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DeadFriday at the Ashmolean

9 November 2015

The hour had passed midnight. On the top deck of a night bus from Oxford, Esther and I shared warm white wine from a small plastic water bottle. It was a complex road spanning generations that had brought us together at this time. Now, as we looked forward into the unseeable blackness, we were in celebratory mood. Our first evening of life modelling together had been a triumph.

Part 1 – in which the scene is set

Oxford loomed ghostlike in our respective pasts. I’d gone up in 1987 as a naïve undergraduate studying physics; the first from my family and, indeed, school to attain the supposed privilege of an Oxbridge place. A combination of too much fun and too little intelligence, however, meant I came down again empty-handed just one year later. Even so, the impression formed by those days ensured I would jump at any likely excuse to return.

Esther, by contrast, was born to a family steeped in the Oxford tradition. Yet whilst she had abundant intelligence and the willing hand of destiny to guide her, she lacked the appetite to conform. Her spirited body and singular mind were starred for freer, wilder living; to shape her own unique life, unfettered by the chains of expectation. Nonetheless, the spectre of Oxford still resonated within her, most recently inspiring visits to ancestral colleges.

Two people – two life models – two dreamers with unfinished business amid the proverbial dreaming spires had, on this night, found fulfilment. Meanwhile on parallel tracks, a London-bound train was transporting the angel of darkness who had made this evening such a huge success, both for ourselves and hundreds of enthusiastic artists. Nikki, a.k.a. Raven Rouge of Art Macabre, had brought Death Drawing to the internationally renowned Ashmolean Museum.

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© Ashmolean Museum

The opportunity had arisen from the latest in an occasional series of ‘LiveFriday‘ events staged by the museum. Every few months its doors are opened from 7pm to 10:30pm for theatrical performances, creative workshops and lashings of interactivity. Appropriately, the October event was re-branded ‘DeadFriday‘ since it immediately preceded Halloween and Day of the Dead weekend. And, of course, no such festivity could be complete without an Art Macabre salon.

Part 2 – which brings forth the models

Through autumn’s afternoon colours, Esther and I arrived at London Victoria a little after one o’clock. We armed ourselves with cappuccinos and snacks, then waited patiently for the 1:20pm coach departure to Oxford. Our journey was a joyful blend of reminiscence, anticipation and savouring the ‘now’. Some time after three, we stepped out at Gloucester Green coach station, barely a couple of minutes’ walk from the Ashmolean Museum.

Having first established where we needed to be that evening, and with a few free hours to kill, we went for a walk. As the city swelled with a heaving hubbub of tourists we sought refuge with a leisurely stroll through Christ Church Meadow, down to the college boathouses by the Thames. Ducks and squirrels, horned beasts of pasture, rowers and lovers; all were our companions as we sauntered along the tree-lined gravel pathway.

We lingered a while then backtracked, following the water’s edge as far as the Head of the River pub, before returning once more to college grounds and out into the throng. When life models meet it’s usually indoors, often in urban settings, so it was refreshing to share some clean air and wide open spaces for a change. In the city centre we ravenously devoured pasta and pizza at Bella Italia – building our strength for the work ahead.

A text message from Nikki told us she expected to be at the museum around 5:30pm, but that we were OK to relaaax until six. Hard to imagine we could have been any more relaaaxed. In due course we went to the museum’s front desk but were asked to check-in through their St Giles’ entrance instead. After a brief detour around the wrong building, we eventually found the right desk in the right building. Pink T-shirted people put ticks against our names on their printed lists. We were in.

Part 3 – in which preparations are made

It was no mean task to locate the basement Education Centre where we were due to model; directions from the Pink T-shirts had been vague at best. On arrival we had the place to ourselves so we settled down to wait in comfort together on a couch. It wasn’t long before Nikki joined us, having been delayed by some traumatic transfer from the train station. As always she was weighed down with umpteen bags of accessories for us to pose with.

