“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
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.
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:
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.
‘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.
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.
Claire Collison, Milky Way, 1988. Photogram combined with black and white photograph, commissioned for Camerawork’s Imaging the Future exhibition.
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.
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.
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.
A theatrical ensemble of professional models will lead a chorus of women, young and old, through the inspirational Ages of Woman. You are invited to try life modelling as part of the chorus, or turn your artistic hand to drawing scenes of the Virgin, Mother, Enchantress and Matriarch. Throughout the session, chorus models within this supportive environment will be invited to share insights from their life modelling, motherhood and menopause experiences. No previous drawing or modelling experience necessary. This is a women-only session where models will work in a group with poses lasting up to 15 minutes. Art materials, robes, a changing area, and a warm comfortable space to pose in are provided.
You will need a WOW Pass to attend the session, though I do have limited free places available for women artists (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org). Donating a sketch to a model is highly appreciated, in return for their posing.
If you would like to be part of the chorus from the beginning (not as an audience member/artist joining in later) do get in touch. If selected you will not need a pass, and we may be able to cover some transport and assistance costs. I am particularly interested in hearing from older women. The venue is accessible and carers are welcome to join you – we especially welcome disabled women who may otherwise not have such an opportunity. Do spread the word if you think someone may appreciate being included. We are lucky to already have one confirmed chorus member who is 65, and completely paralysed. She has modelled with us several times and become something of a star at Spirited Bodies due to her incredibly powerful testimony given in recorded interviews. Another star who we hope to have joining us again is a model who is in her 80s and has had a mastectomy. Read transcripts of live interviews we made with models at our first WOW event in 2013, here – Part 1, and here – Part 2.
We will be in the Blue Room, which is on the Spirit Level of the Royal Festival Hall building, and the session lasts approximately 1 hour and a half.
There will be a warm up Women’s Life Modelling session a week before as part of The Telegraph Hill Festival, on Saturday 5th March, from 2:30pm – 4:30pm, in the Craft Room at Telegraph Hill Centre. This will be much smaller, and a straight forward life modelling and drawing workshop. You may book online or just turn up; there is a small charge but if money is tight, don’t let that stop you – get in touch, we may be able to work something out.
If you are concerned about menstruating whilst posing, well this is natural especially if you are new to life modelling. You are welcome to wear knickers, a tampon or mooncup, or even to bleed free. My previous blog post covers this subject somewhat; we all experience this differently.
There will also be a mixed life modelling workshop as part of The Telegraph Hill Festival, on Thursday 10th March, 7:30pm – 9:30pm, also in the Craft Room. This is hosted by Frances Felgate as it is part of her regular life drawing group session. This is free to attend as it is a taster session for the festival.
It is one of the oldest traditions of mankind. The ignorant are taught by the more experienced, the more learned.
A mother teaches her son to dance and a daughter how to be a wife and mother. A father teaches his daughter to change a flat tyre and a son to be a husband and father. I learned to model by listening and learning from other models then I learned to teach modelling by watching others teach.
I observed the individuals’ natural instincts gently guiding and supporting men and women wishing to experience the adrenaline rush and confidence boost that life modelling can provide. I asked them to sit, stand, lay down. I asked them to hide in a bomb shelter and launch a protest. I watched their fear and insecurity melt away.
There is that first moment when you bare your naked body, exposing much more than your physical self. You are convinced that everyone is staring at all your perceived imperfections. But in life modelling, those “imperfections” are the interesting bits that attract and confound an artist.
If, as at Spirited Bodies events, there are many more than just one model, the truth is fewer people than you imagine are in fact staring at you at all. The other models are more wrapped up in themselves than you and the artists may be looking behind you, next to you, through you, or just at your elbow wondering if they are up to the challenge of foreshortening what has been presented to them.
Rarely does an artist look at you in your entirety, preferring to capture first your shape and then your composite parts, each of which are beautiful in their own exquisite uniqueness. They are aiming at shapes, angles, corners, shading and the relationship between all of those shapes. All those glorious shapes and their relationship to each other.
No two individuals ever look the same nude. Clothes hide so much of our individuality.
No two artists ever see a model in the same way. Their vision, paper, materials, colours, and position will create a different work of art every time they craft.
And then we learn. We learn how differently others see us from how we see ourselves. We learn there is joy in that learning. And in that learning there is magic. Spirited Body magic.
