Life Art & Therapy in Highbury

I had been busy working on my play – Girl in Suitcase – in recent weeks, and left editing new interviews a bit last minute. I wanted to hear how they would flow with the material from March which was being reused, so naturally I gave each model’s interview a listen. Getting to Mum’s on Thursday afternoon left me with a heavy impression. The power in her voice is so disarming, to appreciate life so readily when one’s experience has been shockingly limited. I was reminded of the caged bird. My heart moved, and when I arrived for work in the evening, they knew something was up. Luckily they’d requested a Tank Girl look, so I was wearing stompy boots (and stockings) without anything else. They took a while to prepare their easels but some hiphop was playing and I just had to dance in my performance space. My way to release, to express, to flow back into a safer, happy place from where I can observe my emotions without being too caught up. The boots helped to ground me, as well as swing me around.

I just about managed to organise the interviews in time, but I was nervous. Every little thing – replenishing art materials, briefing models, instructions for how to maintain the pristine haven of a venue, biscuits, suitcases full of kit to charge across town by bus… and why had so few artists booked places? Would there be more models than artists? Turned out I had sent out a faulty link to the online booking  in my invitations and on the flier! Well it is the first time I have sold tickets that way, and now I know.

People showed up regardless. The right people. Not too many, but enough, definitely enough.

The planning for this event happened just before I was set to look after Mum a few days back in May. I planned the Girl in Suitcase performance then too. I needed a focus to make my days as a carer ok. Sounds terrible when some people like Dad do that all the time, but nevertheless, so it is. So there was a little urgency in the planning, which is great for making things happen, though bound to be a few hiccups.

One of the main models I had planned this event with, had dropped out last minute, due to a very important court case she was involved in out of town. Couldn’t be helped, but I guess it threw me a bit, seeing as she’d been a driving force previously. But hey, she helped get the ball rolling, and, I am so pleased with the outcome. For sure there are improvements to be made; interviews which need more editing mainly, and the possibility of some models doing a longer pose, while others move more often. What worked really nicely was Niomi’s (the absent model) idea of having a post-event debriefing session for all who cared to stay. There had been considerable discussions a while back about how we would ensure that the right people stayed, but in the end, it just happened organically. By that time, with the intensity of all the interviews fresh in the air, the people who can and want to stay on know who they are.

I tried to make sure everyone who wanted to, contributed to the discussion, and it was rewarding for me to discover how much people enjoyed hearing the interviews. As they played I had felt painfully aware of background noise, and parts of interviews which made the model in question (and me too) squirm inwardly as s/he heard her/himself. It was remarked that it was refreshing that it was not overly edited. Made it more authentic, genuine, to hear that I’d caught them at teatime, and this must have been my only opportunity to interview them, so I had just pressed record whilst kettles were boiling, cutlery chinking, or people shouting across a hall in the background. Not all the noises could be edited out, if the words were very important.

There was a difference in the way some interviews were received at Southbank Centre in March, and then at Skylight Centre now. In March at WOW the room was packed to bursting, and women at the festival had spent much of the weekend building the feminist momentum listening to talks, taking part in discussions about the female slave trade, getting more women in top positions, and getting rights for women in the middle east. By the time they got to us at the end of Sunday, they were ripe for each and every woman’s voice at our women only event.

I only invited one male model to Highbury as I was playing it very safe. I knew others would come to draw anyway and they would have a chance later in the session to pose, but I wanted to be extra picky at this stage, for this event. I won’t explain who he is or why I chose him here, as that might compromise his privacy, as with other models. But he stood out in a few ways, and I knew he wouldn’t come otherwise. My main objective might be to offer the Spirited Bodies experience to people who would otherwise not find it, and who may gain the most, as well as contributing most meaningfully to the ensuing dialogue and others’ experience.

One artist mentioned that he was amazed to hear how the interviewees expressed such hatred towards their own bodies, and that it made him realise there were likely a lot of people going round with those negative thoughts in their heads. Tragic. It was news to him (he’d been brought by a friend) that the model might be experiencing therapy whilst modelling. He wondered if all models gained in this way. I explained that for most regular models, after a while one is relatively free of body hang-ups, but that modelling may continue to offer valuable insights due to its meditative energy sharing nature, even for the seasoned model, and that’s part of what can keep its appeal. Another artist who tried the posing stated that modelling raised his energy in a trance-like way, took him to a higher place. I totally agree.

I am aware of a block I might have towards applying for funding. I guess that (funding) has never been a reason for doing the project, as my drive is born more directly of passion, a need to create and to share. I mean, funding might be great, but I would not wait for it. When I need to make Spirited Bodies or a piece of theatre happen, I just do it. I loathe the idea of fitting my plans into boxes for others to judge if my intentions and methods fit with their criteria. On the other hand, at some point I may cross that threshold as I know this is worthy of funding. It just has to happen before I get the itch to be doing the event, because then I have no time for forms.

