The Male Gaze in Life Drawing

It’s 2018 and we need to call time on life drawing groups that operate too much along the lines of the male gaze. To be clear, while this is about what heterosexual men typically fantasise about, so ingrained in our society’s psyche is this paradigm (patriarchy has been dominant for the last several thousand years) that many (read most) women and in fact people have internalised it too. Even when we are aware of it, the effects of this most insidious structure are very hard to eradicate.

The Male Gaze is the idea developed by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. This says that Western art and literature have massively privileged men as active viewers, relegating women to the status of objects to be consumed by the senses, sexually. Women have value by being looked at, objectified and compliant for heterosexual male pleasure. In order for anyone to identify with this long history of art and writing, they must put themselves in the position of the heterosexual male viewer who is also white. Since this art has dominated our culture for so long, and compulsory reading materials  and works for study at all levels of our education system have been mostly comprised of it, it has hardly been possible for anyone in our society to avoid being conditioned somehow in this way. Even if you avoid all education, the same phenomenon exists in all our mainstream media. We are only really starting to see some change in relatively recent years.

Being valued mostly for our looks rather than ideas, for our bodies and not our agency, it has been very difficult for women to rise to positions of power – beyond the means of their appearance. This is further hampered by the way that we have been pitted against one another, taught to compete with each other for male attention, instead of joining forces to support one another. I know first hand how long it can take to break free of such cycles of misery. The best female friendships I have took several years to bond, with a considerable period of falling out in the beginning, before we were able to reasonably look past our differences and cease to feel threatened by each other. It is so easy to feel jealous of another’s success, when you ought simply to feel admiration and joy for your sister. I think, especially when we have been marginalised, it may be harder the more insecure we have been, to move past those painful feelings of resentment for another’s success. To stop feeling that their progress hinders our own possibility of advancement, as if there were a finite number of positions of power for women. Actually that can be a very real feeling, more than a feeling – that predicament is precisely the world we are still living in, so it is no wonder that getting past jealousy is such a bitch!

The Body Beautiful? event at The Mall Galleries was a brilliant opportunity to address issues of disfigurement, female objectification and the male gaze through the lens of figurative art; as well as how this art can be therapeutic for transforming self-perception and powerful in changing attitudes. It took place alongside the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society Annual Exhibition. We were a varied group of panelists – one (transgressive) figurative painter, two disfigurement campaigners, and one body positive artivist I might call myself. The thing I mainly wanted to speak about apart from describing what I do with Spirited Bodies, is how to decolonise life drawing of the male gaze – and by putting it that way I implicitly link the gaze with (post)colonialism. I do see the patriarchy and colonialism as inextricably interlinked in our UK culture; as historical establishment mechanisms for controlling women, people of colour, minority genders, sexualities, abilities and class… I was also asked by portrait painter Alastair Adams who was chairing the discussion, about how the rise of social media has affected the life drawing scene, and my response to that.

I spoke of the responsibility of model bookers to ensure they have as wide a variety and diversity as possible of models, especially if they are large, influential, well-established groups. Such groups are likely to have a considerable number of artists attending who run their own groups elsewhere (in London and beyond), so that models may often be sourced from the larger group, and as well artists pick up standards of practice there. Naturally this means there is a greater responsibility in terms of social conscience that lies with those who book models for bigger groups. Where naked people are being selected to be drawn, I don’t think anyone in London in 2018 can claim that this is not a political choice. Whose bodies are they? Which genders, which ages, colours, sizes, shapes and abilities? There is a huge amount of choice available here in London, and that needs to be completely recognised, and not simply left for the more politically switched on groups out there who make the effort to take risks. With a climate increasingly embracing diversity and inclusivity, the risk is less and less a commercial one, and in fact more one of being called out.

That said, some smaller groups can’t afford to take (commercial) risks as attendance of artists/drawers may drop off if they book less conventionally attractive models more frequently, or simply book male models on consecutive weeks for example. I warned that we all need to be mindful of how the male gaze can affect the decisions of model bookers as it can be insidious, within all of us, so we need to keep questionning our ‘normal’.  What is deemed normal in a lot of (slightly old-fashioned) groups is having a much higher proportion of female models than male, and this is because the male gaze (which as I said is in women as well) prefers to look at women. It wasn’t always so however in Western art, as up until about the 16th century, male nudes were far more common and acceptable than female. The other predominant ‘normal’ nowadays, is a preference for young, slim yet curvy women; so that for example if larger women are booked consecutively this may be considered remarkable, but if several weeks of slim female models go by, no objection is raised.