This post is illustrated with pictures made by artists who attended the workshop at Holborn on Wednesday October 2nd, which the text also refers to.
Towards the end of July Spirited Bodies will be visiting Edinburgh to spread our message of nude liberation! We will be sowing seeds; giving workshops and presentations, networking and leafleting. In September when we return there will be a ripe harvest, sprouted and succulent, poised for artful appreciation.
A big event is scheduled for Saturday September 21st in The Arts Complex – a former office block taken over as artists’ studios and hub where substantial gallery space will afford a perfect venue for one of our larger events. As well as locating artists of the figure drawing variety, we will be scouting for models, of all shapes and sizes, colours and persuasions. This is not paid modelling work, but will be a chance to see if life modelling may be for you, and perhaps to free yourself of body image issues or be a step on that path. It is an opportunity to be part of a unique work of art that is as much about energetic connections made between models (and artists) in the space as it is the drawings created. Participants (and there have been over 150 in 2 and a half years) frequently report a natural high lasting several days following the event, and for some the timing is instrumental to their life changing direction for the best. See our Feedback page for a variety of testimonies.
We want to offer our usual workshops in advance of the big event, including women only if there is demand. If you want to host a workshop (usually for up to 15 people including about 10 people modelling and 5 drawing) please get in touch; we aim to be in Edinburgh from 22nd – 26th July or perhaps a bit longer and again from 17th – 22nd September. In any case we should have some workshops at The Arts Complex and another artist has already shown interest in holding one at her studio. We will also do a presentation hosted by The Ragged University in July where we will explain ourselves with visuals including ourselves modelling; expect to be entertained! If you want to host a presentation or talk, do get in touch.
During our Edinburgh trips we intend to bring life drawing to older people by offering free life drawing sessions in old people’s homes. If you are associated with a home and would like to introduce us we would be honoured, otherwise we will be cold calling. To be clear; we will not be asking older people to undress, but to draw if they want. Alternatively we can give them a dynamic interactive talk if that’s more appealing. We’ve done presentations in some fancy places so do ask for references! We are about spreading the word to as many people as we can; unfortunately some people are unlikely to make it to us, so we’re going to them.
To make all this happen we are on the brink of applying for some funding but would likely appreciate any available help. We are still consolidating which resources are available to us, and if you have anything to offer, be it time, a car, a spare couch, theatre lights, good photographing skills or inside knowledge on where to find our models… Please get in touch. In Edinburgh we largely start from scratch so this whole episode will mark a big milestone in our development. It’s an exciting time to join us and we will have lots of fun.
At the same time that Spirited Bodies is preparing for its first venture out of London, we are welcoming two new co-conspirators! They have been Spirited Bodies themselves of course, and bring with them a wealth of experience and expertise which we are only too ready to absorb. They will be introduced properly in the next blog post, but let’s just say if up until now Spirited Bodies has been run by one younger skinny woman and one plus-size middle-aged woman – both white and well spoken, that configuration is about to change substantially. Our average age is getting older, our dress size is increased, our skin tone darkened and our origin begins to feel more global. We are however still all female, and driven to find more women to join us as Spirited Bodies. Men we are not short of, but for women we continue to show that what we do is powerful and inspiring, and it can be for them too.
I had the pleasure of modelling with another model this week and what a confident young woman. Lydia is a burlesque performer whom I hope to see on stage sometime soon.
On Tuesday we modelled for London Drawing at The Goldsmiths’ Centre in Clerkenwell where they have an exhibition called ‘Rocks’ – ‘Exploring the natural world through jewellery and silversmithing’. The image on the poster is of gold surrounding some rock and from there we took our inspiration to be gold. My new blue hair looked silver next to the shiny gold! Artists were encouraged to draw us in charcoal or pencil and add sequins, glitter and sparkly cut up paper to create part drawings and part collages.
The following photographs were taken by Anne Noble-Partridge of London Drawing.
In this second instalment Lucy speaks to LaDawn and Sabine, who have both modelled with us a few times and taken up some professional life modelling, as well as to Tansy who first life modelled with us at our first event when she was 17 (with parental consent). She is now 20 and a London based life and photographic model.
Lucy (FLS): LaDawn, you modelled for us at BAC (in October), and you came to several workshops beforehand. What brought you to modelling and what brought you to Spirited Bodies?
