’s bodies (also men, but for sex it’s mainly female).

The complicated thing is I am not saying it is wrong to express sexual empowerment through our poses; I think that to be a necessary part of some people’s evolution and to be celebrated. I certainly have and I haven’t felt that I was conforming to male fantasy necessarily at the time. What is important is that I was doing it for myself, because I was feeling it in that moment – it was me being true to myself. This opinion piece is simply urging greater diversity in representation of the human form as well as awareness about how the male gaze may affect us all.

Light entertainment on this theme; Fitness music video by Lizzo

Postcolonialism

Some models are from countries where there are fewer options and the patriarchy is more dominantly apparent. Female models of this type may find they are popular with upper middle class British artists. Typically a group of more well-to-do artists I work with, may ask me to introduce them to new models. I know now that they won’t appreciate it if I send them one of my more politicised model friends, who takes less care of her cosmetic appearance though is an outstanding model. They only want a certain prettiness and willingness to please in the ideally younger female. They prefer her to be foreign and preferably slightly darker skinned. A cute accent and enough education to be engaging, a background they can feel good about supporting, without such a sad story that it’s just too awful. The right amount of difficulty for them to patronise, foreignness to exoticise, also talent and good nature to adore, and generally not take them too far out of their old school days of the empire. Growing up in British colonies with servants is the kind of thing they know, and sometimes having a model, English or not, who observes and passes knowing comment on such matters is not what they want. Far better the grateful foreigner who knows only too well that going home may not be an option or that it would be undesirable, so it is in her best interests to accept all this ‘relatively’ well paid work and shut up.

Life Model Autonomy

On a more positive note and in favour of my many talented life model colleagues, it is refreshing to see so many groups being run by models themselves, whether they are teaching, organising or modelling, they are calling the shots and doing things on their own terms. This is a massive and wholesome development, allowing them to generate more income, develop or use different skills, exert more of their own creativity and most of all autonomy. The usual wage disparity between tutor and model may be evened out, and models themselves take an interest in the promotional side. It means that overall, regardless of what’s going on in colleges and art schools, UK life drawing is in an energised and healthy place, continually (re)engaging new people, making the papers and all forms of media. Some of the most creative and progressive events are emerging from this phenomenon and influencing what is happening elsewhere in schools and institutions. Spirited Bodies has of course been a considerable part of this and is the longest running such project if not the most frequent.

This piece was written by Esther Bunting, with some words and ideas contributed by Lidia, Marinella Mezzanotte and Lucy Saunders.

The Power of saying ‘No’

Spirited Bodies presents the next Stories of Women event, featuring co-founder Morimda, a professional life model of over 20 years experience. This will be held on Tuesday September 25th, 7pm – 9pm at The Feminist Library.

Morimda

 

From being an extremely shy person, it was through life modelling that Morimda emerged – found out who she was and was able to express that to other people.

by Julia Thompson

Morimda did not do well in school, so her parents tried to arrange a marriage for her when she was 16. This was when she first realised the power of saying ‘No’!

She was extremely shy, and living in Paris found herself in relationships but was unable to come out of her shell, and deep down she knew that the only way to properly emerge as herself, was to be alone, a single woman in order to find her own voice. She wanted to come to England and learn English, and pursuing this dream gave her the strength to say ‘No’ for the second time, to an episode of unfulfilling relationships in France.

In London working as a window dresser, she wanted to be a mannequin! That was when she hit upon the idea of becoming a life model. The futility of continually being sacked, basically because she was shy, pushed her to actively take on becoming a full time life model. Her 3rd ‘No’ was when she refused to keep looking for a more mainstream job.

by Ray Marwyck

She discovered how liberating it was to be nude, to own her body, and learnt through this profession the subtleties of her own boundaries more clearly. For the first time in her life, she stopped feeling ugly and like a failure for not fitting with conventions. Her confidence developed as she learnt how to manage herself as a business.

Modelling helped Morimda to cure her depression, as it allowed her to be herself, to accept herself, and in this way encouraged her innate inner joy to shine through again. Through the life model network she was introduced to Buddhism and chanting which is a strong focus in her life to this day.