In our patriarchal society we have learned to live with the prevalence of some people’s presumed right to consume the female body in some form or another; in particular the body of females who need money, and that sense of power becoming encoded in a particular and often very narrow aesthetics. Then ‘artists’ are free to say, “That’s just what I enjoy drawing,” without investigating their preference. That’s something which we at Spirited Bodies very much want to question and raise awareness about.

As a group of life models, some of us jointly prepared for ‘The Body Beautiful?’ event in a discussion group. How to tackle the unconscious bias of the male gaze, and how do we want to talk about bodies – which words are we using? So often the descriptors for life modelling jobs fall into extremes of plus-size, slim, athletic, dancer, young, voluptuous… but what of the vast majority of human bodies – are they not interesting to draw as well? When we draw a person, we don’t just draw a body but the unique energy which that person has. The average, in between size, ordinary everyday bodies; these ought to be celebrated and called for if we are to truly embrace body and human positivity. The concept of body equality feels important to us, and this was something which resonated with fellow panelist Henrietta Spalding of Changing Faces as well. Despite the name she said her organisation are very concerned with bodies too, as is Sylvia Mac’s Love Disfigure.

As a model I know the places where I feel most comfortable posing – where general working conditions are positive including pay, model consideration when it comes to choice of pose, breaks, set-up (furnishings), heating, changing area… and where I enjoy a good relationship with the artists, and feel appreciated for who I am and my very real ability as a model. There are also places where I do not feel that the male gaze is influencing booking or working practice, and that makes a really positive difference to me. The atmosphere is wholesome and I can relax more. I know that such groups are only interested in drawing the best possible variety of talented models available, without exception. They are somehow neutral and unaffected by the male gaze, which is a healthy breath of fresh air. I don’t find myself thinking, “Soon this group will be bored of me and find me too old,” and I don’t feel a pressure to push myself beyond what is reasonably comfortable because of some unrealistic expectations by group members about what constitutes a decent pose. I often enjoy making challenging poses, but there are times when I can’t do them, or I just need to rest; and it’s always best if I decide when to do which poses.

There can be a lot of silent (or sometimes slightly vocalised) judgement about models’ bodies and the shapes they make. The attitude that some artists have that because they have paid money, they have a right to choose what the model looks like and does with her body, feels postcolonial, patriarchal. I am not averse to a discussion about making a pose, but I should always have the final say (and do). Me being vocal does cost me some jobs, because there are more compliant models out there, and that fits with a lot of ‘artists” agenda.

Such groups may seem driven by a male fantasy. There are models who may naturally fulfil that desire, or angle themselves towards it out of a need for income and because they can. In our super-consumerist culture, female objectification and self-objectification have become normalised from a very early age in girls. This sharp end of capitalism is responsible for a lot of problematic health conditions including eating disorders and low self-esteem, which studies have shown affects political efficacy. This means that women are readily rendered as mere objects to be consumed which amounts to the pornification of women’s bodies and contributes  subtley to the global condition of violence against women.  – Here I shall refer to the remarkable artivist (and life model) Lidia’s recent article on the subject of global violence against women.

There is the apparently unconscious sense of entitlement that some people feel about having some control over another person’s body – and that body being naked in front of them, and often of a person who depends on the income from modelling in order to make a living. This dynamic is the one we would like to raise awareness about and transform, because sometimes it is less obvious, just subtle, but nevertheless apparent. It passes for acceptable oftentimes because a tutor wants to please all class attendees for fear of losing them otherwise. Without pointing out individuals, I simply want to put this out there, to encourage greater awareness and capacity for embracing a truly empathic and body-kind, human-kind atmosphere of utter respect within the life drawing arena. I ought to add heartfelt gratitude to the artists who have always been leading the way when it comes to working with models in a positive exemplary fashion.

Sometimes groups do invite a variety of models, but it is the more glamorous and overtly sexy ones who dominate on social media, gaining the most likes, comments and shares. Which further drives the trend as artists vie for popularity and are encouraged in their choices (e.g. which models to book and images to post). While this may suit a bunch of men (and some women), there will be a considerable number of people who are negatively affected due to the comparison effect. Some will unfollow or opt out of particular platforms – or social media altogether. For others the effect may contribute to troubled feelings and behaviours. On the panel I shared that as a model myself I have stopped being so free with posting images of myself, since I noticed that I feel uncomfortable if I see too many images of other models of particularly mainstream beauty standards – and I do mean life models! I hardly consume any regular media channels so I am less exposed to fashion models and celebrities for example than many people. Perhaps that’s why I have a low threshold for consuming images of life models, although I would stress that I do mean online, not in real life as it were. Screen fatigue perhaps. I do not want to be part of the problem. I do not need extra attention for my appearance, nor do I want to feed negative comparisons in others.

