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.

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Life Drawing Therapeutic for Older People

Today I modelled at Jackson’s Lane community and arts centre in Highgate, North London. The group is for older people, 55+, but most are in their 70s and 80s.

I was touched when Edna, an 87 year old with a dowager’s stoop revealed her unexpected joy at coming to life drawing. A few years ago her spine had suddenly started to crumble, literally one day she felt it go. Formerly 5′ 6″ I think, she lost several inches and now walks with a frame. She said, “It feels like for the first time since my body became broken, I am facing that fact through examining another body. I can see what’s wrong by looking at another body that is functioning. The doctors never show you, and they don’t look at you nude either, (except when operating) though they have to treat you. No one wants to see your body when you are older; relatives don’t even take photos of me any more.”

Despite this sad tale, Edna expresses a lot of happiness on her smiling face and in her twinkling eyes. She has lived a lot throughout her life so far, working as a psychotherapist, travel writer and latterly a photographer. She used to climb mountains and dance a lot. Fellow artist Sheila suggests it is better not to look back because it may remind us what we have lost; better to look forward as life is always full of surprises!

Liz who runs the class has gotten to know the members quite well, and they feel safe talking about painful feelings sometimes connected with families who are unkind to them. One woman describes her children’s greedy interests in her home… and their lack of sensitivity or consideration for her preferences. She says she enjoys coming to the groups at Jacksons Lane where members are ‘pre-internet; they actually sit down and talk, tell stories.’ Her family dismissively say, ‘why would you want to hang around with that bunch of disabled people?’

Sheila and Edna both clearly have some experience of life drawing, and an artistic sensibility. As I photograph their work, they ask what for, so I explain about Spirited Bodies. I mention the 73 year old woman who had had 2 hips and a knee replaced so only posed sitting down, and did not tell her judgmental family. I also recount the recent appearance of 82 year old Arleen who is a life model (who has had a mastectomy), at our Southbank event. Edna and Sheila are all ears, asking where can they find out more? When will there be an opportunity in North London? It is as if I have poured a drop of hope into their midweek afternoon. The class awaits more funding to be resurrected (today is the last session in a series) and I sincerely hope it is.

my 1st pose is about 10 minutes with a bit of a twist

my 1st pose is about 10 minutes with a bit of a twist

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By the 3rd pose Edna has revealed her excitement at confronting an able bodied form, and how it is helping her understand her condition. I decide a spine view is in order

By the 3rd pose Edna has revealed her excitement at confronting an able bodied form, and how it is helping her understand her condition. I decide a spine view is in order

after a break of some coffee and cake, longer seated poses are decided on. It was very cold today, so I wrapped my coat round my shoulders

after a break of some coffee and cake, longer seated poses are decided on. It was very cold today, so I wrapped my coat round my shoulders

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the coat becomes part of the pose

the coat becomes part of the pose

I love this luxurious final pose!

I love this luxurious final pose!

Some lovely drawings by a very sweet group; rarely does life modelling feel so much like it could help someone.

Role Reversal

When I met you I was nervous, I mean I couldn’t ask you out.

You were like an angel, just appearing, offering to model and then when you did, showing me, explaining to me how to draw. I’d drawn before, from photos, and in a very technical way, and you showed me how to draw with feeling, expression, how to capture essence. In a very remarkable short time, you showed me this and it changed the way I worked. There was no looking back. It was a gift.

And there was a new and powerful connection – I trusted you and felt very open to you. That I moved you was even more amazing. I’d never have guessed yet it felt quite natural, that it was new for you too. That you had opened up because you wanted to share, to talk, and in me you had found an avenue, a channel for communication, which for some reason, you lacked everywhere else.

I hadn’t been with a woman for a while. I’d had setbacks, a health problem, and my confidence had been low. Medication made my sex drive weak, I wasn’t in a great place. Had the shit knocked out of me you might say. Fucked around by the hospital, doctors didn’t know what it was and I didn’t talk about it with friends… My habits had to change with the meds.

So when you had no idea about me, but were so open, so giving, so lovely, and I knew you thought I was part of some big cool group of friends, well I had to let you know, you know. That it wasn’t like that. I didn’t want to mislead you. What you may have known about me from years ago was no longer the case. Of course some of it still stood, but like most of us, I had changed. So it came out, and you too were telling me things about your past which concerned you, stuff that’s not so easy to bring up, and you knew because of the people I know, that I’d probably understand. We come from the same background. There’s an understanding.