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/

All the Spirited Nudes, in Edinburgh

FAO Esther: an email arrived from Scotland on 22nd July. All The Young Nudes wondered if I might be about in Edinburgh in August, to hold an event with them for the festival. We hadn’t been thinking of it but it was within the scope of my schedule and I didn’t hesitate to book it in. It had been 3 years since my last trip there, with Lucy and Thelma. We had done 3 events across Glasgow (with ATYN) and Edinburgh (with Edinburgh Drawing School at Marchmont St Giles parish church centre, and at Arts Complex, St Margaret’s House).

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At the end of the evening, Steve and I clearing away. Taken by a model

The event would be held at Studio 24, an alternative nightclub in the heart of the city, and a festival venue. Joanna, director of ATYN, reckoned we could comfortably fit about 10 models in the space. Last time we’d collaborated and I’d put a call out, just 3 models had come forward and all were professional. We had found first-timers for the church gig, but I considered that perhaps ATYN was more daunting at the time, for a newbie. The full-on music and nightclub atmosphere might not suit the more nervous types we were appealing to. It required a certain amount of confidence just to step up to that opportunity in the first place. In addition back then we weren’t so well known, especially in Scotland. It was the first time that such an occasion had been presented and the response was more tentative.

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Models in situ, all ready for their audience

By contrast, this time the people properly groomed by social media no doubt, were ready for us. I was inundated with interest from potential and professional models alike. In the interim years ATYN have expanded and not only operate in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but also with regular weekly sessions in Dundee and Aberdeen. Joanna is furthermore preparing to export her brand of life drawing abroad to beyond the UK and even Europe, such is the popularity and accessibility of her unique set-up.

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All artworks & photos in this post are from the event on 23/08/’16 at Studio 24

It seems in many parts of the UK life drawing (and modelling) have expanded, gone mainstream; so it was lovely to feel the increased appetite and enthusiasm. It in fact felt greater than presently in London where ever more similar opportunities are available and there has possibly been a saturation.

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I quickly signed up 10 models – a good mixture of experienced and not, male and female. ATYN are famous for their music playlists and as I constructed a pose schedule including a couple of (now familiar to the scheme) movement poses, I liaised remotely with the music man. I remembered the wonderful eclecticism of the score last time, and while I wouldn’t attempt to unduly affect Pete’s choices, I was really keen to align the movement poses accordingly. A few days before the gig he sent over his Spotify setlist for our session and I spotted Clark’s Upward Evaporation; a suitably timed and ambient piece that lent itself perfectly to the seeds slowly growing into full bloom pose. Also catching my ear was Oneohtrix Point Never’s Ships Without Meaning, perfect for the models in a circle making a chain of movement pose. Just one moves very slowly at a time, until s/he touches the next, and hence the chain of movement.

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Models as seeds about to grow

Having emailed the models with extensive instructions and notes on what to expect, they were already well briefed and we easily got into our groove during the bonus hour before the event in which to practise. We physically ran through the tableaux and I outlined some practicalities. Despite a few last minute cast changes and at one point having a total of 12 models arranged, when the time actually came, there were as originally planned 10 models including my partner Steve. Steve wasn’t in all the poses particularly the shorter ones, rather helping me to photograph them, but he joined in 4.

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Steve joins in this scene of a Roman bacchanale

After a beautiful day climbing Arthur’s seat and the nearby hills, we arrived early and met Charli who was managing for ATYN, as well as Keira who was also involved. We set up a space against a brightly painted wall of the rectangular space, opposite the bar. There was strong (blinding) lighting directed on the model space, and a separate corner allocated for models’ belongings. The DJ booth was in another corner and Charli was happy to manage the music so that it was quiet when I needed to address models between poses, for the set-up and let the artists know the pose length.

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The first pose

I was really pleased with how smoothly everything ran, all the models working so well together (mostly strangers to each other) and good vibes all round. Here is the pose schedule as it finally flowed on the night (some poses were shorter than planned as the break was longer, and set-up each time had to be factored in too);

5 minutes dynamic pose with all models connecting just minimally
10 minutes models in a circle, chain of movement with one model slowly moving at a time until s/he touches the next
10 minutes models pose as if family or anyone from their lives who may be shocked to see them life modelling walks in (if there is no one to be shocked that’s fine too!)
15 minutes models create gangster poses, think Reservoir Dogs
15 minutes a scene of a Roman bacchanale
15 minutes break
5 minutes slow movement growing from a compact to an expansive pose
10 minutes scene of witches ceremony
25 minutes scene at the beach

 

Here are some more images from the session.

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Caught unexpectedly nude!
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Confident expressions
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Laidback
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Bewitched

And here is a little feedback from one of the models I want to share;

“So glad I got to take part in this and can’t thank you enough for the opportunity! Modelling together for the first time was definitely the best way, I as a new comer to life modelling could get inspiration of others and also connecting with people in such a vunerable setting is inspirational and phenomenal! The moving poses were one of my favourites both the short growing pose and the group connecting and moving with one touch was so unique and inspiring! I really hope to take this experience and use it as inspiration if I ever get another chance to do this again! Thank you again and hope to see you again!” Aimee.