What else can one do about this? Ask the organisers in question to be yet more varied when booking models. What if a greater balance of models is achieved and some members of a group leave? Nevermind; other more open-minded types may arrive. Model bookers could also do more to set the expectations of their groups, and certainly raise repeatedly the diversity of bodies in mainstream ‘recognised’ great art so that their group does not stick on the association of ‘nude means young slim female being looked at by men.’ They could discuss the role of artists in society, which is often about challenging cultural norms and raising uncomfortable topics, like ageing or flesh.

There are groups hidden from view, able to continue their old ways as no one involved wants change – neither the artists nor models. I only know because occasionally I have gotten a taste, but tend not to get favourited in such places being neither pretty, young or curvy enough, and also being too outspoken. Not everyone has this social conscience and other models enjoy the work, or need the money too much or worry about their right to live in the country post-Brexit, so effectively choose less freely. But where groups are visible and there is a chance of leverage, action may be taken.

Empowering Models?

Experiencing new confidence and being found attractive perhaps for the first time in their lives, happy to be sexualised, to have this relatively safe attention… can be empowering. But… when a model conforms to a male gaze fantasy in her pose, and she is staying still, there may be some objectification happening on at least two levels. I am suggesting that what happens on the micro level also affects the macro – the bigger picture. What we allow in our tiny London art scene may be sending a message of condoning the wider objectification of women (and people) globally. In other words – we are all connected, very much so now, and you might not be aware of it, but there is a growing underground trade of women and children’s bodies (also men, but for sex it’s mainly female).

The complicated thing is I am not saying it is wrong to express sexual empowerment through our poses; I think that to be a necessary part of some people’s evolution and to be celebrated. I certainly have and I haven’t felt that I was conforming to male fantasy necessarily at the time. What is important is that I was doing it for myself, because I was feeling it in that moment – it was me being true to myself. This opinion piece is simply urging greater diversity in representation of the human form as well as awareness about how the male gaze may affect us all.

Light entertainment on this theme; Fitness music video by Lizzo

Postcolonialism

Some models are from countries where there are fewer options and the patriarchy is more dominantly apparent. Female models of this type may find they are popular with upper middle class British artists. Typically a group of more well-to-do artists I work with, may ask me to introduce them to new models. I know now that they won’t appreciate it if I send them one of my more politicised model friends, who takes less care of her cosmetic appearance though is an outstanding model. They only want a certain prettiness and willingness to please in the ideally younger female. They prefer her to be foreign and preferably slightly darker skinned. A cute accent and enough education to be engaging, a background they can feel good about supporting, without such a sad story that it’s just too awful. The right amount of difficulty for them to patronise, foreignness to exoticise, also talent and good nature to adore, and generally not take them too far out of their old school days of the empire. Growing up in British colonies with servants is the kind of thing they know, and sometimes having a model, English or not, who observes and passes knowing comment on such matters is not what they want. Far better the grateful foreigner who knows only too well that going home may not be an option or that it would be undesirable, so it is in her best interests to accept all this ‘relatively’ well paid work and shut up.

Life Model Autonomy

On a more positive note and in favour of my many talented life model colleagues, it is refreshing to see so many groups being run by models themselves, whether they are teaching, organising or modelling, they are calling the shots and doing things on their own terms. This is a massive and wholesome development, allowing them to generate more income, develop or use different skills, exert more of their own creativity and most of all autonomy. The usual wage disparity between tutor and model may be evened out, and models themselves take an interest in the promotional side. It means that overall, regardless of what’s going on in colleges and art schools, UK life drawing is in an energised and healthy place, continually (re)engaging new people, making the papers and all forms of media. Some of the most creative and progressive events are emerging from this phenomenon and influencing what is happening elsewhere in schools and institutions. Spirited Bodies has of course been a considerable part of this and is the longest running such project if not the most frequent.

This piece was written by Esther Bunting, with some words and ideas contributed by Lidia, Marinella Mezzanotte and Lucy Saunders.

The Power of saying ‘No’

Spirited Bodies presents the next Stories of Women event, featuring co-founder Morimda, a professional life model of over 20 years experience. This will be held on Tuesday September 25th, 7pm – 9pm at The Feminist Library.