She is very keen to empower other women about their bodies, nudity and sensuality, as she truly feels that modelling has given her so much in these regards. It helped her to be aware of the significance of posture, and how each of us have different shapes and forms to play with. She was inspired to come up with the idea for Spirited Bodies, whilst posing at the Mall Galleries in 2010 before sharing it with Esther & Lucy.

Life modelling and drawing are a really good way to address body image issues, as well as gaining confidence and broadening our experience by stepping out of our comfort zones.

At this Stories of Women event there is also the chance to try life modelling yourself, or you may come to draw and/or listen or join in the conversation. During the second half there is a discussion about the body politics of life modelling and related matters. There is guidance for new models – no experience necessary, and some drawing materials are provided – again no experience necessary.

For more information about this event and to buy tickets online, see here.

Stories of Women ~ the journey so far


The idea came as a way to develop the interview format where I would record models and artists speaking about their experiences relating to modelling and drawing, and play this while the models posed. With Stories of Women I chose to focus on one model each time, and give her the chance to lead and inspire not only with her body, but through far greater agency than is usually afforded, by letting her deliver her narrative too. There was also the fact that I could not reasonably afford to pay more than one model with this experimental and risky new venture. The Feminist Library has been an ideal new home for the project and introduced us to a wonderful, vibrant wider community of feminist activists. I am most grateful for their generous and accommodating support without which the events could not have run.

As part of a life model community I have gotten to know many amazing models over the years, each very different. Usually they pose silently and Stories of Women seemed a wonderful way to unleash another side of them; the mind behind the poses and inside the body. It gives the opportunity to address many issues that naturally relate to each of us; including size, race, age, illness, surgery, disability, Motherhood, sexuality and gender for example.

I have also encouraged fellow models to come along and join in the discussion which has made for a rich sharing of experience and a frankly much needed live forum between us. So much happens online and it is great when we can actually meet – so rarely do our individually busy schedules allow for this.

It has given me the chance to get to know some of my fellow models better too, as the invitation to share a story necessitates more communication than is usually required between model and booker. Typically a meeting happens and some further batting back and forth of ideas. It makes a pleasant change in the general routine of dashing between jobs with minimal interaction. It may put down a marker of what is important to the model at that time, gives them a reason to take stock. What does modelling mean to them? Why do they do it and is there anything they would like to change?

 

 

Two of the models so far have not been feeling that modelling will be so much in their future, so there was the sense of drawing their work to a close and celebrating a long career that is now ending, certainly with Jennifer and Hana. Jennifer revealed some very profound feelings about the work, which may have jarred with newcomers simply hoping to try it out, because it’s very different when you model full time for years on end. But this did spark intense and animated discussion as it happened among a number of fellow professionals who were present. Even if newcomers were shocked or surprised, they also learnt a great deal of inside information!

Hana Schlesinger

Hana has retired she says, but still likes a little work here and there as the pleasure remains, but she is much older now and suddenly finds there are so many more things she wants to be doing. I was given her number by a tutor Eric who I model for in Hammersmith. She was the oldest model I could easily contact that I knew of in London, in her mid 70s. It was a real treat to get to know her and visit her in Harlesden, her decades of experience through different life drawing eras and stages in her own life were fascinating to hear of. A lovely woman who radiates confidence and liberatedness, a joy to behold.

With Claire it was more of a retrospective look at her modelling career as she no longer does it much. In fact she only does it at Spirited Bodies in recent years specifically to explore her relationship with her body post mastectomy, having been a life model prior to that. It links up with various pieces of writing, poems, artworks and photographs she has also created on the subject over a number of years, and lined up with an exhibition she put on at The Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths (part of her residency). So each event has a unique content and flavour, sometimes an edge.

Leo

Leo and Natasha are very much in their element now as models, even if Natasha can’t always do as much as she’d like due to full time work commitments. Valentina modelled at Good Girls Reveal All with me, and while this wasn’t called Stories of Women, it was a very similar format so I shall include Valentina here. She also is really enjoying a fantastic life model career now, and it’s a pleasure to connect with this energy in all of them. These younger women took up modelling in the last 6 years and expressed the changes they’d felt as a result of their nude career. It was overwhelmingly positive what modelling brings to them, even if sometimes the affects are so strong that you make some very massive changes in your life that have serious consequences. It’s not uncommon when we become models that it shifts something in our intimate relationships. Suddenly we are being appreciated physically (and more as this is about personality too) by others, artists; and we don’t necessarily need that from our partners any more.

