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/

WOW PERTH

We arrived on the train late on Friday evening of 27th October, and after a long day travelling we were happy to walk along the river Tay to find our digs and snuggle down for the night. We unfortunately missed Jude Kelly talking to Nicola Sturgeon which is a shame, but we didn’t know about that when we booked the train tickets. Perth is a picturesque place, even at night and instantly charmed us with its pretty calmness.

This was a blessing from a fortunate alignment when in late August I happened to be in Edinburgh for an event I was running, just as Lou Brodie  – WOW Perth programmer – wanted to chat with me about how best to include a life modelling workshop in their festival. We met up over coffee and I talked her through the logistics. It’s a bit niche so I was confidently able to say to her that no one else around does what I do, even if they do a life modelling workshop, it’s not feminist! Anyway, it was a huge privilege to work with Lou, whom I found to be very positive, sensitive and considerate.

Naturally I love to travel with Spirited Bodies and be part of WOW so was privately keen before I dared to imagine it might be a possibility! I was not expecting her to pick someone who isn’t Scottish, but there seemed a strong enough case for it. I decided to go with the interview format like I’ve been doing sometimes at Stories of Women recently and before that as well. I looked for models in Scotland that I knew already and two came forward though in the end only one made it – Aimee McCallum and she was very happy to speak about her experiences. I had met her in Summer ’16 and again this August so seen parts of her journey.

She introduced the event boldly and evenly with fine poses to warm the audience’s hands though the room was not cool. With a wooden floor and a very big pile of cushions within a circle of chairs looking inwards… Aimee began to describe revealing herself through her art, to her family, and continuing to be liberated. For her first degree show she had created a photographic image of her and her boyfriend nude, overlayed with kaleidoscopic patterns. It was about the ritual of covering up the body; so she was exploring the idea of being naked for art before she began modelling.

Aimee

At the point of asking the women if they wanted to try there was a very high positive response rate! Certainly we had more women modelling than drawing some of the time and it was very relaxed! You could tell that the women did not mind if they were not being drawn, they were just happy to be chatting together in this liberated way. And listened to. Many women tried – about 9, and one artist simultaneously breastfed whilst drawing. Sometimes the baby couldn’t be quiet! The models had a lot to say.

Getting naked in front of friends, attitudes towards nudity in front of children, growing/shaving the bush, sex after childbirth… it’s an intimate space and not being so many of us made it perhaps cosier. The conversation was recorded – for Lisa’s podcast called The Hot Bed Collective; she was taking part as an artist and model. She had come to run the ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ session on the Sunday, and thought my session might make for rich material for the podcast. Everyone in the room was fine with that luckily, and it’s nice to think some of our spontaneous meanderings are not lost!

WOW as a whole is an opportunity for all women to get involved and be listened to, to learn and to share and there were many platforms going on. I could only get to a fraction.

In the Teenagers with Gemma Cairney session I particularly liked how articulate some of the young women were, and very entertaining with it. Gemma is extremely positive and was helped by the audience with advice like what to do when your friends are critically bulhemic for example? The girls themselves described an inadequate education curriculum and I wondered about how to get into giving sex and relationship lessons, it could take me a while but I do feel I have something to offer.

In the Shame session they explored the horrific amounts of (toxic) shame that women experience and also the basic need to feel (healthy) shame. The fact that speaking out is so powerful and healing so we must do it more and more. The speakers covered abortion, fat and trans shaming in particular from their unique experiences. A memorable question from the audience pointed up the invisibility of age, and how that still affects us all.

It was a privilege to get so close to some of Louise Bourgeoise’s work in the gallery next door – including one of her giant spiders, most awesome. Also prints of hands and arms reaching, connecting the legacy of her handing down her egg to the next generation. As she had grown older, her artistic assistant we were told, became her carer, and the two roles fused. Literally, very touching as intertwined hand prints testified.

When I first came across WOW a few days before the first festival in 2011, I was so excited, couldn’t wait to go. I was incredibly moved by the powerful force that felt like the beginning of the more mainstream and blatantly visible feminist movement coursing through our culture at the present time. The voices in the festival rang loud with empowerment and calls to action, it was thrilling. I was able to share the concept of Spirited Bodies to an audience in the festival hall including a celebrity panel, and Jude Kelly offered to host it which made me so happy! It has been a nurturing and developing relationship spanning events over several years and has introduced me to many wonderful and enriching opportunities.

