Ursula was helping me to prepare the space, and put up signage in the building where The Feminist Library is, so that women would be able to find us easily. Not many had booked so I was rather nervous that Jennifer would not have much of an audience drawing her. Jennifer herself and her partner, were sorting out her performance space with a projector, paper on the wall behind her and as well for under her feet. I handed her boxes of cherry tomatoes that I had brought for the dancing part of her piece.
Although I had been nervous in preceeding days, somehow that feeling had eased just on the day, and I don’t think this was unrelated to my period starting, on Friday. It was several days early and for that I rejoiced, as I knew that by Monday the good hormones would be kicking in like reassuring drugs to make me feel confident no matter what. I surmised that my body-mind knew well what it was doing to alter my cycle thus. I would deliver my two events this week on better form once the blood started flowing. That’s the way I roll.
I wasn’t expecting many women to come and had got a bit stuck thinking, this is no longer what people want. People are just too busy on social media to leave their homes and actually do something! I’d bought some zines the week before in the same room we were now preparing for the event, and they were made by feminists in their late teens or early 20s. I thought that reading them would give me a good chance to understand the younger generation a bit more, and was impressed at the careful crafting of their poetry, photography, cartoon, article and art filled pages. One interview with some apparently famous on Instagram young style icons, stated that they never went out anymore. They just got dressed up at home with each other, and posted images online to gain approval. This was all they needed to do to rise to success. How depressing. Dressing up can be fun, but so too meeting people, seeing live music, dancing… I felt fondness for my more outgoing youth, and also sadness that those times may have gone for the young now.
Of course, my events often attract older women, so are not necessarily vulnerable to these newer trends. Still I thought – everyone is on holiday, or, there is just too much to choose from in London. That certainly is true. For life drawing alone I knew of several alternative sessions across the city at exactly the same time as mine. I was competing with more glamorous and less complicated events. Not many artists want the models to talk while they pose! What a distraction! So my niche is feminist artists. Well I had done my best job of corralling those I know and who have been supportive before. I think some of them sensed how worried I had been feeling! The other niche is women who wanted to try modelling, and I wasn’t sure that many of those I’d been in touch with would come.
With my hormones happy, I stopped worrying, and opened up to allowing whatever wanted to be. It would be fine however small; what mattered was being in a good strong spirit to welcome women and help them feel at ease. I sent a last minute email to my life model list, offering the women to come draw for free. The added draw was conversation about life modelling. We don’t normally get to do that in person except with friends I don’t think. And women do love to talk…
I had only brought 10 drawing boards with me, fearing the worst. I knew that there are a few tables in the room, which could also be used, especially by painters. Women did start arriving, and before we begun I had run out of floor space that was covered by plastic sheeting to protect the carpet. So I asked people just to draw with pencil – no charcoal! Jennifer needed time to configure the technology, so at 7pm I began by asking women to introduce themselves – I did not know some of them, nor had I been in touch with them. They had seen the event online or picked up a leaflet. They really liked the idea of this unusual event in a women’s space – they were our people!
When Jennifer was ready, we focused on her, as she moved slowly across the back wall, whilst speaking, sharing intimate thoughts on her experience as a model. It was soon apparent; this was not light-hearted. There was some pretty dark revealing, and I wondered how that came across to those who had never modelled before but had been looking forward to it. Naturally I had discussed this with Jennifer in advance, but the most important thing was her authenticity. If she spoke of the very difficult aspects of life modelling, it is because she has done it for many years. She also had a fair few lighter anecdotes to deliver.
Women continued arriving and I had to keep weaving my way from the back of the room to welcome them, and somehow find them a seat from where they might draw. We managed, and it was joyful to see each new face. Unexpected surprises were several professional models from my network making an appearance! A couple I hadn’t met yet but recognised them from pictures. It being the Summer holidays, lots of models weren’t working much, and that turned out to be a massive plus for the event. They had time on their hands to come do some drawing instead. Morimda, who first had the idea of, and initiated Spirited Bodies nearly 7 years ago turned up. As did Claire who had been a life model in the 80s, is a writer/poet and has modelled a couple of times with us before. It was the professional models in particular who really resonated with Jennifer’s words. We have lived a lot of the harder stuff too. I am sure most of the newcomers will never take up life modelling to that long and perhaps overly sustained level that we have, but I think it was some of this challenging content that made Jennifer’s performance more edgy. We all felt some of her pain as she crushed pastels in her fists and smeared the powder across her skin. In very slow movement she drew lines across the wall and over her body. She was marking her journey, and she was in control of it. No pose times were called. Sometimes she didn’t speak for a while and I didn’t know if there was more. She was thinking. I don’t think she had rehearsed lines as such, but had certainly devised a formula, albeit freeflowing and flexible.