Morimda

 

From being an extremely shy person, it was through life modelling that Morimda emerged – found out who she was and was able to express that to other people.

by Julia Thompson

Morimda did not do well in school, so her parents tried to arrange a marriage for her when she was 16. This was when she first realised the power of saying ‘No’!

She was extremely shy, and living in Paris found herself in relationships but was unable to come out of her shell, and deep down she knew that the only way to properly emerge as herself, was to be alone, a single woman in order to find her own voice. She wanted to come to England and learn English, and pursuing this dream gave her the strength to say ‘No’ for the second time, to an episode of unfulfilling relationships in France.

In London working as a window dresser, she wanted to be a mannequin! That was when she hit upon the idea of becoming a life model. The futility of continually being sacked, basically because she was shy, pushed her to actively take on becoming a full time life model. Her 3rd ‘No’ was when she refused to keep looking for a more mainstream job.

by Ray Marwyck

She discovered how liberating it was to be nude, to own her body, and learnt through this profession the subtleties of her own boundaries more clearly. For the first time in her life, she stopped feeling ugly and like a failure for not fitting with conventions. Her confidence developed as she learnt how to manage herself as a business.

Modelling helped Morimda to cure her depression, as it allowed her to be herself, to accept herself, and in this way encouraged her innate inner joy to shine through again. Through the life model network she was introduced to Buddhism and chanting which is a strong focus in her life to this day.

She is very keen to empower other women about their bodies, nudity and sensuality, as she truly feels that modelling has given her so much in these regards. It helped her to be aware of the significance of posture, and how each of us have different shapes and forms to play with. She was inspired to come up with the idea for Spirited Bodies, whilst posing at the Mall Galleries in 2010 before sharing it with Esther & Lucy.

Life modelling and drawing are a really good way to address body image issues, as well as gaining confidence and broadening our experience by stepping out of our comfort zones.

At this Stories of Women event there is also the chance to try life modelling yourself, or you may come to draw and/or listen or join in the conversation. During the second half there is a discussion about the body politics of life modelling and related matters. There is guidance for new models – no experience necessary, and some drawing materials are provided – again no experience necessary.

For more information about this event and to buy tickets online, see here.

Stories of Women ~ the journey so far


The idea came as a way to develop the interview format where I would record models and artists speaking about their experiences relating to modelling and drawing, and play this while the models posed. With Stories of Women I chose to focus on one model each time, and give her the chance to lead and inspire not only with her body, but through far greater agency than is usually afforded, by letting her deliver her narrative too. There was also the fact that I could not reasonably afford to pay more than one model with this experimental and risky new venture. The Feminist Library has been an ideal new home for the project and introduced us to a wonderful, vibrant wider community of feminist activists. I am most grateful for their generous and accommodating support without which the events could not have run.

As part of a life model community I have gotten to know many amazing models over the years, each very different. Usually they pose silently and Stories of Women seemed a wonderful way to unleash another side of them; the mind behind the poses and inside the body. It gives the opportunity to address many issues that naturally relate to each of us; including size, race, age, illness, surgery, disability, Motherhood, sexuality and gender for example.

I have also encouraged fellow models to come along and join in the discussion which has made for a rich sharing of experience and a frankly much needed live forum between us. So much happens online and it is great when we can actually meet – so rarely do our individually busy schedules allow for this.

It has given me the chance to get to know some of my fellow models better too, as the invitation to share a story necessitates more communication than is usually required between model and booker. Typically a meeting happens and some further batting back and forth of ideas. It makes a pleasant change in the general routine of dashing between jobs with minimal interaction. It may put down a marker of what is important to the model at that time, gives them a reason to take stock. What does modelling mean to them? Why do they do it and is there anything they would like to change?

 

 

Two of the models so far have not been feeling that modelling will be so much in their future, so there was the sense of drawing their work to a close and celebrating a long career that is now ending, certainly with Jennifer and Hana. Jennifer revealed some very profound feelings about the work, which may have jarred with newcomers simply hoping to try it out, because it’s very different when you model full time for years on end. But this did spark intense and animated discussion as it happened among a number of fellow professionals who were present. Even if newcomers were shocked or surprised, they also learnt a great deal of inside information!

Hana Schlesinger

Hana has retired she says, but still likes a little work here and there as the pleasure remains, but she is much older now and suddenly finds there are so many more things she wants to be doing. I was given her number by a tutor Eric who I model for in Hammersmith. She was the oldest model I could easily contact that I knew of in London, in her mid 70s. It was a real treat to get to know her and visit her in Harlesden, her decades of experience through different life drawing eras and stages in her own life were fascinating to hear of. A lovely woman who radiates confidence and liberatedness, a joy to behold.

