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/

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.

The Ages of Woman at WOW ’16

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by Kathleen Dutton

This was the blending of two projects of mine – Girl in Suitcase meets Spirited Bodies, and it was the first such encounter. It was not wholly successful for me, and for record’s sake, I will elucidate here the clearest positives and flaws that emerged.

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It was born of a desire in me to perform the play – Girl in Suitcase – somewhere new, as well as to enhance the familiar format of Spirited Bodies at WOW. WOW is the Women of the World festival, annually held at Southbank Centre, London in March, around International Women’s Day. It celebrates women and girls, and looks at the obstacles that stop them from achieving their potential. I went to the very first WOW in 2011, and pitched my idea of Spirited Bodies as a means to help women to feel more embodied, to an audience in the Royal Festival Hall as well as a celebrity panel including Annie Lennox and Sandi Toksvig. Jude Kelly, the artistic director of Southbank Centre offered to host one of my events there. It took a further 2 years to bring the actual event to the festival, and it has been a fixture ever since.

I had not put on Girl in Suitcase since May ’15, and was itching to do so. It has in recent years been aired annually at Telegraph Hill festival, which is local to me, and I craved a new and interesting venue. I had put a lot of energy into creating the show with various friends in 2015, and then found their individual circumstances unable to commit further. Certainly that had been the case with Lidia, yet after working with her, I instinctively wanted to continue that sort of collaboration so didn’t attempt another. To add to that my personal life had undergone considerable turns in the last year; splitting up with a long term partner, and getting together with someone else. I was very keen to get back to the performance by the beginning of 2016, and as WOW has been the most high profile event I do in either project, I felt drawn to infuse that more with my own work. In previous years I had recorded interviews with models and artists in advance of the event, and edited them to play back during the session. For one thing my ex partner had the technical equipment for this aspect, and not unrelatedly, I wanted to ring the changes. Aside from this, during the last year I really noticed how others in the life model scene may have overtaken me perhaps – some that I helped to start out. I was losing the motivation to simply exist in order to ignite other women’s careers. I mean, I wanted to help them, but not at my own expense. I essentially needed to feel at that moment, that Spirited Bodies at WOW was also for me, not just the benefit of others (it’s not a high earner either).

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by Irene Lafferty

A considerable flaw was I tried to fit in too much of the play; in the event there wasn’t time for it all, I had to cut big chunks whilst thinking on my feet. I had given myself too many details to focus on, and during the preceeding week I had gotten an inkling that this would be the case; it dawned on me that not all the parts of the play were so apt for the occasion. At the same time, since other performers were engaged I felt obliged to consider their needs, and not mess unduly with their already tight programme of learning the show. I was unable to perform my acting role with conviction as felt too plainly that the part did not fit; also my mind was elsewhere. I’d had three Spirited Bodies workshops during the past week and supplies of drawing materials were suddenly low – I’d been a bit caught out it became apparent as the audience flowed in at WOW, and paper seemed scarce. Too many details! I knew that really my priority and responsibility was to the models, especially the new ones, but I had made it harder for myself to focus on them.

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by Irene Lafferty

On the plus side, the return to live interviews was a revelation. I had done away with this after our first WOW event in 2013, deeming the format unlikely to attract the truly nervous and hence some of the most magical and transformative experiences. In the meantime however, Spirited Bodies’ reputation has grown, and there is a bigger pool of people known to me for creating such a live event. Certainly at WOW, where the inherent safety factor is well understood, many more women are now willing to share their feelings live, whilst modelling. It probably helps that in the interim years, as Jude Kelly put it in one of her welcome to WOW speeches this year, “feminism has gone mainstream”. Live interviews means, genuine responses in the moment to the audience. There was some rehearsal involved, but it’s always fresh with an eager audience, and some parts have not been planned or scripted; they just catch you by surprise.

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Sabine dancing with wings, by Kathleen Dutton

The themed sections of the event came directly from the play, and represented the stages in woman’s life. This worked very well and provided ample pose ideas for the chorus, who were a pre-arranged group of models, ranging from some with much experience to total newcomers. The chorus created tableaux for each section (the Virgin, the Mother, the Enchantress, and the Matriarch), and these were being accompanied by other interacting action, like Sabine’s belly dance and Ursula‘s Gaia poem. The three of us – Sabine Zollner, Ursula Troche and I reading facts/statistics about violence against women, during a pose representing torture and witches burning, was very effective, making for a strong dramatic arc that deepened the experience. Everyone was reminded of the unfortunate plights of far too many women around the world. Cast in this light, any of our own bodily anxieties were hopefully more ready to fall away, if only temporarily.

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Witches tied to the stake, by Dorothea Bohlius

Regardless of any background noise in my own mind, the event was very successful. Having a well prepared chorus was powerful, and there were lots of new models trying out posing on the day from the audience. We had not had the room set out with an end-on stage before, more usually in the round, and this new lay-out actually worked well, elevating the chorus and action, so it felt more like a show. The event was well attended and well received, and I really appreciated the chance to add some theatre to Spirited Bodies. It was wonderful to revive the version from a year before, of Girl in Suitcase, that I had created with my two friends Sabine and Ursula. As ever, we were blessed with the support of regular women artists at this event, which I am especially grateful for, as well as the freedom to try new things, granted by the WOW team in support of my work.

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by Dorothea Bohlius

Calling Women of All Ages, for WOW @Southbank Centre

We are very happily returning to the Women of the World Festival for our 4th year there, on Saturday 12th March at 3:45pm. This year we are bringing exciting new elements to the event, by including parts of my performance project, Girl in Suitcase.