Leo expressed her devotion to celibacy and the empowerment she finds that way. As a larger model her experience of the world is shaped somewhat by how society regards her (as it is for all of us in our own way). I am a slim model and appreciated for different qualities, fat hasn’t been such a thing for me but for so many women it is. How fat becomes a gift in the life room may be the most obvious example of how life modelling can enhance body positivity.

Natasha has become in touch with her own sense of independence and confidence not just as a result of modelling but also various other nude activities, including the World Naked Bike Ride; Spencer Tunick, Matt Granger and her own outdoor photoshoots; and blossomed in that regard. She started her own life drawing group in Upminster called LeNu with her sister a few years ago which runs weekly sessions and where Steve and I will be part of a Spirited Bodies – Stories type event, hopefully in the Summer term! Natasha also very much looks forward to creating a new photographic project in the Summer, similar to her outdoor group nude shoots in 2015 (Project Naked).

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Valentina and I enjoyed a luxurious amount of time to prepare together. Because I would be performing as well, there was much to discuss – how our narratives would blend and intersect. We wanted to memorise parts of our speech for a more dramatic effect, and tried out ideas with each other over several meetings. For her, the body positivity element was very strong, and moving to listen to. The painful experiences that preceded our lives as models, are the drivers for passionate immersion in a new world of self exploration and expression, with a guaranteed audience! This gig was a new departure, a collaboration with Good Girls Eat Dinner founder Jo Wallace, who drew me in Hoxton the term before when I announced one of my events. She was interested and came along, as well instigated Good Girls Reveal All with me. A new direction for her, and a different audience for a Stories of Women type event. As creative director at an advertising agency in Knightsbridge, she arranged the event where she works. Most of the drawers were her fellow creatives from a number of professional fields. They didn’t try the modelling (it didn’t seem appropriate with many of them working with each other), but listened and drew avidly. Jo asked us questions which we had prepared, and also we delivered a couple of learnt set pieces. I found it very liberating to have this platform too, and greatly appreciated sharing it with Valentina. There was strong solidarity between us, and a chance to bond as women as well as models. Our audience were pretty new to these ideas and drew a lot from our insights. Thanks to Jo (and Valentina) who helped make this transition to a new territory especially smooth and welcoming.

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our next model will be Lucy Saunders who helped to found Spirited Bodies with Morimda and myself, in 2010. This is an exciting prospect for several reasons. Lucy enjoyed a hugely popular and decent length life model career which mostly came to an end a few years ago, as she decided to focus on teaching and then PR work. There have been health issues too more recently; an operation last year left her somewhat disabled, but relieved her of a great deal of pain. Nevertheless she is rapidly regaining her mobility and is determined to demonstrate the full variety of her posing repertoire. Truly I know that even if she can’t create poses with her body as nimbly as previously (much physio is on the cards), she will have no problem enthralling an audience (of drawers) with her life modelling tales and the way she informs her posing from a number of inspirations including great masters’ compositions.

 

 

The story Lucy always tells about her initiation into life modelling and what gave her hope that it was worth pursuing despite her size – she was modelling at a RAM audition alongside a young student; slim, long red hair, perfect in the way that young people can be carelessly perfect. She knew nothing about good poses and made some fairly mad shapes. In the break, she wandered round looking at the artists’ work. One man had done a competent A3 drawing of the young woman sitting on a chair. Up in one corner, the size of a playing card, he’d done a quick sketch of Lucy sitting on the floor from behind. ‘He made my arse look like a smile, and I thought, I can do this.’ says Lucy. ‘What looking at images made of me by hundreds of artists in all sorts of mediums, from charcoal to paint to clay to collage, has made me realise is that I truly have very little control of how other people see me or what they think of my body. It is a huge relief to lay down that burden of trying to live up to expectations that I have learnt are largely internalised dictats of the culture I live in.’

 

 

It is a rare opportunity for a model to demonstrate posing with some disability, in this case one who has enjoyed a long and full career as a celebrated model. She worked at various institutions including Morley College, Kensington and Chelsea, The Prince’s Drawing School, the Hesketh Hubbard, Richmond Art School as well as many other formal and informal life drawing groups and meetings. ‘I love seeing what the artists create and while I might think my pose expresses one thing, it can be enchanting to see it turn into a completely different story through the artists’ work.’

