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Shuffle on this mortal coil

30 July 2015

Dig, if you will, the picture…

It’s a glorious Sunday afternoon in late July. Shafts of sunlight pierce the verdant canopy of a heavily wooded urban cemetery. Crows caw. Amidst the beautiful chaos of ancient tombstones transfixed in eternal decline, there is a small clearing. Warmth rises from the fragrant earth and envelops two nude models, who stand serene in the stillness of nature. Their finely poised bodies, caressed by golden rays, are attended closely by artists who capture the delicate magic of this rare moment.

Reality bites

From leaden skies the frigid rain spattered my black umbrella as I stood hunched at the entrance to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. Not long after arriving I was joined by the markedly more colourful, but no less damp, Nikki of Art Macabre. Together with Carmen Mon Oxide – operatic cabaret singer and some-time art model – we would be providing outdoor life drawing as part of east London’s Shuffle Festival.

Nikki and I paused to exchange looks that acknowledged both the insanity of what we were about do, and the certain knowledge that we would still go ahead and do it.

We found our small clearing; not too muddy underfoot. Its perimeter of trees afforded us a modicum of cover from the persistent drizzle. After Nikki had chosen a couple of prime spots for our poses we hastened back to the shelter of a nearby community building, where we were joined by Carmen, and later by Alex and Ian – our volunteer helpers for the day.

Elemental

When we returned to the clearing I was clad in nothing more substantial than a top hat, my lightweight navy dressing gown, and sandals. Carmen was resplendent in a black bonnet, long brunette wig – concealing her superb blue hair – and a light pink gown with matching pink DMs. We’d made an effort, even if the weather had not.

Barely a minute or two had passed when Alex and Ian arrived with 15-20 artists they’d collected from the main entrance. Three long wooden benches were arranged for them in an arc around the gravestones and woodpile that would be the backdrop to our first poses. When everyone was settled with drawing materials at the ready, Nikki began her introductions.

Carmen and I looked at one another, smirked and nodded. Our time had arrived. We shrugged off our gowns, rolled them into a plastic bin-liner, and strode naked into the arena. To begin we would be posing either side of a solitary tombstone. Over many decades this cold slab had stood unmoved by encroaching nature and the ravages of capricious weather; we merely had to hold there for 5 minutes.

It was a chilly business, and no mistake. Mercifully the rain had eased to a slight spitting, hardly forceful enough to penetrate our shield of leaves and branches, but sufficient to coalesce into large drops that would occasionally splash icily upon our bare skin. Worse than the rain was a stern breeze that would find us out from time to time, making the temperature feel considerably less than the forecast 14°C.

Next came a 10-minute pose with Carmen seated on log, cradling a bundle of white rags, while I craned over her to gaze at our imaginary baby. Nikki was weaving a tale and orchestrating our poses: arranging the tableau, supplying us props, adding or taking away costume accessories. The artists huddled over their drawing materials, shielding them against random showers, but staying staunch with us throughout.

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© artist emilietune

Truly we faced the primitive elements: sky-clad in the open air; damp earth clinging beneath our feet; fine water falling upon our bodies; and incongruously, in the next clearing, beekeepers smoking their hives – where there’s smoke, surely there is a smoulder of fire. We would have welcomed a nice roaring fire to thaw our bones just then, but our work was not yet halfway done.

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© artist Florence Goodhand-Tait

Shiver me timbers

Our final 10-minute pose at this location saw us separated. Carmen stood upon a tree stump to my left, while I stepped onto a woodpile. Once again props and accessories were changed. I was given a mask to wear – which afforded the unexpected bonus of allowing me to warm my face with my own breath – plus some colourful cloth to hold close about my shoulders like wings.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

After this there was a brief interlude while the artists’ benches were shifted to face an interesting collection of sawn-off upright tree trunks. I kept a blanket wrapped snugly around me and privately hoped these manoeuvres would take a good long while. It was a false comfort, however, as for the next 10 minutes I would be posing solo without a stitch of clothing, and thus felt the cold more keenly than ever.

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Nikki had cast me as Charon, ferryman of Hades, carrying the souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron. A long fallen branch served as the pole with which I propelled my imaginary boat. I leaned onto it, as though pushing away from the world of the living, and hoped the tension in my limbs would generate some internal heat… but I suspect it merely accentuated my little shivers.

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© Art Macabre

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© artist Svetlana Radionovskaya

With that pose, however, my work was done. Carmen closed our session, standing upright with her face veiled and her hands clutching a golden skull. For both the first and last pose, she performed an operatic accompaniment to music downloaded onto Nikki’s phone. At times her atmospheric voice resonated with such power among the trees and tombs that I wondered whether an audience might assemble.

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© Art Macabre

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© artist Florence Goodhand-Tait

It was a privilege to hear her sing, as it had been when we last worked together, for Masques and the Macabre at Somerset House. Where my limbs had trembled, Carmen’s voice remained steady and strong. When her 10 minutes were over, the artists were ready with warm applause, and I was ready with her gown and a warm blanket. We’d survived.

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© artist Svetlana Radionovskaya

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Final resting place

Back in the community building we dressed and relaxed. Despite there being a busy kitchen in the hall, it somehow proved impossible for us to get a cup of tea. Carmen managed to go one better, however, claiming a portion of the hot curry and rice that was simmering on a table for festival staff. Alex and Ian said their goodbyes, leaving me, Carmen and Nikki to set off spontaneously for a nearby pub.

At the Wentworth Arms, we made up for in beer and wine what we’d lacked in tea. It’s a grand thing to endure the minor discomforts of a mediocre British summer, and then celebrate in excellent company. As much as I love life modelling, some jobs are better for having been done than they are in the doing. It had been a great day out for all that, and I hope the artists got just as much of a kick from its quirky uniqueness.

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