Time to reflect on what has been a very different Summer. The last few weeks have been punctuated by Friday evenings in Croydon at a youth centre. I did not know Croydon before this year beyond a few life model bookings at Croydon Life Drawing close to East Croydon station, and another class in Shirley, so an extra bus ride away. That bus ride passed through a more affluent area and Shirley looked green and suburban. This year I got to know the heart of Croydon, its centre, diversity and artistic edges.
Sir Philip Game (SPG) Youth Centre is about 10 minutes walk, North from East Croydon station. There are newer smart looking high-rise flats fanning out from the station, and then an older, more urban neighbourhood characterises the walk down Cherry Orchard Road. The Centre itself is set back within a leafy residential enclave, and so the variety of housing and feel on the streets on this little route is a microcosm of London.
Back in December I’d received an email from Yak who helps to run SPG. He’d seen the press articles from the Summer before about how I’d like to bring life drawing to teens to help address body image issues. An artist himself he immediately got it, and thought that bringing this to SPG could help reach new teenagers. A process of proposal, safe-guarding policy and various committees’ approval took several months before we got the go-ahead late Spring. By then the Summer term was too close but I was keen to aim for Summer holidays, partly as I knew I’d have time to do marketing and promoting – Autumn tends to get busier. This would be a rewarding experience; I’d not yet had a chance to test my ideas and was excited to try.
Springtime brought another connection my way as well, and that was via The Feminist Library where I’d put on several Stories of Women workshops over the last couple of years. They were doing a collaboration with Barbican and I was brought into the loop for some life drawing in connection with a Lee Krasner exhibition coming up. It was really their Education department who were interested in a workshop for teenagers, and so another strand to this journey fell in to complement the other work already in process. These were two very different opportunities and between them I could learn more about young people who may benefit from my work. Both would be classes that individuals chose to do, so avoiding possible resistance that a school scenario may bring.
Both classes were open to any young person of a certain age to attend, though Croydon would likely reach people within a limited circumference. The Barbican class was cheaper at just £3, yet I imagined may attract people from a higher socio-economic bracket due to those likely to be part of their Young Barbican membership and generally following them (sorry if that sounds classist but I don’t think it’s a strange association).
I set about on two types of preparation. One was a big job of researching and contacting as many Croydon schools and youth organisations as possible to promote the classes. Once we’d made the flyer I took it around to places in the Croydon vicinity… networked and took to the streets! This brought out the performance artist in me as I devised a means to attract attention and get my message across. I needed to tell people about life drawing for teenagers, knowing that many wouldn’t know what it is, would be horrified by the idea, or never imagine their kid would be mature enough. Wearing a simple message as a sign on my body I paraded through Croydon Centre on warmer days, not quite naked underneath! My flesh-coloured bodysuit not visible a little way off, passers-by stared in disbelief at my audacity. Then they read my sign. I beamed feverishly to disarm them, show them my own comfort and approachability. I wanted to engage not scare. Truly it worked, yet it was more the Mums and older women who congratulated me for doing something so important – they immediately got it. Younger people however were less inclined to respond positively. Especially in packs where peer pressure is strongest. Sometimes on their own they were more responsive.
This part of my promotional activities would not have been possible without the help of the First Floor Space at Croydon Art Store in Whitgift shopping centre. I had discovered them on my research mission and found them to be one of the friendliest quarters in Croydon – both art and youth focused. A few organisations including TURF reside in a block of units side by side and between them they seemed to be the most outward facing and accessible folks on my wavelength in the area. The First Floor Space is available for free “hot-desking” for local artists or those working on a project in Croydon, so that included me. I didn’t so much “desk” as change into my outfit, stash my stuff and fill up my water bottle, all with the sense of comfort and solidarity that comes with sharing space and worktime with fellow artists. Charlie leads this crew and was always supportive and understanding of my mission. Going out in public nearly nude in an area more known for stabbing, is brave. People did remark on that fact incredulously each time. In case anything happened, Charlie wrote down her number for me to keep on me safely. In the end I was fine. Just knowing there was a place nearby where I could retreat to should things get weary or hairy, made all the difference. I already felt that Croydon had accepted me.