With Claire it was more of a retrospective look at her modelling career as she no longer does it much. In fact she only does it at Spirited Bodies in recent years specifically to explore her relationship with her body post mastectomy, having been a life model prior to that. It links up with various pieces of writing, poems, artworks and photographs she has also created on the subject over a number of years, and lined up with an exhibition she put on at The Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths (part of her residency). So each event has a unique content and flavour, sometimes an edge.

Leo

Leo and Natasha are very much in their element now as models, even if Natasha can’t always do as much as she’d like due to full time work commitments. Valentina modelled at Good Girls Reveal All with me, and while this wasn’t called Stories of Women, it was a very similar format so I shall include Valentina here. She also is really enjoying a fantastic life model career now, and it’s a pleasure to connect with this energy in all of them. These younger women took up modelling in the last 6 years and expressed the changes they’d felt as a result of their nude career. It was overwhelmingly positive what modelling brings to them, even if sometimes the affects are so strong that you make some very massive changes in your life that have serious consequences. It’s not uncommon when we become models that it shifts something in our intimate relationships. Suddenly we are being appreciated physically (and more as this is about personality too) by others, artists; and we don’t necessarily need that from our partners any more.

Leo expressed her devotion to celibacy and the empowerment she finds that way. As a larger model her experience of the world is shaped somewhat by how society regards her (as it is for all of us in our own way). I am a slim model and appreciated for different qualities, fat hasn’t been such a thing for me but for so many women it is. How fat becomes a gift in the life room may be the most obvious example of how life modelling can enhance body positivity.

Natasha has become in touch with her own sense of independence and confidence not just as a result of modelling but also various other nude activities, including the World Naked Bike Ride; Spencer Tunick, Matt Granger and her own outdoor photoshoots; and blossomed in that regard. She started her own life drawing group in Upminster called LeNu with her sister a few years ago which runs weekly sessions and where Steve and I will be part of a Spirited Bodies – Stories type event, hopefully in the Summer term! Natasha also very much looks forward to creating a new photographic project in the Summer, similar to her outdoor group nude shoots in 2015 (Project Naked).

 

 

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Valentina and I enjoyed a luxurious amount of time to prepare together. Because I would be performing as well, there was much to discuss – how our narratives would blend and intersect. We wanted to memorise parts of our speech for a more dramatic effect, and tried out ideas with each other over several meetings. For her, the body positivity element was very strong, and moving to listen to. The painful experiences that preceded our lives as models, are the drivers for passionate immersion in a new world of self exploration and expression, with a guaranteed audience! This gig was a new departure, a collaboration with Good Girls Eat Dinner founder Jo Wallace, who drew me in Hoxton the term before when I announced one of my events. She was interested and came along, as well instigated Good Girls Reveal All with me. A new direction for her, and a different audience for a Stories of Women type event. As creative director at an advertising agency in Knightsbridge, she arranged the event where she works. Most of the drawers were her fellow creatives from a number of professional fields. They didn’t try the modelling (it didn’t seem appropriate with many of them working with each other), but listened and drew avidly. Jo asked us questions which we had prepared, and also we delivered a couple of learnt set pieces. I found it very liberating to have this platform too, and greatly appreciated sharing it with Valentina. There was strong solidarity between us, and a chance to bond as women as well as models. Our audience were pretty new to these ideas and drew a lot from our insights. Thanks to Jo (and Valentina) who helped make this transition to a new territory especially smooth and welcoming.

 

 

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Our next model will be Lucy Saunders who helped to found Spirited Bodies with Morimda and myself, in 2010. This is an exciting prospect for several reasons. Lucy enjoyed a hugely popular and decent length life model career which mostly came to an end a few years ago, as she decided to focus on teaching and then PR work. There have been health issues too more recently; an operation last year left her somewhat disabled, but relieved her of a great deal of pain. Nevertheless she is rapidly regaining her mobility and is determined to demonstrate the full variety of her posing repertoire. Truly I know that even if she can’t create poses with her body as nimbly as previously (much physio is on the cards), she will have no problem enthralling an audience (of drawers) with her life modelling tales and the way she informs her posing from a number of inspirations including great masters’ compositions.

