Life Art & Therapy in Highbury

I had been busy working on my play – Girl in Suitcase – in recent weeks, and left editing new interviews a bit last minute. I wanted to hear how they would flow with the material from March which was being reused, so naturally I gave each model’s interview a listen. Getting to Mum’s on Thursday afternoon left me with a heavy impression. The power in her voice is so disarming, to appreciate life so readily when one’s experience has been shockingly limited. I was reminded of the caged bird. My heart moved, and when I arrived for work in the evening, they knew something was up. Luckily they’d requested a Tank Girl look, so I was wearing stompy boots (and stockings) without anything else. They took a while to prepare their easels but some hiphop was playing and I just had to dance in my performance space. My way to release, to express, to flow back into a safer, happy place from where I can observe my emotions without being too caught up. The boots helped to ground me, as well as swing me around.

I just about managed to organise the interviews in time, but I was nervous. Every little thing – replenishing art materials, briefing models, instructions for how to maintain the pristine haven of a venue, biscuits, suitcases full of kit to charge across town by bus… and why had so few artists booked places? Would there be more models than artists? Turned out I had sent out a faulty link to the online booking  in my invitations and on the flier! Well it is the first time I have sold tickets that way, and now I know.

People showed up regardless. The right people. Not too many, but enough, definitely enough.

The planning for this event happened just before I was set to look after Mum a few days back in May. I planned the Girl in Suitcase performance then too. I needed a focus to make my days as a carer ok. Sounds terrible when some people like Dad do that all the time, but nevertheless, so it is. So there was a little urgency in the planning, which is great for making things happen, though bound to be a few hiccups.

One of the main models I had planned this event with, had dropped out last minute, due to a very important court case she was involved in out of town. Couldn’t be helped, but I guess it threw me a bit, seeing as she’d been a driving force previously. But hey, she helped get the ball rolling, and, I am so pleased with the outcome. For sure there are improvements to be made; interviews which need more editing mainly, and the possibility of some models doing a longer pose, while others move more often. What worked really nicely was Niomi’s (the absent model) idea of having a post-event debriefing session for all who cared to stay. There had been considerable discussions a while back about how we would ensure that the right people stayed, but in the end, it just happened organically. By that time, with the intensity of all the interviews fresh in the air, the people who can and want to stay on know who they are.

I tried to make sure everyone who wanted to, contributed to the discussion, and it was rewarding for me to discover how much people enjoyed hearing the interviews. As they played I had felt painfully aware of background noise, and parts of interviews which made the model in question (and me too) squirm inwardly as s/he heard her/himself. It was remarked that it was refreshing that it was not overly edited. Made it more authentic, genuine, to hear that I’d caught them at teatime, and this must have been my only opportunity to interview them, so I had just pressed record whilst kettles were boiling, cutlery chinking, or people shouting across a hall in the background. Not all the noises could be edited out, if the words were very important.

There was a difference in the way some interviews were received at Southbank Centre in March, and then at Skylight Centre now. In March at WOW the room was packed to bursting, and women at the festival had spent much of the weekend building the feminist momentum listening to talks, taking part in discussions about the female slave trade, getting more women in top positions, and getting rights for women in the middle east. By the time they got to us at the end of Sunday, they were ripe for each and every woman’s voice at our women only event.

I only invited one male model to Highbury as I was playing it very safe. I knew others would come to draw anyway and they would have a chance later in the session to pose, but I wanted to be extra picky at this stage, for this event. I won’t explain who he is or why I chose him here, as that might compromise his privacy, as with other models. But he stood out in a few ways, and I knew he wouldn’t come otherwise. My main objective might be to offer the Spirited Bodies experience to people who would otherwise not find it, and who may gain the most, as well as contributing most meaningfully to the ensuing dialogue and others’ experience.

One artist mentioned that he was amazed to hear how the interviewees expressed such hatred towards their own bodies, and that it made him realise there were likely a lot of people going round with those negative thoughts in their heads. Tragic. It was news to him (he’d been brought by a friend) that the model might be experiencing therapy whilst modelling. He wondered if all models gained in this way. I explained that for most regular models, after a while one is relatively free of body hang-ups, but that modelling may continue to offer valuable insights due to its meditative energy sharing nature, even for the seasoned model, and that’s part of what can keep its appeal. Another artist who tried the posing stated that modelling raised his energy in a trance-like way, took him to a higher place. I totally agree.