LaD: In July 2011 I was holding down a job – I was a high powered IT operations director for a really large FTSE company, and I had a nervous breakdown. By October I was unable to drive my car or leave the house, I had zero, zero confidence. I made two suicide attempts, I spent 6 months in a psychiatric clinic, and there was nothing of me left. Coming to Spirited Bodies was a way of… I thought it was just going to be one go, I thought it was going to be the October event at Battersea. I did the workshops and I found these to be very calm, very safe, very empowering. I felt like I could probably cope with this, and we went to Battersea Arts Centre and I think it probably changed the trajectory of the rest of my life. Because I started thinking of myself as a work of art, regardless of whatever shape my body is in, or whatever condition my mind was in, I completely changed my whole approach to life. So when I see you as artists out there drawing us and regardless of whether someone wants to stand up and say it’s a good drawing or a bad drawing, the fact is that it is art, and it’s of us women with all our flaws and breakages. We’re all broken in some respects and it was my experience with Spirited Bodies that propelled me on to a path of almost wellness where I felt I had the strength to move ahead with my life and to gain my confidence back.
FLS: I got into modelling because I’d been ill and I know for me one of the things that I like is the fact that I could help other people achieve their dreams, I could help the artists achieve some art and that got me out of the house and got me moving, made a big difference.
LaD: I was only thinking of me.
FLS: You’re supposed to only think of you.
LaD: But now it gives back in amazing ways because I did go onto the Registry of Artists’ Models, and I did register and I now have gotten to do some really amazing artwork with some artists in the Eel Pie Studios in Twickenham. I got to do some more with Dulwich Art Group… these artists are so amazingly talented… At first I wasn’t going to show any of my friends the artwork but because it was art I had to show them. One of the husbands of one of my good girlfriends – he just calls me juicy (which you know, there is nothing salacious in it), – he says it’s beautiful and my husband initially was horrified. He was so worried the first day when I went to the workshops, he was in tears, and when I got home he thought I had done something that was unsafe. Now he has seen what it’s done and how it’s changed me, and he just encourages me to go out. He’s offered to become my booking agent and everything, like my pimp!
FLS: [admin side of modelling, I can certainly do without]
LaD: As soon as he takes out the rubbish.
FLS: Sabine – you came to model with us at the BAC – we do model other places – in February and that was mostly before we started doing workshops, how did you find it?
Sabine: I found it really amazing, it was a great experience, I must say I’d never done this group modelling before. I have modelled before when I was about 20 and I was at university; I modelled for sculptures. I was doing architecture and we had some sculpture class as well. So that was a one on one thing. For some reason I didn’t do it in ages; I always did life drawing myself, so I was interested in posing, modelling. Then I came across Spirited Bodies because I went to London Drawing life drawing classes and (there was this chance) to get a bit of experience, and so I went there and it was a really amazing experience. First of all the group experience; there were artists and models and it’s not the usual one model and lots of people. It was also very desexualised I must say, which I really liked. It was a very relaxing atmosphere and yes, unfortunately in most of the other instances when I have modelled before there was a sexual aspect, between especially male artists and the models, so this classical ‘muse’ theme (of life models being courtesans etc) and that sort of put me off. It was a bit of an uncomfortable feeling, so I wanted to get rid of that, and with Spirited Bodies, I’m quite relaxed. That this is not the case and especially like today as well amongst women, it’s very nice and relaxing, and when I model … probably it’s a bit like Esther. I do like to think of poses, what I can do or when you set up the one with the queen (Arleen was our Queen with a courtof female subjects), I immediately thought, ‘what can I do here?’ so I quite enjoy that part.
FLS: Performance element?
Sabine: Performance element, because I’ve never done drama and I’ve never been involved in theatre plays so that’s my way of expressing myself.
FLS: Have you gone on to do a bit more (life modelling)?
Sabine: I did indeed yeah. Again very suspicious about some male artists who really it’s pretty obvious if they have a group and they only employ female models. I think it is not a very serious thing because if you teach people drawing, you want to give them different bodies, male and female, so I just wonder why is it just female? They always give some kind of excuses, but it is just for someone to see a naked woman.
FLS: At one group – they loved drawing me but they wanted their work to be commercial (hence they prefer young, slim women), which tends to be more the case when people have come out of the advertising industry. People are not always honest about what they like, and they may go for the norm because that’s acceptable, the pressure we’re all under.
