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.

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

Circles of Women

Our recent women’s event was in a beautiful space at the Bargehouse (part of Oxo buildings, Southbank), well heated and well attended – with 5 models, and about 10 artists. Poses from 1 – 15 minutes, some with movement. We began dynamic and expansive, and perfected the art of very slowly opening up from an enclosed pose (3 and 5 minutes). In 3 minutes, they had moved so slowly, that when time was up, I found they had hardly opened at all! So I decided on a second round, longer to allow them to complete the movement.

All artwork from the women's session at the Bargehouse, 4/11/15
All artwork from the women’s session at the Bargehouse, 4/11/15

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The artists sat in a circle, some drawing in sketch pads, others leaning a board on a chair in front, one or two with their own mini easels set up. Within this circle, the models had a sheeted and cushioned area in which they created their own circles from time to time as they posed.

In daylight before we began
In daylight before we began

We created 5 minute poses for each element – Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Beautiful ensembles with flames, blowing in the wind, waves, and the solidity of Earth.

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marg
Hands reached up in a blaze of flames

There was a mix of experienced models including Ursula (a full time model and performance poet), and Claire (professional model, writer and feminist artist from the 80s, returning now with mastectomy), and Paula (relatively new). New models included an opera singer, who sang with Ursula in a sonorous pose; also another totally new model.

operatic notes on a page
operatic notes on a page

That was an impromtu inspiration as the singing model was clearly keen, and we have done that sort of thing before at A Human Orchestration a couple years back, so it felt enjoyable to revisit musical models. Really adds to their presence, and in this case, her voice was so powerful that the room shook. I’m not joking, and I wasn’t even next to her, touching her, so I can only imagine the vibrations in the inner circle. At least one artist was moved to tears, and several said they drew differently as touched by her tones.

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Artists familiar, as well as some from the drawing symposium (we were a part of the Southbank Festival of Creativity) made their marks.

sing

A real pleasure to return to my perhaps most passionate area of Spirited Bodies – the sacred women’s space! Though I don’t make much of any spiritual angle, keeping the session within life art/performance narrative, there is an extra element of care and consideration that is about feeling safe, to be all that we are. We are aware, as women together, some of us nude, that we could have body hang-ups, and maybe sometimes we do. But in that space, we are supporting each other to move past that, and enjoy the bodies we are in. We create solidarity, without judgement for ourselves or each other, embracing difference. And that is all that is needed, together with listening to each other, to make a very special warm, shared healing experience.

bending in the wind
bending in the wind

We don’t have to have been especially hung-up to benefit immensely; we all gain from the shared liberation, and witnessing each other being and blossoming. Creating a helpful, proactive, responsive community as well, as we connect more, building friendships. In the end, it is the love between us that grows our collective power, beauty, resonance and connection.

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There is space within poses for individuals to practise their own spirituality possibly. Over years of modelling, I believe I have learnt how to very quickly access a meditative state, it is second nature. I smile automatically when discomfort prevails, as doing this alters my mind state to strengthen me, minimising pain. What is more tricky is the muscles reminding me subsequently, that it was not such an easy pose I had fooled myself so well of!

wind

I also talk some of the time, during the session to point out how poses do or don’t work, to guide the models as well as instructing artists, in a different sort of life class! I played a bit of music too, but at the start, I instinctively wanted to let the silence take hold, bringing peace to all of us who had braced ourselves through the city to get there that evening.

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I love circles of women. Last night I danced to the full moon with sisters in a church in Vauxhall. I vary in how much I am feeling it each month, but yesterday was very serene. The DJ, Sarah Davies, gave a little talk on body language which felt very pertinent, it spoke to me. How we hold ourselves affects the way we feel, and vice versa. So we can use this to make ourselves feel stronger, even when we are not necessarily there yet emotionally, or mentally. Create bold, confident shapes with our bodies to empower ourselves.

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I have noticed over the years, that I had to let go of jobs where the artists were too proscriptive about poses, as if I am not in control of them, it can more likely damage my well-being emotionally (as well as physically).

