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/

‘A Human Orchestration’ with The Drawing Theatre, October 12th

An artist friend Lily, described the power evinced by the model when delivering words, poetry whilst posing. The total stillness (of the model) contrasting with the presence of the words expressing the essence of the model/performer with such intensity. The words, normally danced as enunciated, skipped into the space on stage; now squeezed through the tiny holes of the face, the only part of the body moving except for breathing. Potent words given extra fire by a taut poise extreme in stillness.
She was speaking of our mutual friend Ursula who has appeared on these pages before (a few times), a life model and performance poet who sometimes combines these talents. Lily said that unlike the other artists present at the recital described, she felt unable to draw whilst the words were spoken, so transfixed was she on Ursula’s delivery.
Then we imagined non-linear words which do not require a level of concentration antithetical to the focus necessary for drawing, but instead circular words sung as a mantra, harmoniously and in congruence with a chorus of models humming in accord. Sound that allows you to join in seamlessly so you lose yourself not only in the looking, but the calling, the surrounding of the sound these models make. These are more than bodies, they give you something else of their being for you to respond to. Like an orchestra they have a conductor, and this will be a naked symphony.
Particular models will be featured as singers in this avant garde explosion of sound and harmony; Christine, Tom and Ursula. It happened that Ursula composed this poem late last year and it does resonate with the theme at hand.
Drawing Symphony
like an orchestra
it feels
as the artists
draw their lines
on their canvasses
and in so doing
moving their hands and their arms
as if they play their violins
in an orchestra
like a drawing symphony
this is
with me, model, conductor
as the artists
follow my outlines
until the shape of me
is reproduced
on the other side
of the assembly of easles
with their canvasses
with the artists, the instrumentalists
artistic reproductions appear
out of some sort of nowhere
because the canvasses were blank
before my outlines started to appear
I have been drawn
with pencils and brushes
like a string on a violin
I have been drawn
I have been realized, mirrored
abstracted or elaborated
or improvized like jazz
I have been composed
like a piece of music
I sing, the echoes of my shapes sing
the artists give me voice
we can say something
together
they in their drawing
me in my posing
we speak
we have a dialogue
I call and they respond
I admire how they respond
so artfully, accurately, abstractfully
they represent me
it’s the drawing symphony of artists
that gives me voice
that translates my stillness
into music, patterns, colours, liveliness
life-drawing-ness
we speak together
for we have something to say
we come to life
in the life drawing
we model, we mirror, we muse
we make
music.                              © Ursula Troche, 12.2012
Turning the tables: Toni, me, Rodger, Ursula and Peter participating in role reversing art installation at Guerilla Galleries last month. Organised by Natanski we posed as artists who undressed before our models who then photographed us. Spectators got drawn by us finally.
Model friends; turning the tables: Toni, me, Rodger, Ursula and Peter participating in role reversing art installation at Guerilla Galleries last month. Organised by Natanski we posed as artists who undressed before our models who then photographed us. Spectators got drawn by us finally.

GuerillaART 140813 CH 074 GuerillaART 140813 CH 076

Model Alessandra got out into the audience to shoot us drawing them
Model Alessandra got out into the audience to shoot us drawing them

GuerillaART 140813 CH 083 GuerillaART 140813 CH 088Steve’s blog describes this event in greater detail and length, with more pictures. I may write more on this very interesting occasion in future.

Me & Ursula checking out the doodles
Me & Ursula checking out the doodles

GuerillaART 140813 CH 105

ursu

Drawing by Lily from recent event at Holborn
Drawing by Lily from recent event at Holborn
Man with grapes
Man with grapes

photo-2

Lily said drawing this couple (who have modelled at our events a few times) brings tears to her eyes, so strong is the tenderness between them
Lily said drawing this couple (who have modelled at our events a few times) brings tears to her eyes, so strong is the tenderness between them

photo-4

photo-5

You can book for The Drawing Theatre event ‘A Human Orchestration’ here (to come and draw). Get in touch if you are interested to model, though I am sourcing most of the models amongst those who have worked with us before.
Ursula will be celebrating her birthday on Saturday (21st) at ‘Stables in Exile’ (The Bar Gallery), Unit 5, Queens Parade, Willesden Lane, a few minutes walk from Willesden Green station from 6:30pm and this is an occasion to see her perform some poetry as well as draw her and me – clothed. I will do some movement. This is a free event, do bring a bottle/some nibbles.

Guestblog: Sabine Zoellner reports on the Porn debate at Women of the World Festival, 10/3/’13

The panel consisted of:

Julia Long – feminist activist and academic

Martin Daubney – journalist and former editor of Loaded magazine

Chitra Nagarajan – Black Feminists UK

Helena Kennedy –  chair and lawyer for human rights QC

PORNOGRAPHY – Sunday, 10.03.2013

After the introduction of the 4 participants it became clear that the nature of the talk was set up in a controversial and provocative nature on purpose: a radical feminist (for whom porn starts with a topless model on page 3 of The Sun), a playboyish former editor of a lads magazine, a black feminist and a human rights lawyer as the chair lady to keep things under control.