On Friday evening there were 8 interviews, including one from an artist. There was going to be music too, but due to a technical hitch early on we only got the sound started a bit later, so no extra time available. At least 5 of the artists tried the posing. Mum received a round of applause after her interview! Revealing her identity is a little controversial as she is shy about people she knows knowing that she modelled nude. But I have this feeling it’s like worrying that someone from work will see you at a fetish club. If they are there too, surely you’re in it together? Moreover Mum’s voice is too powerful and my connection to her too strong for me to present this less personally. A middle-aged woman with advanced MS who is paralysed from the neck down poses and tells you about how in her dreams she is in her 20s and can walk, but in waking life she requires anti-depressants in order to feel ok about everything. She would hate it if the people on her street knew about the modelling (but some of them do as she’s proud enough to have some of the pictures from her previous sessions up in the kitchen). Her voice is slow, and would be quiet without volume control. Normally it’s lucky if one person can hear her, let alone an audience. She tells it like it is, and she almost has nothing to lose. Women in the audience who may be too worried about the size of their behind to pose, or think they have a big nose, rethink their concerns when they hear what Mum has to contend with. It puts everything into perspective to have an elder (63, but in a condition more like a 90 year old) like that. She hadn’t thought she could be a role model, but it dawns on her during the interview. By the end we are all extremely grateful to be able to move independently, to pick up a piece of charcoal or remove our own clothes unassisted. Life takes on new meaning.

model Liliana

 

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All pictures taken from the event. There were many more good ones I missed, but hadn’t got that far in my planning. All the same, brilliant memories.

Welcome to the Nude Revolution: A Model’s Words

1. Have you done any life or other nude modelling before?

I have done modelling only once, this was just on Wednesday this week.  It was the first time ever.  I was by myself, there were four artists drawing.  I was very nervous.  I am not a natural in the nude, it is something very strange for me probably because of my upbringing and because of my height.

I feel a strong need to come to terms with my own body, and especially how it is (or how I am) perceived by others.  This is why I want to model – not for money, but for my own health, mental balance, to discover another way of simply being there in the present, and also to contribute to an artistic way of empowering models, artists and creative spirits alike.

2. Why do you want to participate in Spirited Bodies?

I want to participate in Spirited Bodies for at least four reasons:

First, I find the notion of empowerment through life drawing and art very good. I have worked as a mentor for younger adults, as well as a teacher and professor for some years now, and often I come across situations where disharmony and dis-empowering situations can be rectified by sharing appreciation of art.

Second, I have past fears and deep embarrassments about nudity that I need to address in my own growth (and ageing), and I believe that this is part of personal empowerment as much as it is a liberation from past bad experiences and memories.  While I have never been seriously abused as a child or young adult, I have been in very difficult situations where only later I understood the implications and hidden intentions of others.

Third, I also love to draw things and landscapes, but because of the strong and deep inhibitions about the naked body, I have never been able to draw a human being.  I am now determined not only to learn drawing human bodies, but also to learn being the model for other artists, because being the artist oneself and being the model can be one and the same for a wholistic approach to art, to healing and to empowerment.

Finally, to remain healthy is not merely a question of nutritious food and exercise.  While I now go to a gym several times a week and eat mostly healthy things, health is perhaps foremost a mental issue.  To reconcile with how others see my body and how therefore I see myself amongst others is vital for me to accept the body I have and the only body I will remain in and grow old in.  Health for me, therefore, is something intimately linked to perception, acceptance and satisfaction about our own bodies – regardless of how they compare to the “ideals of beauty” often represented in classical art and modern commerce.

3. Do you have experience as a performer or artist?

No formal experience except from high school theatre.  However, I do have professional experience in public speaking. This is not art, but it is experience of “being in front of a crowd”.  I have also sung in various choirs (classical music) and again, I have had to confront inner discomfort about my body and how I am perceived by the audience.

4. Do you have experience in martial arts or sport/fitness?

No, I only began going to a fitness centre in February in order to work on changing my perception of myself and my body – an element in my attempt to come to terms with the body I have and to finally feel good in it.

5. Do you have experience in meditation?

Yes, I have done a bit of both Zen and RSSB-Sant-Mat mediation.  I also do a bit of yoga when I have time, as well as after the fitness training at the gym.  I have a flexible body, I think, and fortunately do not have any physical ailments.  Besides, as concerns meditation, a wonderful discovery for me last Wednesday was that strong concentration is useful when modelling, and this seemed a welcome inner challenge that I believe I need to explore much more.

6. What is the longest length of time you think you can hold still for?

This all depends on the posture, I think.  If the posture allows for very slow and very minute shifts of body weight to allow different parts of the body to rest while others work harder (without this being visible to the artists), then I hope I can perhaps remain still for an hour or so.

7. Do you mind touching another model whilst posing e.g. holding hands?

I would be nervous, but actually I really want to try and feel.  I would appreciate it very much – human touch is so precious and we have far too little of it, perhaps especially amongst men in Western countries.  Touching another model might be risky, but I am confident that it is also infinitely satisfying if all individuals are relaxed about how the different bodies react.

8. Do you mind or want to be photographed whilst posing, and if so to what degree i.e. identifiable or not?

I am not sure.  From a health-therapeutic perspective for me, yes, identifiable photos are welcome.  However, so long as these pictures are not published on the internet for everyone to see.  This is because from a social perspective for me, as I am also a teacher, many students browse the internet, and being easily recognised may be a risk.  My face could be hidden, for example, if a photograph were to be on the internet.

9. How old are you?

50 years.

10. How would you describe yourself physically?

Very tall, a bit overweight around the waist, in need of long-term fitness training (which I now started to work on).

Thank you for these questions that pushed me to express things I have never expressed before and to think and reflect about them.

Olivier.