 

 

The story Lucy always tells about her initiation into life modelling and what gave her hope that it was worth pursuing despite her size – she was modelling at a RAM audition alongside a young student; slim, long red hair, perfect in the way that young people can be carelessly perfect. She knew nothing about good poses and made some fairly mad shapes. In the break, she wandered round looking at the artists’ work. One man had done a competent A3 drawing of the young woman sitting on a chair. Up in one corner, the size of a playing card, he’d done a quick sketch of Lucy sitting on the floor from behind. ‘He made my arse look like a smile, and I thought, I can do this.’ says Lucy. ‘What looking at images made of me by hundreds of artists in all sorts of mediums, from charcoal to paint to clay to collage, has made me realise is that I truly have very little control of how other people see me or what they think of my body. It is a huge relief to lay down that burden of trying to live up to expectations that I have learnt are largely internalised dictats of the culture I live in.’

 

 

It is a rare opportunity for a model to demonstrate posing with some disability, in this case one who has enjoyed a long and full career as a celebrated model. She worked at various institutions including Morley College, Kensington and Chelsea, The Prince’s Drawing School, the Hesketh Hubbard, Richmond Art School as well as many other formal and informal life drawing groups and meetings. ‘I love seeing what the artists create and while I might think my pose expresses one thing, it can be enchanting to see it turn into a completely different story through the artists’ work.’

 

 

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Lucy was I think, the largest female model I was aware of on the circuit in the early days (10 years ago). Then I got to know some more, but they have generally been a relative rarity, greatly in demand for their shape and size. At Spirited Bodies we have always wanted to encourage everyone to feel comfortable in the body they are in, especially marginalised bodies, but as margins can be internal, this really is anybody. Whether your body is judged unfavourably by a critical society, or further controlled by harsh cultural practices imposing limiting behaviours; or it is at war with itself for whatever reason; if you can find self acceptance, and let go of feelings of shame, that can benefit a person immeasurably. From that place of self love, one may be better equipped to address further issues that invariably arise.

It has been very rewarding to help people come to terms with bodies they did not feel at home in, and to reclaim them, sometimes through modelling as a group at our sessions; and in some instances helping them further into life modelling careers of their own. I have probably gotten to know an unusually high number of partially disabled models due to Spirited Bodies’ inclusive body-embracing aims. Sometimes the warm appreciation of artists serves as a healing energy that goes a little way perhaps to redress the discomfort of a body/mind that may be struggling.

If you would like to join us for Lucy’s Stories of Women event, it will take place at Hampstead School of Art (HSOA) on Friday 18th May 2018, from 6:30pm – 8:30pm. The cost is £20 and you can buy tickets online here, or book a place by calling 0207 794 1439, or email info@hsoa.co.uk

The address is 2 Penrose Gardens, Kidderpore Green, NW3 7BF, London. 

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It is an enormous delight to return to HSOA – in 2014 they generously hosted my Girl in Suitcase performance with live musicians and fellow model and friend, Ursula Troche. I have been modelling there recently and they got wind of my events in December and asked me about putting one on there, in the Summer term. They are keen to host exciting new life drawing and art related events at the school, where they fit with their programme. It means a great deal to have friendly collaborators who make you feel very supported, indeed you need that in order for a project to survive. Artists supporting each other is what it’s all about and we are very grateful to have such company. Looking forward to presenting Stories of Women for them and whoever fancies coming along. This is a mixed event (unlike The Feminist Library ones) and there will be the chance to try posing as well, alongside Lucy, and with her direction and guidance. Drawing materials provided and naturally easels, boards, tables – for the first time this type of event is happening in an actual life drawing studio! What a gift! We are excited and honoured, and hope to inspire the artists with a new understanding of a muse. Many thanks to Isabel, Anat, Caitlin and all at HSOA – their kindness is much appreciated. And how happy I am to be working and creating again, with my one time project partner. We step easily into the groove, familiar enough to get straight to the point in what are sometimes challenging personal matters. In the depth we find strength and closeness renewed. I have every hope for a most successful occasion.

 

 

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With special thanks to all our friends who have turned up, helped and joined in; it is all greatly appreciated.

Stories of Women ~ part 2 with Jennifer

Ursula was helping me to prepare the space, and put up signage in the building where The Feminist Library is, so that women would be able to find us easily. Not many had booked so I was rather nervous that Jennifer would not have much of an audience drawing her. Jennifer herself and her partner, were sorting out her performance space with a projector, paper on the wall behind her and as well for under her feet. I handed her boxes of cherry tomatoes that I had brought for the dancing part of her piece.

Jennifer Farmer in ‘Seymour & Gladys’

Although I had been nervous in preceeding days, somehow that feeling had eased just on the day, and I don’t think this was unrelated to my period starting, on Friday. It was several days early and for that I rejoiced, as I knew that by Monday the good hormones would be kicking in like reassuring drugs to make me feel confident no matter what. I surmised that my body-mind knew well what it was doing to alter my cycle thus. I would deliver my two events this week on better form once the blood started flowing. That’s the way I roll.