I am aware of a block I might have towards applying for funding. I guess that (funding) has never been a reason for doing the project, as my drive is born more directly of passion, a need to create and to share. I mean, funding might be great, but I would not wait for it. When I need to make Spirited Bodies or a piece of theatre happen, I just do it. I loathe the idea of fitting my plans into boxes for others to judge if my intentions and methods fit with their criteria. On the other hand, at some point I may cross that threshold as I know this is worthy of funding. It just has to happen before I get the itch to be doing the event, because then I have no time for forms.

On Friday evening there were 8 interviews, including one from an artist. There was going to be music too, but due to a technical hitch early on we only got the sound started a bit later, so no extra time available. At least 5 of the artists tried the posing. Mum received a round of applause after her interview! Revealing her identity is a little controversial as she is shy about people she knows knowing that she modelled nude. But I have this feeling it’s like worrying that someone from work will see you at a fetish club. If they are there too, surely you’re in it together? Moreover Mum’s voice is too powerful and my connection to her too strong for me to present this less personally. A middle-aged woman with advanced MS who is paralysed from the neck down poses and tells you about how in her dreams she is in her 20s and can walk, but in waking life she requires anti-depressants in order to feel ok about everything. She would hate it if the people on her street knew about the modelling (but some of them do as she’s proud enough to have some of the pictures from her previous sessions up in the kitchen). Her voice is slow, and would be quiet without volume control. Normally it’s lucky if one person can hear her, let alone an audience. She tells it like it is, and she almost has nothing to lose. Women in the audience who may be too worried about the size of their behind to pose, or think they have a big nose, rethink their concerns when they hear what Mum has to contend with. It puts everything into perspective to have an elder (63, but in a condition more like a 90 year old) like that. She hadn’t thought she could be a role model, but it dawns on her during the interview. By the end we are all extremely grateful to be able to move independently, to pick up a piece of charcoal or remove our own clothes unassisted. Life takes on new meaning.

model Liliana




All pictures taken from the event. There were many more good ones I missed, but hadn’t got that far in my planning. All the same, brilliant memories.

Lucy channelling ‘The Raft of the Medusa’

Raft of the Medusa
Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As Esther knows, I’ve long wanted to do a Spirited Bodies using ‘The Raft of the Medusa‘ as the inspiration point.  Reluctantly accepting reality, I know that this is not an appropriate re-enactment for inexperienced models, the poses involved are tough and hard to hold.  Tonight, I was modelling for Lucy Sullivan’s evening class at Kingston University.  Lucy and I have history together, I enjoy working with her because she is one of the tutors that encourages my desire to create challenging and intriguing poses, using props to the max.  She’s never forgotten working with me for the first time, with the University of the Arts London student life drawing group.  She insists that I posed with a chair on my head.  This may very well be true, a chair on the head is not unusual for me.

Tonight, I am sick with a horrid head cold, sneezing and generally feeling miserable and definitely weak and feeble.  I am thinking that I will do only simple low stress poses.  There is a donkey, a small bench that allows an artist to sit on it, while the front part can be propped up to form an easel.  Its about two foot high and under 4 foot long.  Hmm.  I’m thinking about the possibilities.  We start with short poses, 5 and 10 minutes, and I start thinking about the Raft of the Medusa, lie on the donkey with one knee up, one leg dangling over the other, my head off the end of the donkey and an arm hanging down into space.  Apart from a 30 minute reclining pose, I stick to my muse.  I stand looking for the ship on the horizon, I clamber over the donkey, I sprawl, as corpse-like as possible, across it.  I am re-enacting at least 17 different bodies, dead and alive, the artists don’t know that – well, they wouldn’t if only I stopped saying ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ with glee as I land in another contorted way.  The artists have to cope with lots of unusual foreshortenings, trust their eyes not their head’s interpretation of what a human body is like.  Everyone is happy.
The images created show that, while I might have been thinking corpses and crowded rafts, the artists were working on their own ideas.  That’s one of the things I most like about modelling – you create a pose and the artist creates their work, somewhere between the two is transformation.  It happened at the last workshop we did on Sunday – 3 people were given an everyday drama and created something artistic.  LaDawn had nicked Carlos’ parking space, they were arguing about it, and David was the peace maker.  Out of this mundane beginning, they formed a pose that could have come out of a Caravaggio of a religious scene.  LaDawn standing, shaking her finger at Carlos, who, on one knee, one arm up entreating, and David with arms outstretched, touching both of them in a clear gesture of reconciliation.  Enacting a scene is liberating, helps you think of poses that mean something through their stance and gesture, and this gives the artists something extra.  Posing for artists is about more than just lounging about naked – its about evoking presence.
Lucy Sullivan, tonight’s tutor, attended one Spirited Bodies workshop and gave great feedback to the participants about their poses and how artists might react to them.  She said that the Spirited Bodies models, all amateur and new to it, were better than professional models she’d booked for her class.  She’d had one model recently who wouldn’t keep still in any pose, and irritated all the artists.  She said that the people modelling at the workshop came up with good poses which they held, were still and a pleasure to draw, and she’d like to work with them again if they wished to after their Spirited Bodies experience.  There could be no better recommendation.  The artists coming on Saturday 20 October are in for a treat.
Looking again at the Raft of the Medusa, I can see that I got the arms the wrong way round for the man spotting the ship on the horizon and there were some more twisty poses that I missed out.  I shall have another go another time.  Some of the images are creased, that’s because the artists had thrown them away – life drawing for artists is like doing scales and arpeggios is for musicians, an essential way of keeping in practice, maintaining and developing technique, a building block not the end itself.  I rather like rootling round in the rubbish bin after an evening’s posing, you never know what you will find.  Sometimes you are amazed at what artists will throw away – other times equally amazed at what they will keep.