Perth is a beautiful place to visit and quiet too, I hope to return sometime and spend longer there. I also hope that WOW continues to grow in the region, as this was a very ripe and promising first festival in Scotland.

Bodykind, Celebrating Grandmother Wisdom & WOW Perth

Maybe it’s because I don’t particularly have an issue with fat, body hair or food… but I AM getting older that my favourite speaker at Bodykind Festival was Suzanne Fearnside. She really tapped into my emotions regarding ageing and the invisibility of older women. I was so eager for what she had to say, for me it was the most radical politics – I felt tingles when she spoke! Her point was made more poignant because unlike many (generally younger) speakers, she does not seem to have a social media presence, and is (therefore) not popular in the relatively mainstream way that they are. So she was not billed as highly, yet I hung on her every word and did not tune out. She exuded years of experience, knowledge, humility, resiliance and strength. I am not a natural with social media myself, I tune a lot of it out though of course it’s a great connecter, the means for many positive actions, and worth harnessing.

Suzanne Fearnside

Harnaam Kaur is very sweet and impressively strong and heroic, as well as being a powerful speaker. Still in her 20s yet so experienced, she has a unique voice. An activist who has chosen to grow her full beard and not hide it, after years of being bullied as a teenager. She also mentioned the damaging effects of social media and the need to unfollow accounts that we internally respond negatively to. Whether they are famous people’s, or friends’/acquaintances’, it’s how we respond to them that counts.

Regarding my own sensitivity to social media – the insecure feeling I get when seeing particular posts – I am reminded that I may have a similar effect on others. It’s a chain reaction and I want to sort out my end of it. I know it’s not necessarily that posts I am seeing are projecting anything negative or unhealthy on to the web, simply that their content is not what I need to see now. I need to unpick triggering elements – images usually – that make me feel less than good enough, in order to get stronger and gain more control over my vulnerabilities. I know it is not individuals’ fault that their posts trigger me, but perhaps that their online presence reminds me too much of mainstream beauty ideals that I do my best to ignore and avoid in other areas. I mean I rarely watch TV, films, play online games or read women’s magazines, nor do I have a more conventional job where the majority of people judge themselves and each other according to mainstream values. The most mainstream my job gets is when I occasionally lead hen parties, and the bride to be has a chance to pose (clothed) with the male model. So often I hear her say to her friends, “Draw me with bigger tits”, unless she already has the fashionable size.

It can come down to those in my social media field to expose me to these elements of society – even in a relatively alternative style. I may be overly sensitive but I cannot help the way I am, I must learn to work with it. I don’t want to constantly be reminded that women posting sexy images of themselves is much more popular than my body image activism! I find it demoralizing. I know it may be great for the women – owning the images of themselves – but nevertheless they often can’t help propagating a certain kind of commercial norm, and that’s sometimes the point – it’s their livelihood so it’s in their interests. And I am not entirely separate from this behaviour – I am a model too, and love opportunities to dress up, make theatre, and pose in extraordinary situations! It’s like doing some feng shui in my living space, clearing the things I don’t need, and organising better what I do. It can make me a bit more mindful of what I post.

Some of the other acts I really enjoyed are…

Harnaam Kaur, Megan – Bodyposipanda, and Glory Pearl

Glory Pearl rocking it something massive – real woman style! I thought she had the tone just right. She says it best in her own words – see a clip of her here.

Chris Paradox directing with wit, charm and lyrical insight, really grooving us through the weekend (as his backing singers!) And Pina Salvaje too.

Chris and Nicky of Not Just Behaviour described passionately their work in schools educating children about body image. Their positive enthusiasm was felt by all and also their many years experience.

Bodykind Festival at St Mary’s Church, Totnes, 14th October ’17

Zoe McNulty whose Strutology got us all flaunting it at the festival opening ceremony on Friday evening at the Royal Seven Stars. She wrote a lovely blog about the festival here, and it focuses a lot more on some of the other speakers than I have.

At our session on Saturday at Bodykind at The Mansion, we had 8 participants plus me and Steve, and 3 of them wanted to try modelling. They were not completely nude when posing, rather kept their bottom half covered or wore pants. They were a bit older as it happened, and one woman did not want photos of the drawings of her shared, which I don’t think has ever happened (at Spirited Bodies) before but of course we respect her wishes. There is something powerful about having a space that is totally separate to the online world.