Nikki described the five themes she wanted to incorporate into the evening, along with the props and body paints she intended to apply for each. We would be presenting: Death and the Maiden; Ancient Egypt; Kali; Hel; and Day of the Dead. Many a change of headgear, drapings and paints was anticipated. To begin with, however, I removed my shirt so Nikki could paint me a traditional skeleton face and neck. Esther, on the other hand, would start her maiden Art Macabre poses in pure unadorned nakedness.

Increasingly we were surrounded by other folk who would in some way be DeadFriday participants. Many were face-painted and clad in ghoulishly Gothic attire. Several were rehearsing scripts from the plays and performances they were to present. Lines from Keats seemed to be particularly recurrent. As the time neared 7pm they encroached more into our space, even to the extent of shifting around the chairs we’d carefully positioned for our artists. Nikki quickly nipped that in the bud.

With a minute or two remaining till our scheduled start, the actors and role players filtered away to wherever they needed to be; we never did see anything of their live work, nor indeed of the museum itself. Even Nikki had disappeared to apply her own macabre make-up, but not before describing to us the first pose she wanted: Esther was to recline opposite a seated skeleton on the couch while I loomed over her from behind. We had undressed and were now naked and alone.

Part 4 – wherein the life drawing commences

If two people pose naked and no-one is around to draw them, are they modelling? Esther and I contemplated this philosophical conundrum after a motionless minute in an otherwise empty room… then decided we could ease off. It wasn’t long before the doors opened, however, admitting our first visitors; two tastefully black-clad women entered. We hastily got back into character.

They acknowledged us amiably but confessed they had come simply to browse rather than draw. We gave them permission to take a photo of us, and they in turn agreed to forward it to Esther. Thus we had a souvenir of our début pose together. As they left, so Nikki returned, resplendent with a new deathly pallor, extensive scar-face make-up and a long red wig. Two new visitors joined us and became our first artists. Then two more followed, and then another two…

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By the end of our first 10-minute Death and the Maiden pose, all the seats in the room had been taken. Fears that no-one would find us behind the closed door of an obscure basement room proved unfounded. For our next 10-minute pose, Nikki had us embracing in a dance of death. More people entered and were now standing or seated on the floor. It felt both intimate and exhilarating as visitors streamed in relentlessly to draw our combined nakedness.

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© Art Macabre

Nikki was on top form: marshalling, educating and entertaining with clear, purposeful authority. She put us together in one more 10-minute pose before separating us for two 15-minute poses. The latter brought to a close our Death and the Maiden section. Artists left the room and we took a moment to savour the sublime hedonistic joy of sharing this work into which we throw our all, and which we each love so dearly.

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© Art Macabre

Part 5 – in which new themes are introduced

Our next presentation was to be Ancient Egypt. Transformation would be subtle as Esther and I would still remain essentially nude. Nikki draped a dark material over my head and fastened upon it a golden mock-pharaonic crown. Esther, by contrast, was enshrouded in white gauze and given a gold skull mask to slide over her face. When the doors reopened we watched in gratified bemusement as scores more artists poured into the room.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

Our poses were shorter to begin with – 2 minutes, 5 minutes – and steadily increased in length, but neither this section nor any of those that followed would be as long as our opener. Esther and I connected gleefully; sometimes with dynamism, at other times tenderly. We were in the ‘zone’ and so were the artists – they approached every session with a party mood rather than the quiet discipline of a traditional life class.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

When we’d finished as Egyptians it was time to summon the goddess Kali. Our original plan had been to change our body paint at regular intervals – for example, Esther was to be painted blue at this point – but by now the event had become so fast-paced that we found ourselves confined solely to costume changes. Esther got an exotic headdress, a necklace of skulls and skirt of severed arms; I got a new dark crown and a pair of femurs to hold aloft.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

With Esther standing on the couch, me directly behind her and our arms crooked in alternating diagonals, we unified as the goddess of time, our hands slowly lifting and lowering mid-pose. After this I lay on the floor with my raised head resting back between Esther’s wide open legs. For this, our birthing scene, Kali the destroyer became creator. The room pulsated with artists. Such was the clamour that Nikki abandoned plans to conjure Hel of the underworld as our fourth theme, and instead decided on a reprise of Death and the Maiden.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

