Introducing LaDawn to the Spirited Bodies team

I wish I could remember with greater clarity that moment when I thought life modelling would be a good experience for me.  But the fact is I don’t.

I do remember being adrift.  I had been suffering from severe depression and my days were a jumble of hoping I had enough energy to get out of bed and then pure anxiety coursed through my blood stream all day as I tried to keep myself from returning to the comfort of the duvet.  My life was nothing like it used to be.  I was nothing like I used to be.

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For the previous 25 years, I had worked in IT.  I was a senior manager in a FTSE 50 company.  I was a mother to two children, a son who is now 12, and a daughter, now 9.  I was the wife of a man who ran his own IT consulting company.  I juggled the demands of a working wife and mother with the precision of a military operation.  I had weekly menus for our meals planned out for the next 3 months and their corresponding grocery lists just waiting for the calendar reminder to alert me to the exact time the order needed to be placed online.  I raced from office to school to home and back again.  Our social life was a whirl of engagements.  I loved hosting dinner parties.

One day it all went horribly wrong.  The doctor diagnosed me with depression and put me on anti-depressant tablets.  I was catatonic.  My husband took the children and me on holiday hoping that would help but instead of the lively, chatty, laughing wife that would normally accompany him on our road trips, he was left with a wife who spoke only to announce she needed the services.

It only got worse when we got home.  Finally, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and after 2 separate stays totalling nearly 4 months, I finally had the right cocktails of medication that meant I could be trusted to be left on my own.  But I was far from “cured”.  I couldn’t plan meals and I certainly couldn’t cook.  The multi-tasking required of my brain was a step beyond what my impaired cognitive abilities allowed me to process without having a major anxiety attack.  I found just leaving the house an insurmountable challenge.

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In the eternal quest to fill my days with something, anything that was meaningful I found myself reading an article written by an artist friend of mine about a life drawing event she had attended.  The models were provided by an organisation called Spirited Bodies.  The organisation was founded on the principle that life modelling had the power to redefine the definition of what society saw as beautiful.

Having been curvy since puberty and having gained several stones as I had babies and grew older, my inactivity during my depression had resulted in even more pounds being piled on.  I always found my ability to make friends relied most heavily on my sunshiney personality.  But my confidence, the place where the sunshine gained its potency, was lost; not just misplaced but dead and buried under a mountain of fear and shame and disgust and futility.  My self-esteem had evaporated as I laid in my bed and tried to come up with another plausible way to kill myself while not destroying my children’s lives.

Spirited Bodies indicated that life modelling could be a way to improve not only the image you had of your body but also your own confidence and build your self-esteem.

This made sense to me.  I mean, look at all the beautiful art of nudes hanging on all those walls of the best museums in the world.  Those women were gorgeous.  One day that might be me.  That would be cool.

This all made perfect sense to me.  Not so much for my husband.

He was quite possibly the angriest I have ever seen him when I returned home from my introductory meeting with Spirited Bodies at a pub on Lavender Hill in London.  Quite rightly, he was angry because I hadn’t told him much about it.  I hadn’t even told him where I was going or who these people were.  He was worried for my safety.  On the other hand, it’s not like I took my clothes off or anything.  Yet.  Instead I explained that I had learned about the role of nudity in art:  painting, drawing, sculpture.  I explained how you had to choose your poses carefully because you need to be able to maintain that pose for what could be a long time.

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I patiently explained to the man who had been caring for me virtually night and day that this was important to me.  He said I had never done anything like this before.  And I said, “Precisely.”  I wanted to step so far outside my comfort zone that I wouldn’t have a point of reference for my anxiety or fear or depression to take hold of me.  “But you are going to be naked” was his only reply.

I went to the second workshop and my anxiety levels were a little bit higher since there was a fairly good chance that I would need to get my kit off.  I’d brought my dressing gown just in case I was feeling super brave.

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Lucy, of Spirited Bodies, explained that we would be drawing each other.  No one was obliged to take off their clothes.  They could choose to be drawn clothed.  We were asked to take some paper and our pick of various drawing utensils.  Now this put the fear of god in me.  I can’t draw stick figures.  As I fidgeted around in my seat trying to look uber cool and comfortable holding my pencils and charcoal, Esther, of Spirited Bodies, stood in the middle of our circle and dropped her sarong and simply said “Draw.”