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lucy was I think, the largest female model I was aware of on the circuit in the early days (10 years ago). Then I got to know some more, but they have generally been a relative rarity, greatly in demand for their shape and size. At Spirited Bodies we have always wanted to encourage everyone to feel comfortable in the body they are in, especially marginalised bodies, but as margins can be internal, this really is anybody. Whether your body is judged unfavourably by a critical society, or further controlled by harsh cultural practices imposing limiting behaviours; or it is at war with itself for whatever reason; if you can find self acceptance, and let go of feelings of shame, that can benefit a person immeasurably. From that place of self love, one may be better equipped to address further issues that invariably arise.

It has been very rewarding to help people come to terms with bodies they did not feel at home in, and to reclaim them, sometimes through modelling as a group at our sessions; and in some instances helping them further into life modelling careers of their own. I have probably gotten to know an unusually high number of partially disabled models due to Spirited Bodies’ inclusive body-embracing aims. Sometimes the warm appreciation of artists serves as a healing energy that goes a little way perhaps to redress the discomfort of a body/mind that may be struggling.

If you would like to join us for Lucy’s Stories of Women event, it will take place at Hampstead School of Art (HSOA) on Friday 18th May 2018, from 6:30pm – 8:30pm. The cost is £20 and you can buy tickets online here, or book a place by calling 0207 794 1439, or email info@hsoa.co.uk

The address is 2 Penrose Gardens, Kidderpore Green, NW3 7BF, London. 

a5-flyer-sow06-2000

It is an enormous delight to return to HSOA – in 2014 they generously hosted my Girl in Suitcase performance with live musicians and fellow model and friend, Ursula Troche. I have been modelling there recently and they got wind of my events in December and asked me about putting one on there, in the Summer term. They are keen to host exciting new life drawing and art related events at the school, where they fit with their programme. It means a great deal to have friendly collaborators who make you feel very supported, indeed you need that in order for a project to survive. Artists supporting each other is what it’s all about and we are very grateful to have such company. Looking forward to presenting Stories of Women for them and whoever fancies coming along. This is a mixed event (unlike The Feminist Library ones) and there will be the chance to try posing as well, alongside Lucy, and with her direction and guidance. Drawing materials provided and naturally easels, boards, tables – for the first time this type of event is happening in an actual life drawing studio! What a gift! We are excited and honoured, and hope to inspire the artists with a new understanding of a muse. Many thanks to Isabel, Anat, Caitlin and all at HSOA – their kindness is much appreciated. And how happy I am to be working and creating again, with my one time project partner. We step easily into the groove, familiar enough to get straight to the point in what are sometimes challenging personal matters. In the depth we find strength and closeness renewed. I have every hope for a most successful occasion.

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With special thanks to all our friends who have turned up, helped and joined in; it is all greatly appreciated.

Stories of Women ~ with Claire

Monday 22 January 2018 is the date of our next Stories of Women event – with artist, writer and model Claire Collison.

You can read more about the event and find a link to buy tickets here.

Claire says,

“If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.” Audre Lorde

My name is Claire Collison. I am currently artist-in-residence at the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmith’s College . I am also a writer, and breast cancer survivor.

Much of my recent work addresses the invisibility of women who have had mastectomies and who, like me, have opted not to have breast reconstruction.  I believe this is legitimately an issue of human rights, and I have lectured medical undergraduates at UCH on the subject as the guest of the Head of Ethics.

Here is my poem, ‘The Ladies Pond’, on this subject (it came second in the Hippocrates Prize for poetry and medicine)

I have taken groups on walking tours ‘An Intimate Tour of Breasts’ to show how breasts are represented in our culture, from high street to fine art , and how this impacts on the way we feel about our own bodies. These walks have so far been commissioned by Walking Women Festival and also by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

http://www.stillwalking.org/intimate-tour

I have also returned to my early life as a life model, and last year, posed on a couple of occasions for Spirited Bodies to an all-women group, which felt very safe and was incredibly powerful for both myself and participants.