Part 6 – brings the triumph to completion

Our fifth and final theme was to be an old Art Macabre favourite: Day of the Dead. Nikki’s playlist for the evening began serenading us with Mexican classics. During our penultimate pose, as Esther and I stood back-to-back holding hands, a particularly infectious piece of festive music kicked-in and it became irresistible not to sway in time from side to side. The artists, who by now were in glorious glamorous disarray, laughed along with us and reflected the vibe.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

For the last pose, Nikki generously gave us a free hand to do whatever we liked. I sank to a carefree sprawl upon the couch while Esther lay across me with comfortably louche abandon. Lost to the world, we held each other until our time ran out. The work was done. Nikki asked the artists to show their appreciation for our efforts, and I reciprocated in summoning richly deserved applause for Nikki. Three and a half hours had flown by.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

The artists filtered out – one stopping to ask if we might be available for future work in Oxford – and once more just the three of us were left in the Education Centre. It was estimated that up to 350 people had passed through to draw us, with another 200 queuing but unable to get in. The chaos and debris around us bore testimony to what had occurred, and for a time we were content simply to bask in the atmosphere that had been created.

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© Art Macabre

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© Art Macabre

The mood was comically shattered when a security guard strode in and brusquely announced: “We’re closed, you’ve got to leave right now!” In a single moment we had a new high-water mark for the worst treatment by any institution. Astonished, Nikki pointed out: “But… they’re naked!” And faced with this irrefutable bare fact, the guard turned on his heels and left, but it’s sad to say that we got no thanks, no farewell, no acknowledgement of any kind from the museum when finally we quit into the night.

Part 7 – is not the end

Esther and I helped Nikki with her bags to the taxi rank in St Giles’. We hugged warmly and bid her a safe journey on the train back to London, then walked round a couple of corners to the coach station in search of our own conveyance to the capital. We’d missed the 11pm bus by five minutes, so with 25 minutes spare till the next one, we popped across the road to The Red Lion for a large refreshing glass of white wine each.

It took longer to get served than we had time left for drinking, so Esther emptied a water bottle and we poured our remaining wine into it as take-out – we are after all, nothing if not classy. A double-decker bus was waiting to return us south, so we ascended its stairs and occupied a long front seat. Maybe two or three other people joined us elsewhere on board but they were out of sight and out of mind. We were in a happy place.

In the afterglow of what Nikki later described as ‘gorgeous duo posing’, our minds were full of what we might do next. The possibilities seemed limitless, given time and opportunity. As we left the city that had lent colour to our pasts, we both revelled in the ‘now’ and looked together to the future, forward into that unseeable blackness. We were in celebratory mood. Our first evening of life modelling together had been both a triumph and – we hoped – a beginning.

Esther writes – thoughts from the day after…

Last night I posed with Steve, in front of an audience, a rolling queue of hellishly made up artists, eager to share the jollity and ambience of our cryptic ensemble.

Steve was a skeleton, again! With whited face and blacked out eyes, enormous teeth, and a few ribs. I was the maiden; nude, just myself, with flowers – reaching out to my deathly amour. I played with another skeleton, who was hanging out with considerable poise on our sofa. Then I danced with Steve, an elegant display of our combined collection of bones. He naturally tried to seduce me into his otherworldly clutches, and if I resisted at first, I soon forgot my reticence once his fingers lightly touched my skin, brushing me with the shadow of death!

I was attracted, tingling with anticipation for our next ghostly step, and immediately ready to roll with him. He wrapped himself around me, gracefully guided me, and even hid himself a while behind me, just lending arms for my Kali shift. For our next turn, I gave birth to him, his head emerging from my cunt as I squatted luxuriously, relieved to have this enormous baby now out of me!

In an Egyptian scene I skulled up too, in gold, with a shroud as well. Now we shared an ancient tomb, as we remained affectionate in death.

It is a privilege to feel so close to another model, and allows for more intimate poses, with authentic connection. I really can stare into his eyes continuously for quite some time, always held by his gaze. I feel held by him in many ways. Being able to share our life modelling passion opens up our world to a bigger picture we are still dreaming into existence.

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