I looked at my blank sheet of paper.  I looked at the form standing in front of me.  I looked at my pencils.  I looked back up at Esther’s elbow, then her toe, then her neck, then her knee.  I looked back at my blank piece of paper.  As I put pencil and charcoal to paper, I struggled to transfer what I saw in front of me to the paper in a way that anyone would recognise as a human form.  I got lost in the moment and before I knew it 5 minutes was up, Esther had picked up her sarong and tied it around her neck and we were being asked how our drawings looked.

In those moments I realised that Esther had become little more than a bowl a fruit, a beautiful bowl of fruit, but a bowl of fruit nonetheless.  As more people volunteered to model I then realised that the beauty of life modelling is that everyone completely forgets that there is a naked person in the room.  The new model is consumed with thoughts of holding the pose, maintaining utter stillness, and the itch on her nose.  The artists in the room are consumed with capturing the curve of the spine, the droop of a breast, the length of the femur and those hands and feet.  Oh, the dreaded hands and feet.

One observation I’ve made is that not a single one of us looks even remotely the same when we don’t have our clothes on.  I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a bowl full of apples, but put a bunch of naked bodies in front of me and I can guarantee that every man’s knee looks remarkably dissimilar to another man’s knee.  One woman’s nipple looks very different from another’s.  Everyone has something rather odd about their elbows.  Shoulders are amazing.

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I took my turn that day.  For a surprisingly brief 10 minutes I joined 2 other models, both males, and we pretended to be caught in the heat of a battle over a parking spot.  As one does, wearing nothing at all.  The funny thing was, it never crossed my mind, that I was nude.  I was more worried about holding the pose, not moving, respecting the other models, and making sure the artists had something interesting to capture.

On the day of the Spirited Bodies event at the Battersea Arts Centre, I was more excited than nervous, although in that moment before we took to the stage I thought I might vomit.  I took solace in the fact that I was surrounded by dozens of people, young old, small, large, fit and unfit, of every colour, with disabilities of the bodies, with tattoos, with scars, with breasts, without breasts, shaved, unshaved, tall, short, with hair long and short and colours representing every shade of the rainbow.

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There was an audible gasp from the artists as we entered the room.  We assumed our positions like professionals.  You would have thought we had been doing this all our life.  Models interacted with each other on the various levels of the stage and created beauty.  Created art.

During our breaks and at the end of the day, the models were given an opportunity to walk around and view the works that had been created.  It was also at this point that we got to interact with the artists.

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It was at this point that the real value of life modelling comes into its own.  Artists were effusive with their praise, generous with their compliments and it was easy to dismiss them as just being polite.  But then you looked at the art.  You may recognise your bum or your breasts or your back.  And there you were:  in a beautiful, stunning, breath-taking piece of art.  The partnership between artists and model had combusted and created this incredible piece of art.

My opinion of myself, my body, my whole being changed in an instance.  I could feel the endorphins coursing through my veins.  I was bubbling over with confidence, enthusiasm, passion, and joy.  Pure unadulterated joy.

The very next day I registered with RAM, the Registry of Artists Models.  Within a week, I had a few inquiries.  I had business cards printed.  Every time I posed, I handed out my business card to everyone in the class.  Soon I had more inquiries.

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Now I regularly model for various classes, universities, and groups all over the south.  Most of my work is in London but I do travel as far as Hook in Hampshire usually once every 6 weeks for a lovely group of older artists who create some of those most creative and remarkable work I’ve seen.

Sometimes I get cold.  Most are very accommodating about turning up the heating.  Sometimes the job is 2 hours of short poses (< 5 minutes each) which is exhausting and painful the next day when you are as unfit as I am.  Sometimes the job is a couple of really short poses (<1 minute) followed by 3 hours of one very long pose for 3 weeks in a row.  Must make sure that is a comfortable pose!

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I have met so many interesting people outside my normal social demographic. Life modelling has made me aware of my body and certainly more aware of the people around me.  I have gained confidence I never had and my self-esteem has fully recovered.  I can honestly say that life modelling has changed my life.

