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Alive and dead in Nunhead

4 April 2013

The Telegraph Hill Festival in south London packs in more than 130 events over two weeks and three weekends. Now in its nineteenth year, it’s all about creativity and involvement – the work of the community to benefit the community. As a part of this year’s festival, Spirited Bodies had been invited to stage a multi-model life drawing event at Café Fed. It came as pleasant surprise when, with six days to go, I received an email inviting me to participate too.

Come the day, I travelled to the venue direct from work, catching a train from London Blackfriars to Nunhead, arriving at Café Fed half an hour before the planned start time. There would be eleven models participating so we had been asked to turn up a little early to allow time for coordinating poses.

Esther and Lucy – Spirited Bodies’ twin engines – were already in action, projecting serenity whilst juggling the innumerable inescapable responsibilities that come with organising such events. Esther was arranging artists, marshalling models and preparing the platform on which we would pose. Lucy was bookkeeping, catering, blacking-out windows and generally hammering down any potential problem before it could arise.

Once the majority of models had arrived Esther explained the plan. We were to combine in three tableaux: the first would imagine a 1920s cocktail party; the second would be a protest rally; the third would be a sauna. These creations would last 30 minutes, 30 minutes and 60 minutes respectively. We should connect with one another and present good poses for the artists who would encircle us.

We practised all three arrangements with the models choosing their individual stances and Esther directing refinements to make the whole piece work better from the artists’ perspective. Once satisfied we withdrew to an adjoining room to change into our various gowns and robes.

Seven o’clock was show time. With the minute hand teetering upright, ever more artists arrived and set about preparing their space with cacophonous grace. It was a pleasure to see regular artist and frequent model Rodger amongst them. Happiness increased further with the arrival of poet, life model and all-round bringer of joy, Ursula; the final piece in our jigsaw of bodies.

We disrobed and took our positions for the cocktail party theme. Our platform comprised two tables pulled end-to-end and covered by a white duvet, with pillows piled around on the floor. I perched on one table corner, leaning forward as if in conversation with Ursula who mirrored the pose from the opposite end.

It was all laughs as we settled into position, yet when the pose formally commenced I realised I could be looking into Ursula’s eyes for a full half-hour. Shared nudity in front of friends and strangers can pass without a glimmer of embarrassment but to hold a stare in the direction of another’s eyes for even a minute can be awkward. I quickly found an alternative gaze point over Ursula’s left shoulder.

Halfway through, my attention shift from eyes to legs – specifically my own right leg, which was curled under the weight of my body and rapidly losing all feeling. By the time the pose was complete the leg was entirely numb, hanging dead to the foot. As if by design, to maintain our symmetry, Ursula’s left leg had gone the same way.

For the protest pose a volunteer was needed to stand on the table and look ‘dynamic’. I stepped up and, being rather tall, it was suggested I steady myself with one hand on the ceiling. Having once before held a half-hour pose with one arm outstretched and no adverse effects I was keen to give it a try. Alas, it proved a test too far.

Four times during the thirty minutes I had to drop the arm and shake it out for a few seconds. On the last occasion I feared I wasn’t going to be able to raise it again but somehow got through to the end. For about ten minutes after completing the pose my muscles told my brain the arm was six inches lower than where my eyes reported it to be. Very strange. Esther congratulated me on discovering what it’s like to take ketamine. I doubted I would try it again in a hurry.

Having achieved a dead right leg in the first pose and a dead left arm in the second, I thought it best simply to curl up in an isolated corner for the last hour. I wasn’t truly connecting with the other models but I was filling a gap that would otherwise have disadvantaged one row of artists. The pose was gentle and the hour breezed by.

When Esther called time our bodies reanimated and rose as if in accompaniment to the contented hubbub of artists packing away. Our work as models wasn’t quite over, however, as one of our number – Sophie – asked if we might kindly reprise the poses for photographs to support her third-year university project on visual anthropology. Having regained use of my arm, I climbed the table and grabbed that ceiling for one last time.

Upon retiring to the side room to get dressed, we shared with Sophie our views on life modelling. It’s always fascinating to hear other models’ motivations and experiences. One unshakable truth I have learned is that there is no life model stereotype. We are united by a dedication to the discipline, but otherwise are a broad cross-section of humanity with the full gamut of personal philosophies, sensibilities and backgrounds.

Here are a few artists’ works from the evening, lifted with kind permission from the Spirited Bodies Facebook page.

telegraphhill1_01 telegraphhill2_02 telegraphhill2_01 telegraphhill3_02 telegraphhill2_04 telegraphhill3_01

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