So sweet, makes me feel very warm 🙂

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We look forward to taking Spirited Bodies to Scotland again sometime, as well as to other destinations. With gratitude for this beautiful calling.

Steve will also be documenting the event shortly on his blog, with quite a few more of the superb photos!

Sound, Movement & Drawing

On Saturday 23rd July there will be Sound, Movement & Life Drawing in New Cross, South East London; for women, as well as mixed. Follow link for details.

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I get really nervous about (life) drawing and it’s because I am uncomfortable doing things I am not confident at. I overly criticise my marks and that harsh voice in my head surely inhibits my ease of flow when I put marker to paper. It’s there before I have even started! Worrying how the drawing will look relative to how the model actually looks, and how other (better) artists fare in their efforts. I am especially anxious if the group is busy and/or there is likely to be a tutor peering over my shoulder telling me how it ought to work. I will freeze, ashamed of my attempts and be unable to take in their advice. I feel even more out of sorts considering I am so often on the other side, pulling the most contorted angles I can muster – yet can I cope with a talented model giving that right back to me?

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All drawings in this post by Kathy from several recent events

I exaggerate. I have been leading modelling and drawing workshops for long enough for my own advice to have penetrated my nervous system. Sometimes I relax and am unbothered by the outcome. It very much is about state of mind. Sometimes I even like what I produce.

I felt extra awful on occasion trying to draw my partner (who is a professional life model). I think I felt like I of all people ought to know his body and be able to capture it well, I mean I’ve looked at it long enough! But it doesn’t translate so easily, and most of all it takes practice, and worrying less!

wind

Kathy Dutton is going to lead the drawing side of things at our next workshops on 23rd July. Her style is very accessible to newcomers who don’t want to be bombarded with technical wizardry, but more gently guided towards expressing their reaction and interpretation of the unfolding tableaux. Having the confidence to draw is liberating, and confidence-enhancing, just as being able to pose nude can be.

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The modelling side of things has an emphasis on movement this time, as in very slow movement that allows us to respond more fluidly to Sarah Kent‘s soundwaves. Lewisham Arthouse is on a busy road and I have posed there many times. The sound of the traffic can be heavy, however with powerful gongs vibrating, and other more delicate sounds from Sarah’s collection, we will be transported elsewhere!

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Sarah sounding a singing bowl at Loving Bodies, St John’s Church

This is a 3 way collaboration where we each bring our unique talents. I am a life model who specialises in (slow) movement poses and many of my bookings are focused that way. I think it’s a facility I have always had, developed on dancefloors in my teens, and in drama studios later on. I will be guiding, within participants’ capabilities and inclinations, very much working with individuals’ intentions.

Models may take a turn at drawing, and artists may swap too, which is the best way to understand each others’ roles. There may even be a chance to try making some sounds, whether voice or borrowing Sarah’s instruments.

Poses are likely to last around 20 minutes and involve some slow movement, as well as stillness. Drawings may be collaborative, on large pieces of paper on the floor or wall as is Kathy’s way, and models will move together also, relating to one another more closely as the session evolves. Sometimes they may respond more to the sounds than each other.

The photographic images are from the Loving Bodies event we co-created in April. They were taken by Lidia (www.lidialidia.com)

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Sarah playing her flute

For more details of the workshops taking place on Saturday July 23rd, see here!

Calling Women of All Ages, for WOW @Southbank Centre

We are very happily returning to the Women of the World Festival for our 4th year there, on Saturday 12th March at 3:45pm. This year we are bringing exciting new elements to the event, by including parts of my performance project, Girl in Suitcase.

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 info.spiritedbodies@gmail.com). 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.

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Women posing together at Tanner Street, December 2015

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.

Women posing at Bargehouse in November 2015;

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.

 

 

Life modelling workshop at Islington Arts Factory

I had an opportunity to cover for an existing life drawing group, as coordinator, and jumped at the chance. This was the RAM (Register of Artists’ Models) audition session on Wednesday 13th January, at Islington Arts Factory. I knew this could be a chance to bring in a bit of Spirited Bodies, as new life models were auditioning, and I used to facilitate this at my own workshops in the past. Where I used to have about 8 models present however (not all auditioning for RAM mind, perhaps just one or two), this was going to be a smaller session. This was on account of the size of the space, and because it was my first time there, I wanted to see how the regular artists responded.

Rachel Welch who usually runs the session, arranged for two audition models to be present, and I invited someone who had recently contacted me about trying modelling. All three models were to pose for the first time, and we had two men and one woman. I decided to follow Rachel’s suggested pose time schedule, as it is fairly standard and would maintain continuity for the long standing artist group. I came up with some themes for the poses, and other than that did not have to prepare very much, as everything I needed was at the venue. The space turned out to be bigger than I had imagined, well heated (for a very cold January evening), and with plenty of cushions as well as art materials. There were ten artists – a friendly group who helped me by letting me know where things were and what they are used to. I recognised a few of them from when I have been modelling elsewhere, and at least one had been to Spirited Bodies.