For The Barbican and The Living Colour exhibition on Lee Krasner, a different prep was in order. I was less concerned with finding my participants – that would be taken care of hopefully be the marketing machine of such a grand institution. It was more about learning the material on Lee, and writing the lesson plan which would be more meticulous than the Croydon sessions. The latter would be more freestyle. Meanwhile I read articles on Krasner, saw the exhibition together with Marinella the model, and then read her biography. This historical journey reminded me of some of my ancestors I’d been researching recently – Lee’s family escaped from Czarist Russia in 1908 just before my Great Grandmother Rivka’s family fled in about 1912. They were both Jewish and while my folks ended up in South Africa, Lee’s went to America – New York. Born an American Lee came to reject her Jewish origins as did Rivka; they both became politicised towards the Left, attending many marches, protests and Lee was even imprisoned for her activism as was Rivka’s husband and also my American Grandfather. Lee was not ultimately a Communist as such, maintaining that her role was as an artist first, yet her leanings were very Left.
Marinella and I were fascinated to learn about Lee’s strong character which really came across in filmed interviews played in the gallery. I was then asked to do another similar workshop for young people again through Barbican, but this time at Guildhall School next door, for a Summer Arts Camp. The children would be younger and the model clothed. There was to be even more emphasis on Krasner who would be the theme of their week of activities. Since I was supposed to help instill in the youngsters a sense of being an artist themselves I thought I would ask a model who is also an artist, and that was Lily.
There would be 6 sessions in Croydon and I wanted as diverse a selection of models as I could find, whilst being mindful to book fairly local models as this was not super-well paid and Croydon is a little way out from where most live. I wanted a gender, age, size and colour balance – especially colour as Croydon is very multi-cultural. That is the biggest challenge to booking diversity when it comes to life models I find – they are overwhelmingly white. I wanted the young people to identify with the models, and cultural background can help.
Marinella was an obvious choice of model for a more structured class at Barbican, as she is so articulate about body political matters and even helped me to write a couple of significant in fact more academic blog posts. She is Italian but her use of English is better than most native speakers and she is very much on message with gender politics, as well as having experienced her own journey towards body acceptance. Both of us old enough to be the teenagers’ Mothers, we have plenty of combined experience to bring to the class, our openness hopefully bridging the generation gap.
Leo was the first model at Croydon and she opened the series boldly, speaking directly about being a fat woman, assumptions people regularly make about her, and the things that helped improve her body image as she grew up. She also spoke about what it’s like to be a model, as did the second model, Faith. The variety of jobs and unusual experiences as a life model was a theme for both, Leo recalling a job in the woods splattered with day-glo pink paint, and Faith pointing up the mixing of class outside of her usual life. As models we are literally exposed to and rub shoulders with folks from much richer and upper class backgrounds, and she felt that the art world allows us to connect more easily. That is one way that life modelling may broaden our horizon and Faith was very enthusiastic about the extra confidence it had given her too. She is aware of being niche for her colour and expressed effusively her enjoyment at being a pioneer in this way, wanting to encourage more people of colour to give it a try. Thank you Faith – I hope they do because there really is a demand. Artists appreciate and require variety and rarely is it currently available.
One girl who attended the class said that when her school tried to hold a life drawing class, they had a male model, and a huge number of letters of complaint from parents followed. It was not the model himself, simply that the nudity in particular male was deemed inappropriate in the girls school. John was the third model and mindful of this sometimes prevailing public attitude I felt cautious with regard to promoting his presence, so held back. To help ease the class into accepting a male model, John himself suggested he wear a tutu! I was happy with that and so his session began that way. One thing I have realised however with this self-selecting of students to the classes is that it attracts teenagers who are keen on drawing more than anything else. They relished the chance to practise life drawing that is not often available to them. I did not sense that John’s gender was an issue and after a couple of poses he was nude.