A theatrical ensemble of professional models will lead a chorus of women, young and old, through the inspirational Ages of Woman. You are invited to try life modelling as part of the chorus, or turn your artistic hand to drawing scenes of the Virgin, Mother, Enchantress and Matriarch. Throughout the session, chorus models within this supportive environment will be invited to share insights from their life modelling, motherhood and menopause experiences. No previous drawing or modelling experience necessary. This is a women-only session where models will work in a group with poses lasting up to 15 minutes. Art materials, robes, a changing area, and a warm comfortable space to pose in are provided.

You will need a WOW Pass to attend the session, though I do have limited free places available for women artists (email me at info.spiritedbodies@gmail.com). Donating a sketch to a model is highly appreciated, in return for their posing.

If you would like to be part of the chorus from the beginning (not as an audience member/artist joining in later) do get in touch. If selected you will not need a pass, and we may be able to cover some transport and assistance costs. I am particularly interested in hearing from older women. The venue is accessible and carers are welcome to join you – we especially welcome disabled women who may otherwise not have such an opportunity. Do spread the word if you think someone may appreciate being included. We are lucky to already have one confirmed chorus member who is 65, and completely paralysed. She has modelled with us several times and become something of a star at Spirited Bodies due to her incredibly powerful testimony given in recorded interviews. Another star who we hope to have joining us again is a model who is in her 80s and has had a mastectomy. Read transcripts of live interviews we made with models at our first WOW event in 2013, here – Part 1, and here – Part 2.

We will be in the Blue Room, which is on the Spirit Level of the Royal Festival Hall building, and the session lasts approximately 1 hour and a half.

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Women posing together at Tanner Street, December 2015

There will be a warm up Women’s Life Modelling session a week before as part of The Telegraph Hill Festival, on Saturday 5th March, from 2:30pm – 4:30pm, in the Craft Room at Telegraph Hill Centre. This will be much smaller, and a straight forward life modelling and drawing workshop. You may book online or just turn up; there is a small charge but if money is tight, don’t let that stop you – get in touch, we may be able to work something out.

If you are concerned about menstruating whilst posing, well this is natural especially if you are new to life modelling. You are welcome to wear knickers, a tampon or mooncup, or even to bleed free. My previous blog post covers this subject somewhat; we all experience this differently.

Women posing at Bargehouse in November 2015;

There will also be a mixed life modelling workshop as part of The Telegraph Hill Festival, on Thursday 10th March, 7:30pm – 9:30pm, also in the Craft Room. This is hosted by Frances Felgate as it is part of her regular life drawing group session. This is free to attend as it is a taster session for the festival.

 

 

‘Girl in Suitcase’ ~ a one woman life modelling story with musicians

Before I get back to Spirited Bodies I am rebirthing my theatre. On Friday will be the first time my new performance will be watched.

It is a one woman life modelling spectacular. I will be with 4 musicians; a string ensemble as well as a percussionist, and the audience may draw the show if they wish. It is not entirely nude, there are a few flimsy costumes; a skip-raided set, and a soundtrack for the first scene which I created before I had met the musicians. Actually that scene is recycled from previous shows I have put on because I like it so much. The opening suitcase sequence sets the tone for a fucked up inversion of life drawing set-up. The model is immediately on edge, likened to a trafficked slave, and itching to escape. She makes her come-back, reverses roles with the ‘other character’ – a sinister older woman, and starts to take back her power.

When I started writing this show I thought it would be a snapshot of myself, amplified for the timebank. That’s what it says in the blurb which I wrote before I got to the script. While I was sketching out new scenes, stuff was happening with Mum. Each time I visited seemed more pertinent. Dad was struggling, and my last version of ‘Girl in Suitcase’ from Edinburgh ’11 kept creeping back into my awareness, the importance of telling that story. In a new way. With one actor. Mum was holding on to life as powerfully as ever, but sustaining her life was costing Dad on every plane.

The play is not exactly what it says it is, but it is where I am now, and I have no doubt it will evolve over time.

Working with ‘The Next Room’ has been a revelation. Suddenly there are others involved and they are not exactly in my space, though they share it. They bring new enthusiasm, and are the first people to respond to my script. I realise I need to focus on what their role is and be clearer in my direction, but luckily they instinctively understand and I feel most privileged to have them on board.

Here are some rehearsal shots by Chris Hermon.

During rehearsal I am not nude
During rehearsal I am not nude

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Roddy Skeaping leads 'The Next Room' collective of musicians
Roddy Skeaping leads ‘The Next Room’ collective of musicians

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Ines
Ines

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Tobias
Tobias

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Damaged a calf in this rehearsal, hope it's healed in time!
Damaged a calf in this rehearsal, hope it’s healed in time!

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My violin is making a come-back!
My violin is making a come-back!

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The show is on at The Telegraph at The Earl of Derby pub at 87 Dennett’s Road, SE14 5LW 

on this Friday 28th March at 8pm. Tickets are £3 (£1 concession) and can be bought here or on the door most likely.

If you are keen on drawing you are welcome to bring an easel. There are tables and we have some boards at the venue, and drawing materials. I will encourage everyone to draw, but you may simply watch if that’s more your bag. The poses are not very long if you are familiar with life drawing, and some are movement scenes, but if life art is new to you, then 5 minutes of stillness may feel like a long time. On the other hand, when there is no dialogue, there is music.