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I love how the full moon women’s dance is run by a bunch of women, tending to be about 10 – 12 years my senior I reckon. They and many of the dancers, are yoga, dance, alternative healing practitioners and artists, so a lot of strong energy in the space, and quite a few run their own women’s spaces. The chairs are cleared from the space and I set to hoovering crumbs, leaves and dust off the massive carpet. It takes a goodly amount of time, especially as I am enjoying being inspired by my moves with the vacuum cleaner! About two thirds of the way through the task, the sound system has been erected, and music begins to fill the church. Housework gets me into my first dance.

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A pair of artists unravel and place items on an altar, immediately in front of the church’s own, which is behind decorated gates. After I have stocked up the toilets with paper, and put the moon pictures up, Sara hands me her palo santo to be burnt, and wafted about to cleanse or smudge the space.

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Low-lit by highly hung chandeliers, the whole church resonates to the ska, hiphop, dance, world, ambient and darkly gothic music. We are moving through waves, rhythms of our feminine expression, of lyrical, flowing, chaotic, staccato and still bodies. I get a lot from this group. I take my friends there, and gradually get to know some of the women I meet there. It is a source of shared knowledge and deeper friendships.

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For me, the instructions through the mic from the DJ about how to move (just suggestions), and what we may be feeling, are often jarring with my own inner journey. I am well habituated to getting into my groove. I discovered at 18 I think, on the dance floor at Slimelight among other venues, how to reach ecstacy through dance, and I wasn’t always on drugs believe it or not! It was a passion, and I knew movement (beyond the everyday) would always be part of my life. I trained in physical theatre at Rose Bruford drama school, in South East London in the early noughties. I wasn’t a great student, but I did appreciate the variety and intensity of some of the outlandish practitioners we immersed ourselves in.

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Still, I do appreciate how having an MC helps to bind the group at times, as well as nurturing some of those who may be newer to dance or being part of such a group. It’s lovely to be in a group that is run by women, repurposing the church of a monthly evening, a church which in fact lends itself to a number of new age groups. At one particular phase of the evening, all the women start howling into the air, for a long long time. So happy to hear their voices, and to be taking up space as Sarah wanted.

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Another women’s space I would like to bring your attention to, is run by Calu Lema, as part of her Naked Movement project. She describes her philosophy, background and intentions very well, and – Details of her next women’s (naked) space, are here.

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I have naturally often thought, how good it would be if the full moon dance was also naked! I wasn’t thinking that yesterday though. The heating was blasting, and we were moving fast some of the time, but it is a big space, so didn’t feel cosy for nudity. Not that that’s really an option here… even in Summer. I also appreciate how it would be highly unlikely that you would get that many women at a naked dance, sadly at the moment. It is very cool to be with so many women dancing though.

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My own next women’s event is on Sunday 13th December, at Tanner Street, close to Tower Bridge, from 11am – 1pm. For trying life modelling and/or drawing, with some gentle exercises to get comfortable with posing, as well as explore how the poses we choose may enhance ourselves and others. Nudity is optional. Naked, we may open up more to each other, face more of ourselves beneath the layers, and appreciate our natural beauty and body shapes. But it’s not for everyone. Artists are usually clothed, and sometimes, after a few years or so of coming to Spirited Bodies, artists pluck up the courage to bare all themselves!

a sea of bodies
a sea of bodies

 

Trans Considerations

The time has come to make women only sessions open to all trans women. This includes women who have penises. This is not because I have heard from any women who have penises directly asking to participate, but because a venue I am negotiating with insisted on it. I wasn’t expecting this (it was not an obvious feature of the venue) and found myself blundering all over the place verbally as I hadn’t looked into the trans issue fully so didn’t know so much about it (this has been an education).

While I am open to welcoming all women regardless of their trans gender, this does present complications. Firstly rape survivors who don’t want to see a penis in a women only environment. It’s fairly straight forward. They are not transphobic, but they have been traumatised by penises. I have been contacted by these women on various occasions, and they participate, which is why I had created the no-penis policy. It is not fair to say that in the name of being politically correct these women ought to get over their issues. Yes I know trans women have also been raped, but there are differences. It is a tragedy for anyone to be raped, but when a woman is raped there is the possibility of conception which adds another level of tragedy. That’s why rape is used as a weapon of war. No, not all women are fertile, but you usually can’t tell from the outside. Trans women are not so far able to ovulate or conceive and they have not grown up in bodies that are informed by these functions. I think for the most part that is a significant difference.