He spoke about owning his nudity and that stopping him from being vulnerable when naked as a model. He also described his technique of going into the zone to enable him to hold otherwise uncomfortable poses for some duration. Maria was the fourth model and she was just back from visiting her homeland Brazil. She spoke to the class about the political situation there and her activism connected with that, also her hope in the next generation to turn things around – some of whom drawing her then.
For the 5th and 6th sessions I booked male models – Peter and Rob, and advertised as such. I don’t know if it was coincidence, but numbers for both classes were the lowest, in fact we had to cancel the last session as no students showed up. It could have been other reasons, but perhaps in future I won’t let on who is modelling.
Peter’s class was small but I at least really enjoyed listening to him. I’ve known him the longest as he booked me for my first ever life modelling gig back in 2007 and we’ve become friends. I find I am ever learning new things about the models with these interview-style events. What a privilege. He spoke of learning to draw concurrently to becoming a model, and how drawing all different models gave him an appreciation of how beautiful the human body is. Also how life modelling is often a fact that is shared carefully with other sections of one’s life, in his case to avoid embarressing his daughters for example.
On the streets and outdoor spaces of Croydon I handed flyers to and chatted with a good cross-section of the public, from builders with teenage children, newly arrived migrants such as teenage refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia; dope smoking teens and young people in the park who “totally” got my message and one even did art… gatherings of parents, West Indian Fathers and youth workers in the Wandle Park, East European cafe workers… anyone who’d stop on the pedestrianised shopping high street. I even did a dance on a platform because I was getting achy and tired with being ignored. It went in phases… I took a little sound system and a few sketch pads for next level engagement! Street life drawing. I tried, but I don’t think any of that helped to grow the classes. It helped me to connect with Croydon and spread the word.
Not all the participants of the Croydon classes came from the area; some had been driven from further away in Dulwich and Surrey for example. More affluent areas methinks. The middle classes get life drawing, they know what it is and why it’s important. It’s part of their culture and going to exhibitions. For some Mums on the street, the idea of a nude model was too shocking and something their kids weren’t ready for. Fortunately at least as many adults understood why real unairbrushed, unmodified models would be beneficial.
At The Barbican we began with Marinella explaining the rules to the class as that I think comes best from the model. As well as explaining why she didn’t want to be photographed, she addressed their possible awkwardness and shyness to approach this new kind of drawing. She reassured them and invited them to take their time and relax with the experience. I encouraged them not to worry about their drawings, after all I am no drawing tutor. We took turns speaking, and covered several topics from our own body acceptance, to the male gaze and how Lee inspires us. Poses with intense subjects made me feel that in between them we would break up the rhythm with dynamic, loosening up exercises to remind the students about drawing style again, and allow us to step back.
For the class with Lily we followed a similar formula but I reigned in some of the subject matter on realising how young the children were. Aged 11 – 14, most were at the younger end of the spectrum. I’d been asked to describe how Lee inspires me and I connect with her work… yet what I’d prepared felt too adult. Outliving domestic violence and alcoholism didn’t feel like being part of the mood we wanted to create! This group wanted to perform – they were gearing up for some cutting edge art shows at the end of the week, after dipping into various exciting offerings. Having explained some of the finer details of how being nude for artists (even though Lily was dressed), or drawing other models had helped us, we got them to try doing some poses.
They tentatively took us up, building confidence until one child proclaimed that he could easily hold a pose for 20 minutes. I suggested we try 10, and that turned out to be a struggle! They experimented with power and fear postures, duo and character poses admirably.
Saying goodbye to my Summer in Croydon felt sad on the day of the final session. I sat on a traffic island thoroughfare reminiscing into my diary whilst a man threw up next to me… oh Croydon! How I enjoyed performing my walk, watching your gazes, winking at awestruck toddlers and old folks, people who occupy benches all day long. Sharing the pitch with charity muggers, bible bashers, anti-knife crime campaigners, buskers, balloon sellers and english languange teachers… you were my home from home, my office, my stage and my playground for a few days this Summer. All those connections, fly-posted leaflets, refugee encounters (Croydon is the home of the Home Office), men who got too interested, and impromptu outdoor life drawing moments. I enjoyed meeting this place and people, open to all possibilities being potential. Where to go with this? We will see.