The other participants were just drawing, as were all the models when not posing. We started with a warm up pose by Steve, standing for 5 minutes. Then one woman volunteered to model next though she hadn’t been sure before (in the presence of 2 men within the group). She enjoyed it and did two 5 minute poses; one lying and one standing. She preferred the standing because she said it made her feel more empowered. It’s true – when she stood she looked bold, facing outwardly, in control; but reclining she had been more inward and vulnerable looking. It really highlighted the difference a stance can make to how we feel.

Then Andrew Stacey who runs a group in Totnes at Birdwood House on Thursday evening at 7:30pm, gave modelling a go after many years break and had an insightful experience. He wanted to remind himself of the model’s position as he works so much with models – it helps him to understand them better. He assumed interesting positions naturally, standing leaning, and then lying on his back, each for 10 minutes. Then another woman had a go, doing poses of 5 and 10 minutes; the first sitting on a stool, the second in child’s pose. She was also more usually on the other side of the easel, and really valued this opportunity to understand the model’s perspective in a safe, sensitively held space.

Finally me and Steve did a duo for 15 minutes with him sitting at my standing feet. It was a very relaxing workshop, with plenty of time between poses discussing them, models getting changed, and looking at each others’ drawings. At least one person was a first time drawer! She did very well, especially by the child’s pose. Some lovely work produced and I think all the models benefitted and took something very uplifting from the experience (at least I hope so!), and the artists too who were so supportive and generous, well everyone was – it was the spirit of the festival! One artist said she hadn’t drawn for ages and couldn’t miss the chance, though she also would have liked to model. She took inspiration from the idea saying she may suggest all the artists take turns at posing at her local group.

It was quite novel for us at Spirited Bodies to have the models posing individually rather than as a group. It worked well because of the small group size, and reminded me how special it is when I/we can focus on one model at a time. It is a more personal workshop!

child’s pose

I felt so happy and calm afterwards, such a pleasant and powerful modelling sharing with new people in Totnes. Wonderful memories and we very much hope to return. With special thanks to Dinah Gibbons – who is the Creative Director of Bodykind Festival – for exquisite organising, massive generosity and warm open heartedness! It was such an honour and a pleasure to share in the groundbreaking body acceptance vibes at the festival. It was also amazing to experience the boost from being around so many awesome people, where you meet lots of people on the same page. It didn’t feel competitive, just supportive and nurturing to connect with and witness one another.

Totnes welcomed us with a friendly embrace too – we stayed at a friend of Dinah’s. The beautiful home was a comfortable nest to settle in each night, and our hosts most engaging. There is a strong ethic of sustainability in the town, as well as new age/hippie leanings in a pretty prosperous, independently minded area of natural beauty and many listed buildings.

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I am really looking forward to welcoming Hana at Stories of Women on Monday at the Feminist Library – she is an exciting speaker with many years’ experience to draw upon. She was around when life models in London first began to get organised, through the Barefacts magazine and RAM, and even held several early RAM gatherings at her home in North West London. We invite *you to speak with her, draw and maybe model too (*women only).

Hana Schlesinger

Older women are even more invisible in the digital era – like Hana and Suzanne. The internet/social media are not as inclusive as they might be, inevitably they are a bit ageist, which makes older people’s voices all the more precious.

At the end of the month, on Saturday 28th October I will be in Perth for the first WOW in Scotland, facilitating a workshop for women – life modelling and drawing – called ‘I am Perfect as me.’ I will be joined by two of the women who posed with us at All The Young Nudes in Edinburgh in August. They will begin the modelling whilst telling the group what it feels like to pose. Then in the second half, women are invited to try modelling alongside them. The conversation may continue – usually about all manner of body politics issues – in the supportive space. Finally everyone looks at the drawings and takes time to debrief, let some feelings from the session settle with informal chat.

It will be great to see the speakers we can get to, and it’s also wonderful to build a relationship with models, sharing in their development. One of the models first posed with us last year, and now has quite a bit of experience, and the other tried for the first time this Summer. Likewise it’s amazing to continue being part of WOW, and I am so thrilled that the idea of empowering women about their body image through life modelling, which I presented at the very first WOW, has been taken up again and again.