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Silence is Golden; & Edinburgh Calling

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.

Lydia and I were painted gold and decked in bling
Lydia and I were painted gold and decked in bling

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.

Posing while the artists got ready
Posing while the artists got ready

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The following photographs were taken by Anne Noble-Partridge of London Drawing.

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What to expect at Spirited Bodies – 20/10/12

For those of you who were not at the last event we did at Battersea Arts Centre, there are a few aspects of this event which I need to inform you of.

Timing of Poses at the Drawing Theatre

Poses are not timed; this is an experimental life drawing session which is more like a performance than usual. Models change poses of their own volition. This has the positive that no one need get uncomfortable, and the possible negative that models may have no idea how long they are holding a pose for. In practise – we did this before – it worked beautifully with models naturally changing position when they needed and not all at the same time. This has the visual advantage of a seamless continuity of pose, which only has small changes happening as it goes along, no big scene changes.
Artists are expecting this and in case of new comers, will be warned on the day! It is a challenge, but they often thank us for it afterwards.

In life drawing a larger woman is a star attraction

Tableaux Created from within

An additional element for this our largest of events will be the presence of several more experienced models who have modelled with us before. Following the success of recent events where we have directed tableaux, I am encouraging our returning models to take the lead this time and suggest themes to those modelling near to them so that various pictures may emerge on the platform. These will last as long as they want to and may evolve as they go on, with some models who took a trickier pose needing to change sooner than others. We will aim to do some 20 – 30 minute poses, but shorter more adventurous group poses are also possible. Artists can see when a pose/tableau will be hard to maintain and it pushes them to work fast. We know that some of them can do it!

Obviously models won’t know if they have sustained a pose for 25 minutes so this is partly an experiment

This is a naturally flexible format which any model may opt out of to pose alone if preferred.

A theme may be as simple as ‘a picnic’ or ‘a wedding’ or be more visual like ‘a circle’ or ‘a mountain’.

from Ladbroke Grove bodies rise up from a heap

Quick Poses to begin with

Each session – morning and afternoon – begins with the chance to try shorter poses which would be from 1 minute to 10 minutes. This warm up period will last for about half an hour and the end of which will be marked by Lucy.

These poses needn’t be connected but give a chance for everyone to acclimatise. Models make their own timings and we encourage them to try bolder more difficult poses in this section. The presence of more experienced models will again help as they will show the way by example. This is one of the benefits of modelling for the 1st or indeed any time at Spirited Bodies – you learn by seeing others.

Whatever wants to Happen

In practise we have no idea how we will all feel on the day. If people don’t feel like communicating verbally on the platform and would rather intuit their own moves without the interference of ‘leaders’ we can easily return to the format which worked so well the 1st time we did Drawing Theatre. This was completely freestyle and by the end models were naturally forming a few poses with each other and connecting in random ways. Fantastic results.

My plan to encourage ‘leaders’ is more of a fall-back and to overcome possible issues relating to having a larger model group. We will be in the Grand Hall this time – 3 times the size of the theatre space we worked in at BAC last time. Tableaux seem favourable as they can make it easier for artists to concentrate on a group of models, as well as giving models an enhanced sense of creating something together.

In addition, last time round by the end of the afternoon models were tired and many had stayed all day. They got very cosy and wanted to have a chat. We loved that they bonded and several are still friends now, but visually there is an imperative to curb this. With a little instigation we can push the energy further for more dynamic results.

by artist and model Rodger who drew quick poses on top of one another in Ladbroke Grove

Model Numbers

This is tricky. Men are far more reliable in their commitment to model it seems. They respond quickly and are less likely to bottle it. Women may contact us initially then get cold feet. We have no idea how many models there will be, we can just aim for lots. We have to turn away men from this point unless they are highly unusual – i.e. non-white, massive, minute, have a reasonable disability or an excellent story! Just being honest.

Women – we want you! Up to the last minute, we want you. In future I may change the angle and refocus it to a ‘mainly women’s event’ if that will help. My suspicion is men do not have body issues to the extent that women do. Women have been told they are too fat and unattractive so much from many quarters that it will take more effort to reach them.