She talked about being othered, feeling a responsibility to represent the different minorities that she naturally is – black, queer, fat… and how she’d realised, it wasn’t her job to be that person. It isn’t anyone’s job. There were other things she wanted to do with her life, but somehow she’d gotten sucked into this life model career, because people told her she was good, and she liked quite a few of them. But in the end that isn’t enough. She is also a playwright and performance artist, and I think she wants to be doing more of those things. I first came across her work in 2004 when I was taking some singing classes at Clean Break theatre company. This is a charity for women who have had experience of the criminal justice system, whether or not they have been in prison. A lot had. The company had commissioned Jennifer to write a play about the lives of women in prison, and she had created ‘Compact Failure’, which I saw at The Arcola. It was an outstanding piece of writing that drew you into the world of three disturbed, broken and in yer face witty women.
In the process of preparing this event, I came up against a few new challenges. Promoting such an othered performer, just felt wrong at times. It was like I was exploiting these aspects, after all, intersectionality is a buzz word in the feminist community these days. As a feminist, especially a white one, if your activism isn’t including enough minorities, you may be in the firing line. If you do include them you have to do so sensitively. At the same time that I was negotiating these tricky parameters; as a life drawing event, I am competing with straight forward life drawing sessions, and more commercial events – some that care not a jot for such considerations. At least not to anything like the same degree, and a few happily sex themselves up as much as they can get away with! This part of the industry naturally tends to remind me increasingly of the necessity of what I do, yet I am treading a very fine line and it feels most precarious.
In time, with a look and a few words, Jennifer let me know she’d finished the performance, and I thanked her. We applauded. The next phase would be more upbeat and we turned out the lights to watch Waltzing Tomatoes. The significance of the film for Jennifer, was that it had been inspired directly by life modelling (even if that’s not immediately obvious). It is a successful film she created a few years ago with Samuel Overington, and shows them dancing in various locations of significance to them. After the short screening, we cleared the space for a little waltz of our own with tomatoes. Ursula and I offered to demonstrate as no volunteers were forthcoming, but it only took a bit of encouragement and soon 4 couples were being paired up to balance cherry tomatoes between their bodies at the points of contact. How that makes you aware of each other, of your connection and how it is you move without dropping the fruit. It seemed a good link towards undressing with strangers and perhaps touching skin in a group pose. Women were still dressed for the dance.
Meanwhile I scanned the room for those I thought wanted to model and urged them to start getting into a robe. The time was nearly upon us! As the music came to an end, more space was cleared, and in one part of the room, several women simultaneously shed their clothes. They didn’t even need robes now. I advised that they could find positions to pose in, however they felt, and that we would be having a chat during this part of the event. If they weren’t sure what to do they could simply ask as the room contained a great deal of women’s life modelling experience. In the end it was the experienced voices that found a platform for telling their stories, years’ old memories that might not have surfaced publicly before. There were some people drawing, some talking, quite a few modelling, and a bit of multi-tasking! While Jennifer had focused somewhat on life model challenges during her presentation, Morimda wanted to tell all the new models how beautiful they are! As with last month’s edition (with Leo), tales of menstruation in the life room gushed forth. There were horrible experiences with older female artists; how some of us behave differently if modelling for a group of men; how trust with the artists affects everything – how much we will give, and that when there is trust, gender doesn’t matter. Morimda echoed Jennifer’s sentiment that, her blackness is other people’s problem. It can become an issue in the life room, due to lack of familiarity, or socially ingrained low-level racism which manifests in micro-aggressions. Life drawing is whiter than the general population; so a black, particularly female model is a politicised body without even trying.
Stories poured out. I had to interrupt more than once to check that the new models weren’t aching to say something. Generally I think they were enthralled. They might not have expected this – none of us did – but it was a very rare situation, and they got that. Real life insights from those on the frontline, from those with decades of knowledge. There are others I haven’t named because I’m not sure they’d want me to. I could not have planned it, and it might never happen again, but everyone seemed to enjoy it so much, I hope that will encourage more similar encounters.
We ran over, more than half an hour and I had to draw things to a close. I could see my friend Lily who lives miles away packing up her ink, and I didn’t want her to leave before the models had a chance to see her drawings. As a former animator, she captures a lot of expression in a short time. So we put everyone’s drawings out for all to see, and still there was a long time chatting now in smaller groups. Clearing up was a long process, but friendly folk were helping. It is a high maintenance gig, for no financial reward – it just about pays for itself, but not really considering hours gone into putting it together. A labour of love, I must time it appropriately to not wear me out, to not clash with other commitments. To feel it from the heart each time and not be going through the motions. But it is the deep content that nourishes all involved I hope, not least of all me, and that feeds out into my life in ways that keep me sane and happy. I don’t want children, but I do want art.