Enjoying this busy month!

Body Reflections

The power of life modelling to elevate us from our body image concerns is challenged by the pervasive tendency of mainstream beauty standards to permeate our life drawing bubble.

Before social media, life models largely existed in isolation, rarely knowing one another, merely passing each other during a break perhaps at an art school. Now our contemporary world is fixated with all things visual, and connecting us with each other too. Life drawing and modelling are in fashion again, and images of life drawings as well as photographs of models in pose, amongst other nude art shots proliferate.

Where life modelling was once the preserve of eccentrics, circus performers, sex workers, actors and other less ordinary freaks, it is now much more acceptable in society. While this is progress that may help towards gaining rights such as improving pay and working conditions, it also has a less desirable outcome, I think. The transference of mainstream concerns of the body, to this hitherto removed sphere. When it was taboo to undress for work, life models had to be immune to a certain amount of society’s judgement. Now these worlds are less separate, they are able to affect each other in new ways.

Some models have always been more conventionally attractive, with a look similar to a movie star, for example. The real beauty of the scene itself however is diversity, something we must never forget in the face of potential flooding of glamorised strains of life modelling. There is certainly a place for glamour, as another form of expression with a celebration of design and style, but if that niche dominates visually, there is a danger of a more unwholesome impact. We can’t help but compare ourselves with each other, and never more so visually. So many of us delight in displaying our prettiest selfies, making sure the light is flattering and make-up in place. We hold in our bellies and wear padded bras as we strive to be seen as attractive by others. We imagine we may be liked more if we can get our look “right”, and we are probably correct, at least in the superficial sense that a Facebook ‘like’ has.

A few years ago I observed more of the people drawing me considering trying the modelling, spurred on by my project. Lately I noticed a shift. The artists perceive that it is now more imperative for models to be immaculate, impeccable in appearance, and they sense they cannot compete.

This is not the whole story of course. Much diversity is being celebrated happily in our scene. I just want to push more of that, and personally I am keen to see fewer of the more affected, stylised images of life models. The scene lends itself well to being a site for celebrating a wide variety of beauty – including as it is not usually seen. That for me is the magic.

The merchants of body hatred – the diet, beauty, and cosmetic surgery   industries – are so extremely powerful globally, that they have even resulted in affecting government legislation in some countries, and the direction of scientific research. In Brazil, the state routinely pays for breast implant surgery for young women who profess to be anxious about their lack of mammarian prowess. This solution is considered cheaper than paying for the psychoanalysis that might be needed to truly address the problem. So a plaster is applied, but the underlying epidemic is left unresolved. People become less in touch with their actual bodies, and are reinforced by the government in their thinking that their bodies are a project to be cured, altered and perfected. They are not ok as they are. Body hatred is experienced as the natural status quo; yet somehow beyond Hollywood, South America and Essex(!) many of us do manage very well without such tampering.

Long may that remain, as a society where everyone is fixing their “imperfections” in the lunch break via the surgeon’s knife, is not one I want to be part of. Let’s be proud of what authenticity we have held on to, and celebrate our uniqueness.

As I write I have just arrived at lodgings in Inverness. Across from where I write, a large mirror shows all of me as I am nude now (warm day!) Before opening my notebook I delighted a while in posturing in front of my reflection, checking the chub of my belly. I know that sounds ridiculous to people who know me, as I am slim by anyone’s definition, but also I am premenstrually bloated. When you have a narrow physique, a little extra on your belly really makes a difference, may even be mistaken for pregnancy. But, I am trying to get out of the habit of constantly holding it in. Just let it be. I still can appreciate my form, the more so in front of this revealing mirror!

I check out backviews of my bits, which artists from particular angles would doubtless have seen countless times. I see what they have stared at! Or what men see who I have had sex with. I am awash with curiosity and fascination for my own form as it moves, from different points of view. A boob on top of a tummy above a massive thigh or buttock. Combinations that alone show only part of me, but the eye fills in the rest. I am proud of and grateful for my body which is pretty healthy. Today I feel childlike joy at returning to the beloved Highlands. The constant smile on my face reminds me that what is most beautiful about me is the joy I radiate, not the tummy I hold in.