Sabine: Also the other way round, so… some people see me as the norm; yes, I’m slim and that is attractive. I am being reduced to that as well. I’ve been told a few times in my life by a boyfriend, ‘I hope you don’t get fat’, so I kind of feel that my appearance is in the way of having a loving and fulfilled relationship in a way. Again I feel quite confident with my body so the modelling is an experience for me, especially of not being an object, not being objectified and that is very nice.
FLS: Is it kind of ironic to go pursuing not being an object and not being objectified by being an artist’s model, being an object for an artist?
Sabine: Yeah it is a bit of a contradiction but there is a certain distance that I feel…
FLS: One reason we wanted to share the modelling experience, share the good things in it, is to get a bit more respect (for artists’ models); not just the, ‘you get naked in public so you’ve got to be a bit dodgy’ attitude.”
LaD: In Dulwich, they hired me knowing I was a full sized model… full sized so I’m not miniature – and it was for a long pose, week after week. They were preparing artwork specifically for sale and they felt that everybody had paintings of thin naked women on their walls so they wanted something slightly different, so it does change, I think it really does change. Although someone put me in a bath tub.
FLS: I love that picture of you in the bath tub. Tansy, you’re young, thin – we’ve just been talking about that; how does modelling make you feel? How do you use it?
Tansy: Modelling helps me leave the house. I’ve had my own fairly severe mental health problems and I still can’t go to school. I’m 20 years old and I’m still doing my A levels because I lost about 2 years of education, and I’m home schooling because normal school is just way too stressful. Modelling forces me out of the house. Because I’m home schooling I live in this isolated bubble and modelling exposes me to the real world, it forces me to do things, because otherwise I can… just stay in my house and not leave for 3 or 4 days at a time, which is quite unhealthy. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been having quite a few negative days, where all I want to do is stay in bed. I feel incredibly apathetic and de-energised, and I don’t feel like I can cope with anything, but modelling forces me to challenge myself to get out of the house, to do something productive because its my part-time job now, I can’t be late, I can’t not show up, its work. I need to show up to do my job. And it gives me a space to have undirected thought. When I am posing, I just let my mind wander, it lets me see things in context, to help let go of things and stop stressing and gives me time to think through all of the stuff that’s going on in my life. And with my body, it’s made me think about my body more; less as a kind of object to fulfil other people’s desires and more as a collection of bones and tendons, muscles and nerves, which might sound negative but I feel like it’s positive because it’s given me admiration for my body as a kind of a piece of engineering, almost. I see it as much more than a vessel for sexuality. I think of it, I admire the shape of my hands, and I admire the way my feet can carry me around all day. I mean I weigh 72 kilos and my feet can carry me around all day. They’re not very big …and [they do the job] yeah and the way they can deal with any form of terrain or rough ground, go up hills and things… modelling has made me appreciate my body from that point of view.
FLS: We’ve had someone come and model in the same Spirited Bodies you did – which was SB 1 – and she came because she felt as a middle aged woman who had no children, she was invisible and that no one had anything to talk to her about. She wanted to come and model to, if you like, persuade herself that it was worthwhile taking care of her body and that her physical self still had value, because she could help other people with their art and she also found it a very liberating experience.
It’s interesting what you say because you do a lot of photographic work, don’t you, which is quicker – well, I assume its quicker but I’ve never done it, I don’t do any photographic work ever.
Tansy: My photographic bookings average about 4 hours, whereas life modelling are usually 2 or 3.
FLS: But the actual poses?
Tansy: Oh yeah they are definitely quicker, photographic modelling is a whole different set of challenges and photographic modelling is a lot of kind of body judging which can be quite tiresome at times.
FLS: I’d find that demoralising to be honest.
Tansy: I find it demoralising sometimes but most of the time, I don’t care.
FLS: It’s developing that resilience, not to care.
Tansy: Yeah, I mean a lot of photographers especially fashion photographers are, “Oh, she’s a bit fat, isn’t she, I don’t want to photograph her”. Well I’m like a size 12 and sometimes a size 14, I’ve got really wide hips, and in photographic land, that’s plus size, definitely plus size. But I don’t mind really, because some photographers want to photograph that, they are more inspired by old masters, by Renaissance work, by Rubens, by… they want to photograph that type of figure.
EB: Thank you, we are just about coming to the end of that pose.