Here is an article I wrote for engage journal recently about all these matters:

This document is an extract from engage 38: Visual Literacy, 2016, Barbara Dougan (ed.), London: engage, The National Association For Gallery Education. All contents © The Authors and engage, unless stated otherwise. www.engage.org/journal

Say what you see

Claire Collison

Two years ago, teaching visual literacy for The Photographers’ Gallery in London, I took a group of thirteen year olds to the Taylor Wessing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, inviting them to each select their own winner and runner up, and to explain their choices. One girl had selected two very different portraits of women: a sexy Amy Winehouse lookalike in a black strapless bra, and Sofia, a seated woman, draped in a sari from the waist down, and naked from the waist up. She wore gold hoop earrings, and she stared directly out at the viewer. She had clearly had a mastectomy: next to her right breast was flatness, where her left breast had been smoothed into a faint scar that ran from her sternum to the shadow of her armpit.

mastectomy Néstor Díaz, Sofía. Buenos Aires, Argentina 2013 © Néstor Díaz, http://www.nestordiaz.net

‘Why had she chosen these two?’ I asked. ‘The Amy’ she’d liked ‘Cos she’s sexy’. ‘OK, and the other?’ ‘I dunno, but aren’t you supposed to get a false one if that happens? I like it cos she looks strong.’ I’m paraphrasing, but this is what I remember: she admired the subject for not trying to hide what she had gone through.

Around this time, I had a routine mammogram, where I learned I had breast cancer. In the ensuing weeks, during the process of making decisions about my treatment, this chance conversation helped me decide not to have reconstructive surgery.

Whilst it was coincidental that I was teaching visual literacy when this conversation occurred, this event and its consequences are at the core of what I understand visual literacy to mean. They explain why I believe it is so critical, as an artist and an educator, and also as a woman – and I make no apology for criss-crossing between these frames of reference because they all inform how I read art, and how that art makes me feel.

Visual literacy begins with feeling (or not feeling) an emotion about an artwork: we feel first, and then we scrutinise, and eventually we understand what it is that has caused us to feel. It is like becoming intoxicated from a potion, and then learning what the ingredients are, only the ingredients are not simply what the artist has whisked up, they are also time and context – social, historical and cultural – and you, the beholder. The way we feel about the art can change, because we change. Meaning can accrue (a heartbreak song) or fall away (a film seen too often). I shall reflect on instances where ingredients have combined to shape how I feel and think.

Permission giving

Discovery starts with observation. We forget that. We rely on gallery notes and essays, and we fail to look – to actually look. The curator Jim Eade understood this, and when he created Kettle’s Yard, he displayed artworks without any accompanying notes. He put found objects next to Picasso maquettes; craft alongside fine art alongside his grandchildren’s drawings. He included sunlight and shadows. Visitors had to work out what they felt all for themselves. And they did – and still do. Working with Kettle’s Yard and Year 3 schoolchildren, aged seven and eight, from North Cambridge, as a recipient of a Max Reinhardt Literacy Award, I was able to encourage children’s innate ability to respond to art, and to help them use this to generate their own creative writing. These resources [www.kettlesyard.co.uk/learn/resources/] are fundamentally about giving permission.

Say what you see

In the television game show, Catchphrase, an animation illustrating a well-known saying is hidden behind panels. As the panels are removed and the animation revealed, contestants have to guess what the well-known saying is. ‘Say what you see’, the game show host implores. Sometimes the animation is so awful, or the catchphrase so obscure, that the contestant doesn’t stand a chance, but generally, the premise of the game is to enjoy watching someone struggle with the blindingly obvious: say what you see. The relationship between the visual and the verbal is a cornerstone of visual literacy; talking about what we see unlocks a latent and often emotional level of understanding, helping us understand why an image makes us feel the way we do. As Visual Arts Editor for Disability Arts Magazine, (DAM) in the 1990s, part of my remit was to write an audio description for every image I had selected for the print edition. This would be recorded for inclusion on the cassette (cassette!) version of DAM, produced for subscribers with visual impairment. Radio journalists do this brilliantly, and it is worth listening to analyse how they make it seem so simple. There needs to be sufficient context (medium? Colour or black and white? Landscape or portrait?) and the level of detail has to be even handed: obsess on a corner of the page, and it skews the composition. And it has to be objective, allowing the listener space to create their opinion.