At Lauderdale House, Clare’s class
In the Highlands: view from Inverness Castle of the River Ness

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Two books I recently read inspired parts of this piece. ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach describes body hatred in today’s society, and specifically (in relation to this piece) the situation experienced in South America. ‘Animal’ by Sara Pascoe also discusses the problem, and mentions the high rate of cosmetic surgery operations in Essex.

Spirit of Women Changemakers

Spirited Bodies is really proud and honoured to be part of The Fawcett Society’s Spirit of Women Changemakers conferences in November, in London and Manchester. The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights. They want to see a society in which individuals can fulfil their potential regardless of their sex, and are bringing “individual community activists and organisers together with those who have driven change at the highest level to identify the most powerful ways to create change.”

I have been invited to create women’s workshops to complement the programme, by offering a practical session where delegates may try their hand at life drawing, perhaps even some life modelling. Spirited Bodies wants all women (and all people in fact) to feel comfortable in their bodies and fulfil the potential of their whole self. By working to eliminate body image and confidence issues, we want people to be free to embrace all of life, without being constrained by limiting beliefs often imposed by the media.

Similar to when we are at Women of the World Festival at Southbank Centre, these workshops will include demonstrations by prearranged models – some will be professional life models and others may be first-timers. To accompany their poses, recorded interviews of previous Spirited Bodies models will play, and in these voices may be heard the complex reasons that women come to try modelling with us, and what they gain from it.

Many find this a moving spectacle that reaches far into the interior of some models, going beyond familiar and traditional life drawing standards. The artist is halted in their sketching, arrested by unexpected revelations of peculiar intensity. They had a set out to draw a body – in itself, not simple – but are suddenly forced to confront a deeper reality. The model they are drawing is completely still… but had they considered that perhaps she is always so? She may not be a professional life model, though you might not realise it if you just walked in the room and found her in pose. At other times her paralysis is more evident as she is only without her wheelchair when reclining.

This is just one example of myriad stories behind the women who have posed at Spirited Bodies. The aim is to reach women who would otherwise not have the opportunity to model. They might be ill, very shy, anxious or somehow disabled, and this is a chance to experience their bodies as part of the creation of art, to be appreciated by drawing artists in a safe and guided environment where there is no pressure except their own desire to challenge themselves.

The atmosphere is totally supportive and respectful and every effort is made to accommodate different and unusual needs where appropriate and possible.

The London event is on Saturday 12th November and takes place at St Thomas’ Hospital.

The Manchester event is on Saturday 19th November and takes place at The Studio.

Our workshops will be from 2:30pm – 3:30pm.

If you identify as female and would like to take part in one of the events as a model, please email me at info.spiritedbodies@gmail.com stating your reasons – there are limited places. This is not paid modelling, but nor would you need to pay to come to the event. Similarly if you are a female life drawing artist in or near Manchester who would like to come and draw at that event, please get in touch. It is great to have some experienced drawers present! It looks like we may not have space to accommodate the same in London unfortunately, however if that changes I shall put the word out. In any case, you can always buy a ticket to the conference and join us that way, as well as seeing lots of inspiring talks. I will be bringing drawing boards and materials.

During the morning at each conference there will be talks and panel discussions that address the subject of improving women’s lives in a range of ways. After lunch there will be practical workshops for attendees to experience some grassroots approaches to enhancing women’s lives. Spirited Bodies naturally fits in here, on the matter of body image, part of our health and well being. There is lots more information here, including how to buy tickets.

Key speakers include Dame Jenni Murray, Journalist, broadcaster and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour; Baroness Jane Campbell, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Disability Group; Stella Creasy, MP; Caroline Criado Perez, Journalist, broadcaster and campaigner; Gail HeathManchester Women’s Aid; and Becky Olaniyi, Sisters of Frida. I am humbled to be among their number, and very happy to return Spirited Bodies to a more political sphere.

ES 46

© Spirited Bodies 2016, photograph by www.lidialidia.com at Loving Bodies event, April ’16

NB I am not intending to photograph the event at Spirit of Women Changemakers conference.

A few paintings and drawings from one of our recent women’s events, in July at Lewisham Art House – called ‘Sound & Movement with Life Drawing’

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© Irene Lafferty
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© Irene Lafferty
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© Kathy Dutton
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© Kathy Dutton