 

I wasn’t expecting many women to come and had got a bit stuck thinking, this is no longer what people want. People are just too busy on social media to leave their homes and actually do something! I’d bought some zines the week before in the same room we were now preparing for the event, and they were made by feminists in their late teens or early 20s. I thought that reading them would give me a good chance to understand the younger generation a bit more, and was impressed at the careful crafting of their poetry, photography, cartoon, article and art filled pages. One interview with some apparently famous on Instagram young style icons, stated that they never went out anymore. They just got dressed up at home with each other, and posted images online to gain approval. This was all they needed to do to rise to success. How depressing. Dressing up can be fun, but so too meeting people, seeing live music, dancing… I felt fondness for my more outgoing youth, and also sadness that those times may have gone for the young now.

Of course, my events often attract older women, so are not necessarily vulnerable to these newer trends. Still I thought – everyone is on holiday, or, there is just too much to choose from in London. That certainly is true. For life drawing alone I knew of several alternative sessions across the city at exactly the same time as mine. I was competing with more glamorous and less complicated events. Not many artists want the models to talk while they pose! What a distraction! So my niche is feminist artists. Well I had done my best job of corralling those I know and who have been supportive before. I think some of them sensed how worried I had been feeling! The other niche is women who wanted to try modelling, and I wasn’t sure that many of those I’d been in touch with would come.

With my hormones happy, I stopped worrying, and opened up to allowing whatever wanted to be. It would be fine however small; what mattered was being in a good strong spirit to welcome women and help them feel at ease. I sent a last minute email to my life model list, offering the women to come draw for free. The added draw was conversation about life modelling. We don’t normally get to do that in person except with friends I don’t think. And women do love to talk…

I had only brought 10 drawing boards with me, fearing the worst. I knew that there are a few tables in the room, which could also be used, especially by painters. Women did start arriving, and before we begun I had run out of floor space that was covered by plastic sheeting to protect the carpet. So I asked people just to draw with pencil – no charcoal! Jennifer needed time to configure the technology, so at 7pm I began by asking women to introduce themselves – I did not know some of them, nor had I been in touch with them. They had seen the event online or picked up a leaflet. They really liked the idea of this unusual event in a women’s space – they were our people!

When Jennifer was ready, we focused on her, as she moved slowly across the back wall, whilst speaking, sharing intimate thoughts on her experience as a model. It was soon apparent; this was not light-hearted. There was some pretty dark revealing, and I wondered how that came across to those who had never modelled before but had been looking forward to it. Naturally I had discussed this with Jennifer in advance, but the most important thing was her authenticity. If she spoke of the very difficult aspects of life modelling, it is because she has done it for many years. She also had a fair few lighter anecdotes to deliver.

Jennifer’s personas, by Maria

Women continued arriving and I had to keep weaving my way from the back of the room to welcome them, and somehow find them a seat from where they might draw. We managed, and it was joyful to see each new face. Unexpected surprises were several professional models from my network making an appearance! A couple I hadn’t met yet but recognised them from pictures. It being the Summer holidays, lots of models weren’t working much, and that turned out to be a massive plus for the event. They had time on their hands to come do some drawing instead. Morimda, who first had the idea of, and initiated Spirited Bodies nearly 7 years ago turned up. As did Claire who had been a life model in the 80s, is a writer/poet and has modelled a couple of times with us before. It was the professional models in particular who really resonated with Jennifer’s words. We have lived a lot of the harder stuff too. I am sure most of the newcomers will never take up life modelling to that long and perhaps overly sustained level that we have, but I think it was some of this challenging content that made Jennifer’s performance more edgy. We all felt some of her pain as she crushed pastels in her fists and smeared the powder across her skin. In very slow movement she drew lines across the wall and over her body. She was marking her journey, and she was in control of it. No pose times were called. Sometimes she didn’t speak for a while and I didn’t know if there was more. She was thinking. I don’t think she had rehearsed lines as such, but had certainly devised a formula, albeit freeflowing and flexible.