For the first 3 five minute poses, I asked the models to take turns at each creating an expansive, a compact and a connecting pose. The idea was that the model who was connecting, was energetically bringing cohesion to the three, joining the otherwise opposite stances. The models shared a platform, with a small mattress on one side, and some cushions available. I instructed them to pose in different parts of the space and face in alternate directions, whilst maintaining an outside eye myself to check each overall tableau from all sides, as they were in the round.

There followed two ten minute poses; the first I suggested to represent some sort of dance, as these shorter poses are more ideal for standing and being a bit dynamic. The second saw them as if casting a spell together, focused on a scarf which they each held snaking between them. I encouraged them to experiment with levels – whether standing, sitting, crouching or reclining, and to find expressive shapes with their bodies. This sometimes inevitably found them pushing themselves perhaps unexpectedly, a little over-ambitiously. I tried to talk them through their agony, which was evident from the outside – shaking was visible. I have been there all too often, still find myself in such predicaments after many years experience. Each day and every pose is new, and particularly a new space or group, can catch us off-guard. I may feel more energetic than my body is in fact capable of. I know it doesn’t matter though, that rediscovering comfort is important, so I remind the novices of this. “There is a fine line between challenging yourself and torturing yourself; try not to cross that line too much!” I warn.

 

The next 15 minutes becomes an awkward silence – I ask them to pose as if there is an elephant in the room. This is about energetic and atmospheric connection. A pose may be simple, yet convey a great deal of drama.

 

For the final 15 minutes before the break, I ask the models to regard the artists with suspicion; it’s all about the tension, the sternness. They are excelling themselves, and I can really see how one model especially is getting into his flow. It looks potentially painful the way he is leaning on an elbow, with the rest of his body contorted in interesting diagonals, so I advise him to focus on a single point ahead of him. Before this, he had a tendency to move his head around a bit more than is ideal. Focussing the eyes will hopefully aid finding a meditative zone, or moving beyond the pain barrier. It is a mental exercise and not for all, but worth trying, especially if you do want to be a life model.

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To another model, again I try to encourage when I witness pain on his face. “With a pose as interesting as that, you don’t know which bit of you is going to feel the agony first, you just can’t predict it. But the angles are brilliant. Feel free to drop your extended arm if it is too painful.”

And warning against another danger, “Some numbness is better than others! Some is outright painful, while others you don’t notice until you stand or try to, afterwards, and then collapse without enough blood to support you!”

I keep my comments to a minimum, being mindful of the artists’ concentration, whilst trying to sense what will be helpful for models, and artists to hear. I decide not to give a theme for the longer poses after the break, as I think it’s important that the models find their own pose for their bodies, without trying to focus on too much else. For 20 minutes, one is standing, which I remind them can be easier than other postures which make it harder to stretch for body parts being stacked upon and across each other. Another is lying belly down, and one sitting, with considerable poise I would add.

“In longer poses we sometimes find a way to secretly move, without the artists noticing. Subtley shifting where our weight is, so that we can have a little break internally, and the artists may carry on drawing,” I mention during a sustained pose. Finally, there is half an hour left for a last pose. Two models want to stand, and at first the other does too, as he pushed it in a seated pose just before. He then settles, sitting on the corner of the dais upright, alert. I give him a cushion for his bum, having described to them just earlier the varied etiquette around sheets and bodily fluids. It’s a matter of personal choice, often left to the model. As ever in the moment, we models often go with the flow. If we weren’t so relaxed, we probably wouldn’t be doing this.

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I feel less pressure than when I ran workshops regularly a few years ago, as there’s enough artists here, and they are not expecting to model. It’s the right balance with the necessary reverence towards those posing. Also, I have discovered that with just three student models, I feel I am giving enough attention to each. At the end we give a round of applause to our models, and I ask that we may look at the artwork, which is the first time that these models have seen such. It turns out that at least one of the artists is very shy about showing this, and I think it reminds the models that everyone is nervous about different things.

I really enjoyed this evening; it was a genuine pleasure to welcome new models into the life drawing arena. I had taken the unusual step of inviting a new male model, who wasn’t a RAM auditioner. He had contacted me and been informed that I had lost faith in accepting new men to Spirited Bodies. Well I had, for a while. But something told me that with such a small group, and not having to be concerned with finding the artists (which may consume attention), I would be safe (we all would). Plus an instinct about his messages put me at ease. What a relief and even a breakthrough! I had taken care, been watchful, and I will continue with that, in I hope the appropriate measure for each new instance. (Re)building a supportive foundation for Spirited Bodies – women, men, or humans beyond gender.