Occasionally, during this process of audio describing, I would realise what it was about that particular image that I had been attracted to, and why I had selected it above others. Something that, once I said it out loud, became obvious, but that had eluded the ‘art editor’ part of me. When teaching visual literacy, I ask students to describe a picture into a dictaphone (radio journalist) or, working in pairs, to take turns at audio describing to their blindfolded partner, then asking their partner to feed back. This not only develops students’ facility to articulate, it also legitimises how they notice what they notice – the language use, the context and references and associations – which brings them closer to what they feel.

Can you see me?

When I was told I had breast cancer, I was asked to decide whether to have reconstructive surgery during my mastectomy, or later. Not if, when. I find this extraordinary: I had a life-threatening illness, and yet I was being asked to make a decision about something that would make everyone else feel better – even, possibly, to the detriment of treating the cancer. But breast cancer treatment, I learned, is as much about the way women feel – about our breasts, and the way they are perceived – as it is about what we are experiencing in a medical sense. The only other time I had seen a woman with a mastectomy had been 30 years earlier, in the changing rooms at Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. (I have even begun to wonder if she was a ghost from my future). I admit, I had not been looking then, but even when I began, the representation was scarce. I asked the hospital and was given access to a passworded site, where I could see anonymous examples (specimens) of women’s scarred chests. On Facebook, tattooed trompe l’oeil celebratory survivor pictures – also anonymous and headless – might float unbidden into my newsfeed. Even now, when I have met scores of women who I know are like me, we remain invisible to each other. From the outset, treatments focus on disguise (wigs for chemotherapy hair loss and prostheses for mastectomy).

Why are we so hidden? What anxieties do we share as a society, where disguise is regarded as important as treatment? And what are the implications of such a lack of visibility? Audre Lorde wrote, ‘When other one-breasted women hide behind the mask of prosthesis or reconstruction, I find little support in the broader female environment for my rejection for what feels like a cosmetic sham.’ It takes courage to reject that ‘cosmetic sham’. Most women just want to get back to ‘normal’, to how things were, even if that isn’t really possible (in support groups, we talk of the ‘new normal’). I understand and respect this but wonder how women can make an informed choice about what treatment they really want when there is so little representation of viable options within mainstream culture? Can I do anything to address this visual illiteracy?

Having used my body in my art practice, and made work around women, health and identity for the past thirty years, I am in a rare position to explore this. As Artist in Residence at the Women’s Art Library (WAL) I am revisiting my own archive, as well as looking at the work of other women, to see what chimes and what I can learn in terms of how to represent my current experience. Are there models that I can develop (or reject)? I am searching for clues.

photo3 Claire Collison, Milky Way, 1988. Photogram combined with black and white photograph, commissioned for Camerawork’s Imaging the Future exhibition.

Meaning accrues

My early work drew on archetypes, exploding them to create new identities that I felt fitted me better. Milky Way, commissioned for Camerawork’s Imaging the Future in 1988, resonates now in a way I could not have known, half a lifetime ago. Some of my photos then were made through a process of play, and I would not really understand until I began to print them what it was I was trying to achieve. With Milky Way, I remember, I had a very definite idea: I drew the set and realised it (pre-Photoshop) exactly as planned. When I revisit this image now I am flabbergasted. My rationale then was to stage a treatise on the ‘virgin and mother double standards’ and the ‘fiction of science’. Now this image speaks to me about how deeply rooted the mythologising of our flesh is, and the resulting pressures on women to conform. Breasts are the property of society; we transgress at our peril.

Meaning is fluid

I make no bones about having cancer (unlike millions of others who are whispered about), which has empowered me to run the gauntlet of the medical orthodoxy, using my camera to campaign against their inadequacies.’ Jo Spence, Woman in Secret, What Can A Woman Do With A Camera?

When I first saw the iconic image of Jo Spence with a cross over her breast I felt sick. Jo and I were friends. We admired each other’s work. I understood how to ‘read’ the image; Jo was using tropes I recognised and identified with – direct gaze, artful staging of a scene re-enacted from an experienced moment. Like anyone else who had not been through that experience, it seemed to me an immensely brutal act. It made me feel outrage on Jo’s behalf and, as she intended, it provoked me to question the power dynamic that existed between patient and the medical profession. Whose body was this? These readings and their accompanying feelings remain, but then on the morning of my mastectomy the surgeon came and marked me up. He drew a series of lines on my breast, marking where he was to cut, and then he drew a cross – the ‘X-marks-the-spot’ iconic cross – and I felt relief. They would be getting rid of the cancer, there would be no mistakes. Now, when I see Jo’s photo, I understand what she was feeling, but there is an overlay of my own very different experience, that superimposes itself onto the image and my understanding of it.