She talked about being othered, feeling a responsibility to represent the different minorities that she naturally is – black, queer, fat… and how she’d realised, it wasn’t her job to be that person. It isn’t anyone’s job. There were other things she wanted to do with her life, but somehow she’d gotten sucked into this life model career, because people told her she was good, and she liked quite a few of them. But in the end that isn’t enough. She is also a playwright and performance artist, and I think she wants to be doing more of those things. I first came across her work in 2004 when I was taking some singing classes at Clean Break theatre company. This is a charity for women who have had experience of the criminal justice system, whether or not they have been in prison. A lot had. The company had commissioned Jennifer to write a play about the lives of women in prison, and she had created ‘Compact Failure’, which I saw at The Arcola. It was an outstanding piece of writing that drew you into the world of three disturbed, broken and in yer face witty women.

In the process of preparing this event, I came up against a few new challenges. Promoting such an othered performer, just felt wrong at times. It was like I was exploiting these aspects, after all, intersectionality is a buzz word in the feminist community these days. As a feminist, especially a white one, if your activism isn’t including enough minorities, you may be in the firing line. If you do include them you have to do so sensitively. At the same time that I was negotiating these tricky parameters; as a life drawing event, I am competing with straight forward life drawing sessions, and more commercial events – some that care not a jot for such considerations. At least not to anything like the same degree, and a few happily sex themselves up as much as they can get away with! This part of the industry naturally tends to remind me increasingly of the necessity of what I do, yet I am treading a very fine line and it feels most precarious.

by Catherine Hall

In time, with a look and a few words, Jennifer let me know she’d finished the performance, and I thanked her. We applauded. The next phase would be more upbeat and we turned out the lights to watch Waltzing Tomatoes. The significance of the film for Jennifer, was that it had been inspired directly by life modelling (even if that’s not immediately obvious). It is a successful film she  created a few years ago with Samuel Overington, and shows them dancing in various locations of significance to them. After the short screening, we cleared the space for a little waltz of our own with tomatoes. Ursula and I offered to demonstrate as no volunteers were forthcoming, but it only took a bit of encouragement and soon 4 couples were being paired up to balance cherry tomatoes between their bodies at the points of contact. How that makes you aware of each other, of your connection and how it is you move without dropping the fruit. It seemed a good link towards undressing with strangers and perhaps touching skin in a group pose. Women were still dressed for the dance.

by Irene Lafferty

Meanwhile I scanned the room for those I thought wanted to model and urged them to start getting into a robe. The time was nearly upon us! As the music came to an end, more space was cleared, and in one part of the room, several women simultaneously shed their clothes. They didn’t even need robes now. I advised that they could find positions to pose in, however they felt, and that we would be having a chat during this part of the event. If they weren’t sure what to do they could simply ask as the room contained a great deal of women’s life modelling experience. In the end it was the experienced voices that found a platform for telling their stories, years’ old memories that might not have surfaced publicly before. There were some people drawing, some talking, quite a few modelling, and a bit of multi-tasking! While Jennifer had focused somewhat on life model challenges during her presentation, Morimda wanted to tell all the new models how beautiful they are! As with last month’s edition (with Leo), tales of menstruation in the life room gushed forth. There were horrible experiences with older female artists; how some of us behave differently if modelling for a group of men; how trust with the artists affects everything – how much we will give, and that when there is trust, gender doesn’t matter. Morimda echoed Jennifer’s sentiment that, her blackness is other people’s problem. It can become an issue in the life room, due to lack of familiarity, or socially ingrained low-level racism which manifests in micro-aggressions. Life drawing is whiter than the general population; so a black, particularly female model is a politicised body without even trying.

by Lily

Stories poured out. I had to interrupt more than once to check that the new models weren’t aching to say something. Generally I think they were enthralled. They might not have expected this – none of us did – but it was a very rare situation, and they got that. Real life insights from those on the frontline, from those with decades of knowledge. There are others I haven’t named because I’m not sure they’d want me to. I could not have planned it, and it might never happen again, but everyone seemed to enjoy it so much, I hope that will encourage more similar encounters.

by Irene Lafferty

We ran over, more than half an hour and I had to draw things to a close. I could see my friend Lily who lives miles away packing up her ink, and I didn’t want her to leave before the models had a chance to see her drawings. As a former animator, she captures a lot of expression in a short time. So we put everyone’s drawings out for all to see, and still there was a long time chatting now in smaller groups. Clearing up was a long process, but friendly folk were helping. It is a high maintenance gig, for no financial reward – it just about pays for itself, but not really considering hours gone into putting it together. A labour of love, I must time it appropriately to not wear me out, to not clash with other commitments. To feel it from the heart each time and not be going through the motions. But it is the deep content that nourishes all involved I hope, not least of all me, and that feeds out into my life in ways that keep me sane and happy. I don’t want children, but I do want art.

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.