Women posing at Ladbroke Grove

Hello, I am the model, now let’s put you on a Pedestal

Tomorrow is our 1st workshop of the season and Steve who modelled with us in Mortlake is kindly stepping into the breach; as the new models arrive he will be in pose, greeting them with a cracker to get their teeth into. Whether they are familiar with drawing or not, all will be introduced to charcoal and paper so that they can analyse poses from an artist’s perspective. Seeing the model like that shows one how hard drawing is and how technical before expression is really unleashed.

Each new model will have a chance to pose and be drawn, and we will build up the number of models so that we can have a look at tableaux. New models don’t have to be nude as we will be, but if they want to be that’s fine. Just getting used to being still and watched intently is enough for some; there’ll be plenty of time for birthday suits on October 20th which is in fact Spirited Bodies 2nd Birthday! In October 2010 Morimda called me up to get Lucy’s number – she’d heard what a great organiser Lucy is. I was intrigued and Morimda said she’d send me the brief. ‘Find 20 women to pose nude for artists in one month’s time at the Mall Galleries‘. Wow – there were extra bits about selling the paintings at an auction to raise money for charity, something which has not yet manifested but hasn’t been forgotten. We are just waiting for the right collaboration. With London Drawing the emphasis is more on theatrical life drawing; when we team up with the bang on feminists at Southbank there will be a stronger impetus to push the fundraising element. Time darlings is on our side and everything happens in the right time.

We only found 9 women in the end, but it did not feel too few. They were various ages and shapes, sizes… with different reasons, and they were all new to it. We didn’t coach them beyond encouraging emails and on the day it was a massive rush as the format at the Mall is intense with very little time either side, but my Goodness it worked and it was magic! After that Morimda got busy elsewhere, Lucy was baffled by the craziness of it all – why should it work I mean rationally how is that project going to have a future?! And I couldn’t let it go. It wanted to happen and my main other project was writing a play about my family which was far too close to the bone. I needed a damn good distraction which is exactly what Spirited Bodies was.

I’m getting excited about this big event coming up and beyond as well. Some of the people who model with us are professionals – including some actors – and some have come back to us once or more and with these models amongst the totally new ones it really will be possible to create a variety of striking tableaux all at once. Think I’ll count down the days to 20/10/12 as we prepare the icing for a very special cake.

Communicating a Pose: from Model to Artist (to canvas)

My practical application of life drawing techniques is pretty ropey. I’ve heard and seen a lot; but done – there I lack. When instructing others on how to draw me I explain – “Convey my essence, what does the pose feel like? Express that with your charcoal marks!”

Today I observed the communication process again. My typical poses are not often like naturalism, I mean mainly my shorter poses (less than half an hour). They are abstract, geometric, dynamic, concerned with balance and not obviously expressive of an emotion. They are about form. As I shift from angular shape to perpendicular groove, it is my body that tells me which way to go. Or rather it just does it. Today I saw/felt an artist watching me first, before he put pencil to paper. Taking it in – ‘what does it mean?’

I looked at myself: balancing on the sides of my feet, legs crossed, back leaning slightly forward and arms out front about belly level, hands together in an almost begging fashion. My head was tilted up and to the left. I thought: “There is nothing obvious which I am telling you, at least not with your left brain. So best not to analyse too much.” I was right all along. Feel the essence, don’t think about it. Take time to absorb the information given before your eyes, your senses. Then translate to paper. Measure by all means; but let the charcoal interpret the meaning, which in any case never need be clear. Not in linear terms at least. It may strike on another plane.

by the artist in question, Joe Goldman at Idun Eustace’s class (Wimbledon Art Studios); longer pose

Next week we have another meeting for new models; this time at Battersea Arts Centre on Wednesday 19th September, 7-9pm.

Also we have life modelling workshops lined up where participants get to try drawing each other as well as us. The emphasis is not on being able to draw, rather on seeing what the model is from the artist’s point of view. These are on Wednesday evenings of 26th September and 3rd October at Battersea Library. This is great preparation for our event on October 20. Do get in touch to book a place, there is a charge of £10. Drawing materials provided.