Policing art

Does it matter what an artist’s intentions are? Can an artist control how their work is received, and should they try? Néstor Díaz, the photographer of the Taylor Wessing portrait, Sofia, is delighted his photograph helped me, as this had been his hope. ‘And in that train of thought, many of the women felt a positive change of attitude in regard of their own bodies, only by the fact of letting themselves be portrayed’.

Díaz had very specific intentions: ‘the idea was for the public to get to a state of deep emotion and reflection, attained by the uncomfortableness of being face to face to a reality they usually don’t want to see.’

He employed strategies to that end, photographing the women (this is a series of 24) in their own environments, directing them to look directly at the camera, and adopt a neutral expression – ‘without any pose, no smiles nor distracting “masks”‘ in order to reveal the ‘authenticity and honesty on each face.’

Did this work? I think so, even though it was not the photograph itself that helped me so much as the effect that it had on that girl. That was achieved through the strategies Diaz describes, and then by the opportunity to select and the permission to feel and articulate.

The photographs were not shown as Díaz originally intended, and there is a very different reading when encountering a portrait in isolation that began life as part of a series: how does this shift our understanding? Díaz also provided testimonies from each of the women, telling their own stories, and intended to be displayed with the photographs. I have now seen Sofia’s testimonial, and I find it incredibly moving. It enriches my appreciation of the portrait, but the girl who liked it didn’t have that statement.

Spirited Bodies

Whilst the girl at the Taylor Wessing had no formal feminist learning and was blissfully able to straddle what might be perceived as conflicting theory, I am steeped in it, and in the implication of the gaze. I spent years working as a life model, which shaped how I went on to make work myself, and so was interested in revisiting this as part of my WAL residency. Esther Bunting created Spirited Bodies, a space where models are encouraged to speak (and even sing) and where participation is fluid – artists can model and models can draw. I have life modelled at two sessions – most recently as part of the Women of the World festival at The Southbank. Both sessions were women-only, and included a variety of women models who were not classically proportioned. And so I exposed myself to this process of being looked at, that I knew was also a way of understanding, and when I saw the work that they had produced I saw myself reflected back and it was healing. I saw that they had not drawn a woman with a breast missing; they had drawn a woman complete and whole, made up of all kinds of planes and surfaces, muscle and skin.

By Dorothea Bohlius at Bargehouse with Spirited Bodies – women’s session, November 2015

I hope to use my residency at the WAL exploring my ‘new normal’, and expanding the range of ways that I see myself reflected back in the world. I’m not ruling anything out: sometimes an ordinary activity such as using public changing rooms can feel like an artwork. I have just delivered An Intimate Tour of Breasts, as part of the Walking Women festival. A guided tour through central London, taking in Tintoretto at the National Gallery, and the lap dancing clubs of Soho, along with all the ubiquitous bare-breasted statuary en route, unravels how the mythologising and commodification of breasts through history impacts on the way we feel about our own breasts. As a strategy for addressing our visual literacy around representations of breasts, this was extremely effective, with participants volunteering intimate testimony of their own. I am really excited about this as a model for future work. Walking and talking and responding to art, with prompts providing opportunities to interact, shifts the focus onto the participant’s response. It is a way of making art that has a solid history within feminist art practice that I can riff on – and one that could engage with an audience from both sides of the healthcare experience, opening up a dialogue that I believe is critical and timely.

I have been invited to life model again with Spirited Bodies at the Feminist Library in January 2018, this time as part of the series Stories of Women and I am planning to use this as an opportunity to develop a performance around these issues. Artwork derived from this event will be documented for inclusion in an exhibition I am planning to mark the end of my residency at Goldsmith’s for Feb/March 2018. I envisage the January event as a pilot that can be honed to be performed to a variety of different audiences, from healthcare workers to artists, to women with experience of breast cancer, as well as women without, and medical students.

Work from collaboration with Wellcome artist Liz Orton: http://digitalinsides.org/works/work-4/