Francis Wardale’s Artwork from Mortlake

I enjoy life drawing but this gives me the chance to draw people in more complex 
compositions than you get in a life class.

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I enjoy the challenge of trying to record the groupings of models with only a limited time. (Of course I make it difficult for myself by trying to include as many of the models as possible rather than on concentrating on individuals or small groupings, but for me that's the challenge - and I want to make the most of the opportunity offered)

It Seemed Incredibly Normal to Stand Around Unburdened by Clothes

“It’ll be ok, I told myself that morning, I’m sure Esther will reassure us, tell us what to do, she’ll make it all work.

by Brian McKenzie;

Then there was train trouble at King’s Cross and I ended up rushing in after they’d all started. So in the end my preparation was getting undressed and walking into a roomful of people! Bizarrely it felt perfectly normal. Not embarrassing. Not awkward. Not even chilly. It seemed incredibly normal to stand around unburdened by clothes. In dreams when I am naked, I have always been mildly apologetic rather than humiliated – it reminded me of that. Only no need to apologise because nakedness was exactly what was expected. I highly recommend the experience to anybody prepared to try a little thought experiment, know you are alive by doing something a little unnerving or just yearning for two hours without chores, text messages, responsibilities or objectives. Therapeutic, communal yet individual.”

Thank you Catherine!

by Francis Wardale, "I like quick sketching, I've done sessions where I've got a model to do 100 different poses and I'm quite likely at my Life Drawing group if I've got spare time at the end to do drawings of the whole room - model and artists";

by Charles Patey, "It is very rare that one gets the opportunity to draw multiple models."

Expectation & Collaboration – of a model & an artist

Feedback answers from Charlie who both modelled and photographed

a) Did it live up to your expectations?
Spirited Bodies 5 certainly did live up to my expectations, and in some ways exceeded them as well. It was lovely being a homogenous part of the group. I was somewhat unsure of my capability to hold a pose for 30 minutes, so I certainly surprised myself by doing so. I think that having so many fellow models with me made the task of holding a pose much easier, feeling that we were all supporting each other in a very bonding way. I love the way that we all bonded from the start and felt totally comfortable with each other. I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet some of the other models in advance.

From an artistic point of view, I was also very pleased. The evening was a form of testing ground for me, so I came with a very open mind and was not expecting too much. However, the results were far better than I anticipated, and as I go through the numerous shots, I am finding more and more details that I would love to work on and refine on future occasions. I did have some expectation shortfalls, but these were almost exclusively related to technical things such as camera settings, backdrops and lighting.

b) Was anything lacking?

I would say that the space was a bit awkward to work in, but this did not seriously impede the artists’ work. I was amazed to see how 30 artists managed to squeeze their way into the space, but still have a good area to work in. More time before and after the artists’ sessions would have been nice; time for us models to meet and chat, get to know each other, time to set up a few well thought out tableaux – the table worked, but I felt that with a bit more time, we could have been really creative with the space and with each other, and possibly planned in advance what scenes we would like to create for our artists.

From a photographic point of view, time was very limited. I would have loved a couple of hours to really think out the set carefully, have around 30 minutes or so before models arrive to experiment with lighting and camera settings, and have the luxury to work with the models over the course of a very chilled and relaxed day.

c) What did you gain from it?

In no particular order: Wonderful people to create art with and collaborate with, new friendships, new artistic ideas, the confidence that I can hold a pose for at least 30 minutes, some lovely photographic works, a better understanding of how to best utilise awkward space for a nude tableau featuring 14 models, the satisfaction that many artists were able to benefit from my contribution, the experience of building trust with first-time models, it was an invaluable experience all around and I learned loads from it.

Here are a couple of Charlie’s nude abstracts: