Stories of Women ~ with Claire

Monday 22 January 2018 is the date of our next Stories of Women event – with artist, writer and model Claire Collison.

You can read more about the event and find a link to buy tickets here.

Claire says,

“If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.” Audre Lorde

My name is Claire Collison. I am currently artist-in-residence at the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmith’s College . I am also a writer, and breast cancer survivor.

Much of my recent work addresses the invisibility of women who have had mastectomies and who, like me, have opted not to have breast reconstruction.  I believe this is legitimately an issue of human rights, and I have lectured medical undergraduates at UCH on the subject as the guest of the Head of Ethics.

Here is my poem, ‘The Ladies Pond’, on this subject (it came second in the Hippocrates Prize for poetry and medicine)

I have taken groups on walking tours ‘An Intimate Tour of Breasts’ to show how breasts are represented in our culture, from high street to fine art , and how this impacts on the way we feel about our own bodies. These walks have so far been commissioned by Walking Women Festival and also by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

http://www.stillwalking.org/intimate-tour

I have also returned to my early life as a life model, and last year, posed on a couple of occasions for Spirited Bodies to an all-women group, which felt very safe and was incredibly powerful for both myself and participants.

Here is an article I wrote for engage journal recently about all these matters:

This document is an extract from engage 38: Visual Literacy, 2016, Barbara Dougan (ed.), London: engage, The National Association For Gallery Education. All contents © The Authors and engage, unless stated otherwise. www.engage.org/journal

Say what you see

Claire Collison

Two years ago, teaching visual literacy for The Photographers’ Gallery in London, I took a group of thirteen year olds to the Taylor Wessing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, inviting them to each select their own winner and runner up, and to explain their choices. One girl had selected two very different portraits of women: a sexy Amy Winehouse lookalike in a black strapless bra, and Sofia, a seated woman, draped in a sari from the waist down, and naked from the waist up. She wore gold hoop earrings, and she stared directly out at the viewer. She had clearly had a mastectomy: next to her right breast was flatness, where her left breast had been smoothed into a faint scar that ran from her sternum to the shadow of her armpit.

mastectomy Néstor Díaz, Sofía. Buenos Aires, Argentina 2013 © Néstor Díaz, http://www.nestordiaz.net

‘Why had she chosen these two?’ I asked. ‘The Amy’ she’d liked ‘Cos she’s sexy’. ‘OK, and the other?’ ‘I dunno, but aren’t you supposed to get a false one if that happens? I like it cos she looks strong.’ I’m paraphrasing, but this is what I remember: she admired the subject for not trying to hide what she had gone through.

Around this time, I had a routine mammogram, where I learned I had breast cancer. In the ensuing weeks, during the process of making decisions about my treatment, this chance conversation helped me decide not to have reconstructive surgery.

Whilst it was coincidental that I was teaching visual literacy when this conversation occurred, this event and its consequences are at the core of what I understand visual literacy to mean. They explain why I believe it is so critical, as an artist and an educator, and also as a woman – and I make no apology for criss-crossing between these frames of reference because they all inform how I read art, and how that art makes me feel.

Visual literacy begins with feeling (or not feeling) an emotion about an artwork: we feel first, and then we scrutinise, and eventually we understand what it is that has caused us to feel. It is like becoming intoxicated from a potion, and then learning what the ingredients are, only the ingredients are not simply what the artist has whisked up, they are also time and context – social, historical and cultural – and you, the beholder. The way we feel about the art can change, because we change. Meaning can accrue (a heartbreak song) or fall away (a film seen too often). I shall reflect on instances where ingredients have combined to shape how I feel and think.

Permission giving

Discovery starts with observation. We forget that. We rely on gallery notes and essays, and we fail to look – to actually look. The curator Jim Eade understood this, and when he created Kettle’s Yard, he displayed artworks without any accompanying notes. He put found objects next to Picasso maquettes; craft alongside fine art alongside his grandchildren’s drawings. He included sunlight and shadows. Visitors had to work out what they felt all for themselves. And they did – and still do. Working with Kettle’s Yard and Year 3 schoolchildren, aged seven and eight, from North Cambridge, as a recipient of a Max Reinhardt Literacy Award, I was able to encourage children’s innate ability to respond to art, and to help them use this to generate their own creative writing. These resources [www.kettlesyard.co.uk/learn/resources/] are fundamentally about giving permission.

Say what you see

In the television game show, Catchphrase, an animation illustrating a well-known saying is hidden behind panels. As the panels are removed and the animation revealed, contestants have to guess what the well-known saying is. ‘Say what you see’, the game show host implores. Sometimes the animation is so awful, or the catchphrase so obscure, that the contestant doesn’t stand a chance, but generally, the premise of the game is to enjoy watching someone struggle with the blindingly obvious: say what you see. The relationship between the visual and the verbal is a cornerstone of visual literacy; talking about what we see unlocks a latent and often emotional level of understanding, helping us understand why an image makes us feel the way we do. As Visual Arts Editor for Disability Arts Magazine, (DAM) in the 1990s, part of my remit was to write an audio description for every image I had selected for the print edition. This would be recorded for inclusion on the cassette (cassette!) version of DAM, produced for subscribers with visual impairment. Radio journalists do this brilliantly, and it is worth listening to analyse how they make it seem so simple. There needs to be sufficient context (medium? Colour or black and white? Landscape or portrait?) and the level of detail has to be even handed: obsess on a corner of the page, and it skews the composition. And it has to be objective, allowing the listener space to create their opinion.

Occasionally, during this process of audio describing, I would realise what it was about that particular image that I had been attracted to, and why I had selected it above others. Something that, once I said it out loud, became obvious, but that had eluded the ‘art editor’ part of me. When teaching visual literacy, I ask students to describe a picture into a dictaphone (radio journalist) or, working in pairs, to take turns at audio describing to their blindfolded partner, then asking their partner to feed back. This not only develops students’ facility to articulate, it also legitimises how they notice what they notice – the language use, the context and references and associations – which brings them closer to what they feel.

Can you see me?

When I was told I had breast cancer, I was asked to decide whether to have reconstructive surgery during my mastectomy, or later. Not if, when. I find this extraordinary: I had a life-threatening illness, and yet I was being asked to make a decision about something that would make everyone else feel better – even, possibly, to the detriment of treating the cancer. But breast cancer treatment, I learned, is as much about the way women feel – about our breasts, and the way they are perceived – as it is about what we are experiencing in a medical sense. The only other time I had seen a woman with a mastectomy had been 30 years earlier, in the changing rooms at Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. (I have even begun to wonder if she was a ghost from my future). I admit, I had not been looking then, but even when I began, the representation was scarce. I asked the hospital and was given access to a passworded site, where I could see anonymous examples (specimens) of women’s scarred chests. On Facebook, tattooed trompe l’oeil celebratory survivor pictures – also anonymous and headless – might float unbidden into my newsfeed. Even now, when I have met scores of women who I know are like me, we remain invisible to each other. From the outset, treatments focus on disguise (wigs for chemotherapy hair loss and prostheses for mastectomy).

Why are we so hidden? What anxieties do we share as a society, where disguise is regarded as important as treatment? And what are the implications of such a lack of visibility? Audre Lorde wrote, ‘When other one-breasted women hide behind the mask of prosthesis or reconstruction, I find little support in the broader female environment for my rejection for what feels like a cosmetic sham.’ It takes courage to reject that ‘cosmetic sham’. Most women just want to get back to ‘normal’, to how things were, even if that isn’t really possible (in support groups, we talk of the ‘new normal’). I understand and respect this but wonder how women can make an informed choice about what treatment they really want when there is so little representation of viable options within mainstream culture? Can I do anything to address this visual illiteracy?

Having used my body in my art practice, and made work around women, health and identity for the past thirty years, I am in a rare position to explore this. As Artist in Residence at the Women’s Art Library (WAL) I am revisiting my own archive, as well as looking at the work of other women, to see what chimes and what I can learn in terms of how to represent my current experience. Are there models that I can develop (or reject)? I am searching for clues.

photo3 Claire Collison, Milky Way, 1988. Photogram combined with black and white photograph, commissioned for Camerawork’s Imaging the Future exhibition.

Meaning accrues

My early work drew on archetypes, exploding them to create new identities that I felt fitted me better. Milky Way, commissioned for Camerawork’s Imaging the Future in 1988, resonates now in a way I could not have known, half a lifetime ago. Some of my photos then were made through a process of play, and I would not really understand until I began to print them what it was I was trying to achieve. With Milky Way, I remember, I had a very definite idea: I drew the set and realised it (pre-Photoshop) exactly as planned. When I revisit this image now I am flabbergasted. My rationale then was to stage a treatise on the ‘virgin and mother double standards’ and the ‘fiction of science’. Now this image speaks to me about how deeply rooted the mythologising of our flesh is, and the resulting pressures on women to conform. Breasts are the property of society; we transgress at our peril.

Meaning is fluid

I make no bones about having cancer (unlike millions of others who are whispered about), which has empowered me to run the gauntlet of the medical orthodoxy, using my camera to campaign against their inadequacies.’ Jo Spence, Woman in Secret, What Can A Woman Do With A Camera?

When I first saw the iconic image of Jo Spence with a cross over her breast I felt sick. Jo and I were friends. We admired each other’s work. I understood how to ‘read’ the image; Jo was using tropes I recognised and identified with – direct gaze, artful staging of a scene re-enacted from an experienced moment. Like anyone else who had not been through that experience, it seemed to me an immensely brutal act. It made me feel outrage on Jo’s behalf and, as she intended, it provoked me to question the power dynamic that existed between patient and the medical profession. Whose body was this? These readings and their accompanying feelings remain, but then on the morning of my mastectomy the surgeon came and marked me up. He drew a series of lines on my breast, marking where he was to cut, and then he drew a cross – the ‘X-marks-the-spot’ iconic cross – and I felt relief. They would be getting rid of the cancer, there would be no mistakes. Now, when I see Jo’s photo, I understand what she was feeling, but there is an overlay of my own very different experience, that superimposes itself onto the image and my understanding of it.

Policing art

Does it matter what an artist’s intentions are? Can an artist control how their work is received, and should they try? Néstor Díaz, the photographer of the Taylor Wessing portrait, Sofia, is delighted his photograph helped me, as this had been his hope. ‘And in that train of thought, many of the women felt a positive change of attitude in regard of their own bodies, only by the fact of letting themselves be portrayed’.

Díaz had very specific intentions: ‘the idea was for the public to get to a state of deep emotion and reflection, attained by the uncomfortableness of being face to face to a reality they usually don’t want to see.’

He employed strategies to that end, photographing the women (this is a series of 24) in their own environments, directing them to look directly at the camera, and adopt a neutral expression – ‘without any pose, no smiles nor distracting “masks”‘ in order to reveal the ‘authenticity and honesty on each face.’

Did this work? I think so, even though it was not the photograph itself that helped me so much as the effect that it had on that girl. That was achieved through the strategies Diaz describes, and then by the opportunity to select and the permission to feel and articulate.

The photographs were not shown as Díaz originally intended, and there is a very different reading when encountering a portrait in isolation that began life as part of a series: how does this shift our understanding? Díaz also provided testimonies from each of the women, telling their own stories, and intended to be displayed with the photographs. I have now seen Sofia’s testimonial, and I find it incredibly moving. It enriches my appreciation of the portrait, but the girl who liked it didn’t have that statement.

Spirited Bodies

Whilst the girl at the Taylor Wessing had no formal feminist learning and was blissfully able to straddle what might be perceived as conflicting theory, I am steeped in it, and in the implication of the gaze. I spent years working as a life model, which shaped how I went on to make work myself, and so was interested in revisiting this as part of my WAL residency. Esther Bunting created Spirited Bodies, a space where models are encouraged to speak (and even sing) and where participation is fluid – artists can model and models can draw. I have life modelled at two sessions – most recently as part of the Women of the World festival at The Southbank. Both sessions were women-only, and included a variety of women models who were not classically proportioned. And so I exposed myself to this process of being looked at, that I knew was also a way of understanding, and when I saw the work that they had produced I saw myself reflected back and it was healing. I saw that they had not drawn a woman with a breast missing; they had drawn a woman complete and whole, made up of all kinds of planes and surfaces, muscle and skin.

By Dorothea Bohlius at Bargehouse with Spirited Bodies – women’s session, November 2015

I hope to use my residency at the WAL exploring my ‘new normal’, and expanding the range of ways that I see myself reflected back in the world. I’m not ruling anything out: sometimes an ordinary activity such as using public changing rooms can feel like an artwork. I have just delivered An Intimate Tour of Breasts, as part of the Walking Women festival. A guided tour through central London, taking in Tintoretto at the National Gallery, and the lap dancing clubs of Soho, along with all the ubiquitous bare-breasted statuary en route, unravels how the mythologising and commodification of breasts through history impacts on the way we feel about our own breasts. As a strategy for addressing our visual literacy around representations of breasts, this was extremely effective, with participants volunteering intimate testimony of their own. I am really excited about this as a model for future work. Walking and talking and responding to art, with prompts providing opportunities to interact, shifts the focus onto the participant’s response. It is a way of making art that has a solid history within feminist art practice that I can riff on – and one that could engage with an audience from both sides of the healthcare experience, opening up a dialogue that I believe is critical and timely.

I have been invited to life model again with Spirited Bodies at the Feminist Library in January 2018, this time as part of the series Stories of Women and I am planning to use this as an opportunity to develop a performance around these issues. Artwork derived from this event will be documented for inclusion in an exhibition I am planning to mark the end of my residency at Goldsmith’s for Feb/March 2018. I envisage the January event as a pilot that can be honed to be performed to a variety of different audiences, from healthcare workers to artists, to women with experience of breast cancer, as well as women without, and medical students.

Work from collaboration with Wellcome artist Liz Orton: http://digitalinsides.org/works/work-4/

WOW PERTH

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

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

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

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

Aimee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodykind, Celebrating Grandmother Wisdom & WOW Perth

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

Suzanne Fearnside

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

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

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

Some of the other acts I really enjoyed are…

Harnaam Kaur, Megan – Bodyposipanda, and Glory Pearl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

child’s pose

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

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

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

Hana Schlesinger

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

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

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

Enjoying this busy month!

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 Stories of Women

After a long break we are back with a new series of events at The Feminist Library. These will be for women only, though I would like to make a mixed event soon too, elsewhere. Also an event in Sheffield is in discussion! It is very special to be at The Feminist Library as naturally we share a lot of values. I have found it a very calm haven with so much richness stored in so many books and other archive material. There are publications you are unlikely to find anywhere else, and an incredible variety of female writing, from the cult to the little known.

I wanted to continue sharing the models’ voices with artists, and as well to celebrate the incredible breadth and diversity of female models. The idea of models expressing themselves whilst posing interests me, and not just with their bodies. Speaking of the nuances of feeling generated in pose, the different connections with people drawing, and how the practice or job sends ripples into their wider lives. Through sharing their thoughts we will spark some discussion about any issues or responses raised.

This introduction into a professional model’s interior world may warm participants up for trying some modelling themselves I hope! Naturally we welcome women who just want to draw as well. If cost is an issue please get in touch as it needn’t be. Some drawing materials and boards will be provided but by all means bring your own.

I am really excited to be presenting some wonderfully gifted and unusual women in this series. It is a chance to hear new stories in ways they perhaps haven’t been told before. Each session, the model will pose for the first 45 minutes, creating a sequence of poses to help with her presentation. She may not speak all the time. Her voice might have been pre-recorded if she prefers. She will sit, stand and elaborate for you, using her platform to engage you with particular matters pertaining to her experience. She may deliver poetry or make music. There may be a little movement. She will decide!

Our first model for the series will be Leo.

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Leo will be modelling at The Stories of Women on 17th July

Leo says, “I consider being a fat model a public service 😉. I hope other fat people are inspired to love their own bodies more.
body positivity and diversity is the key.”

Couldn’t agree more. It is very exciting to have Leo with us. She has a lot of experience and is a powerful figure with a strong mind. Please join us! Further dates and presenting models will be announced soon.

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“The Feminist Library is a large archive collection of Women’s Liberation Movement literature, particularly second-wave materials dating from the late 1960s to the 1990s.”

Tickets available here.