Secondly security. As an organiser of events which involve female nudity and myself a nude performer, I routinely receive unwanted emails and messages from men who think I may be up for it along with the other female models. Some of them use a female profile online. This is a well known phenomenon to women who are part of naturist groups online. I may not be able to prove that they are men, but their Facebook profile will typically have one friend and very little info. They masquerade as women to gain access or trust. They try chatting with women but how quickly it transpires they just want to talk about their/your sexual fantasies. At which point I check out their profile and conclude they are a man. I am bound to be concerned that such types may try to gain access to a women’s session under the guise of a trans woman (however unlikely that may be).

Thirdly and perhaps most controversially, I think a space is needed for women who were born in women’s bodies to reconnect with each other and their female power. Not because trans women aren’t women, but because as women we have been so long oppressed that we need time to rediscover ourselves amongst each other, before we may be ready to embrace all women so easily. This is personal and others will disagree, but I just feel that there is a long way to go before women have equality, our bodies are sometimes a battle ground and our menstrual cycle is one of the last great taboos. I do not want to underplay the particularities of the female body – our connection to the Earth, to the Moon and the tides – because that has been going on for centuries. Basically I/we need to build confidence as female society before we are ready for all trans women. Or rather, let’s not wait; but let’s have a space for all women, as well as a space for women born in women’s bodies. I think that’s fair. There are I believe groups that are just for trans people (like Gendered Intelligence) and while inclusion into one’s given gender is important, many trans people are different. I mean they have a really unique perspective on life which is incredibly valuable. However much they may want to assimilate into a gender they were not born with, they have that experience of the other. While there may be obstacles to being accepted as a woman for example, there should also be a place for celebrating what makes trans women (or people) special. Their very presence is changing the way that we view gender.

This discussion has been exacerbated by some very hostile radical feminists being extremely offensive to trans women a few years ago. They said they shouldn’t exist. There was retaliation in the form of death threats. Which has naturally made it almost impossible to have a sensible discussion today about the inclusion of trans women in women only groups. But we must forge ahead against the backdrop of animosity. I understand that trans women are very sensitive about this, and for me those radical feminists sometimes make me ashamed to call myself a feminist. They give us a bad name, and some of them are influential so it’s not just talk. There are always extremists who are not representative of the majority but end up being the ones everyone knows about. I think it is important to redress the negativity created by them, but keeping in mind the sensitivities of most women. Most women are not even aware that now legally (since 2005 in fact in the UK), a trans woman can be a woman even if she keeps her penis. So it’s good to make that more known first, otherwise women may be surprised in a women only life modelling session to see a penis. Surprise alone would be ok, but if it’s a trigger for trauma then not so.

I am grateful to the woman who forced me to confront this situation and who hopefully will be helping me to put on the first openly open to trans women Spirited Bodies women only session. What a mouthful! That is to say, all my women’s events used to be so open, until recently when I realised that women with penises may clash with rape survivors, and at Southbank Centre it is not me who controls entry into the session. Anyone may buy a ticket for the festival. So to avoid a clash I stated ‘no penises’. I felt that that was an acceptable position considering, after all it does include transitioned trans women. Now I am told that this is transphobic, so I am trying to accommodate. All we can do is try. If the more open women’s session is a success that will bode well for further inclusion. If cis (non trans) women exclude themselves due to fears over security and triggers (people who are nervous do not need much reason to block their path, the slightest suggestion of a security hazard is enough) I will know that a separate group is needed for them. In the future as more people are brought up in a trans inclusive world, this will get easier (I hope). But for now many of us were formed along with our traumas in a very binary society. We can’t necessarily undo it all at once, we need to take steps. And while trans women experience all sorts of discrimination, the gender they are trying to assimilate into has also been discriminated against a great deal. So both groups need support and possibly of their own particular kind. Bringing them together though, as well may foster a whole new understanding of being a woman so that’s very cool.

No one has brought up any trans male issues so far. If any of my language in the above post is deemed transphobic I am sorry. It is a tricky matter. I may be able to change it, but I also may not be able to please everyone!