Chitra from Black Feminists UK expressed her points in the least radical but more informative way than the other two. It turned out though quite quickly that the introduction of the racial aspect overloaded the already complex and unfocused subject of pornography so that unfortunately she remained a rather marginal figure throughout the entire talk.

The discussion involving the audience formed the main part of the talk and started already after about 20 minutes.

Helena Kennedy came across as slightly patronising in picking the speakers claiming that she “can see very well who came first” and the audience remained quite noisy and tense throughout.

She kept ignoring a gentleman sitting behind me raising his arm patiently for most of the 90 minutes though (which I found was a shame as I think it is highly interesting to hear what men who join a feminist festival have to say…)

As a summary of key points and facts that evolved after a while we learned for example (unverified in some cases):

– porn functions as substitute for sex education due to easy availability via the internet

– porn is a euro american capitalist oppressive experience

– there is an increase in problems with erections with teenage boys (all of them admitted they’d watch porn frequently)

– there is no proof of connection between porn and sex crime

– the media in general is 95% driven by men

– in capital crime investigation there seems to be an increasing number of cases where pornography is found when searching suspects’ homes

– there is more acceptance of homosexual porn nowadays

– porn has become more extreme nowadays

– there is an increase in human trafficking – men have a higher desire to practise what they see in porns (which is often only possible with prostitutes)

– the porn sector has a turnover of £97 billion per year

– there must be a focus on legislation to make porn less available for under 18s; credit card payment was mentioned as an option

– there is a lack of space in sex education at school – it needs to have a massive makeover to integrate the current porn consumption by under 18s

– there are observations that young girls are being pressured into anal and facial sex because of boys wanting to experience what they saw in porns

Questions raised:

– is porn watching related to class/privilege/poverty?

– can a woman watch porn and be a feminist at the same time?

– should porn be made illegal?

In summary it seemed obvious that it is difficult to capture the gist of this versatile subject within 2 hours of discussion.

The impression remains that the discussion got no further than scratching on the surface of the subject as too many different aspects were thrown in – starting with the definition of what pornography really is (spectrum went from a topless lady on page 3 of The Sun, people enjoying having sex and being filmed, the erotica of the early “Emmanuelle” movies up to movies showing violent and humiliating sexual practices).

I also have to say the way the talk was held slightly wound me up. The emotions that were triggered by the organisers on purpose prevented people from being objective.

The subject of porn was kept too undefined and generic from the beginning as if a real focus point that could have lead to a consensus and/or conclusions was not intended to be created by the organisers.

Therefore I feel that everyone came in and also went home with their same own opinion.

At least this applies to myself:

My first key point was and is that pornography must not be available for under 18s (at least in a similar way as it was before the internet era).

I feel relief that I am not a teenage girl in this day and age that has to face first sexual and relationship experience with boys who ask for sex the way they see it (mostly unmonitored) in pornography.

I also think that there should be a ban on violent and abusive forms of pornography in general, eg where one of the parties involved is subject to disrespect and humiliation. I do believe that this type of film has a bad impact on people’s (adults as well as under 18s) minds and therewith society.

And a finishing note:

At the end of the talk I turned and told the gentleman behind me that I felt gutted that he didn’t get to speak and asked him what he was about to say.

To add to the complexity of the subject he said he thought that sending porn videos via mobile phones could spice up the love lives of long term relationships. Oh well…

By Sabine Zoellner

Sabine first modelled with Spirited Bodies over a year ago, before that she had always been on the other side of the easel. She was helping on our stall at the Women of the World Festival, and stepped in to model as well. Here follow some of her drawings.

No 3

No 1

No 4

No 2

No 5

For a recording of the discussion, check here:  http://wow.southbankcentre.co.uk/events/pornography/

Models Drawing Models

This is what happens in the workshop: people try modelling. Before that they try drawing. They get addicted to both. Sometimes. That’s what happened to one couple who keep coming back for more. And more. Last event they came to draw (see results below). I wanted them to pose as a couple for our next gig at The Mall, but 5:30 on a Friday in Central London was unacceptable to them. We will get them on a long pose at some point this year!

The Last Supper from the other side, when Jesus is a woman
The Last Supper from the other side, when Jesus is a woman

Spirited Bodies 2Spirited Bodies 3

The masterpiece that is The Raft of the Medusa
The masterpiece that is The Raft of the Medusa

Spirited Bodies 5Possibly Jesus again

More rafting
More rafting
Dancers holding a bar
Dancers holding a bar

Felt tips, i-Pads & Blogs

Memoranda from the recent past:

1 2 3 4

Doodles by Francis Wardale
Doodles by Francis Wardale – this is of the 1st half hour pose at Mortlake, the theme was ‘Dance’

6 7 8

Most memorable ‘Raft of the Medusa’

9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Variation on ‘The Last Supper’

17

Rob sent us his i-pad paintings from Mortlake; this is the 'Dance'
Rob sent us his i-pad paintings from Mortlake; this is the ‘Dance’
The Raft
The Raft
and finally not the last supper
and finally not the last supper

Matt who modelled at this event above wrote in his blog about it and Steve who modelled and helped us out at Battersea Arts Centre in October got writing here on his new life modelling blog.