Culture Critic Will Taylor reviews an evening of life drawing and and discovery at The Barber Institute of the Fine Arts

I'm an Art History and Hispanic Studies student interested in just about everything.
Images by Lily Lemaire

On a slightly foggy November evening, I wandered through the tall doors of the Barber Institute in search of a life drawing session that promised to be different from the ones I’d been to before. I was offered a beer (nice touch) and encouraged to chat with fellow life-drawing enthusiasts before we were whisked up to the galleries for a quick tour of the works on show. As we entered the third gallery, we were greeted by the enthusiastic, rainbow toe-sock sporting Esther Bunting, who showed us a selection of materials to choose from, before leading us all to a large ring of chairs. The models for the evening, Lanie and Geeta von Tease, were perched on bean bags in the middle of it all, smiling in their robes. Once we had all sat down, and assumed our best artist postures, Esther welcomed us all officially, telling us a little bit about Spirited Bodies and encouraging us to ask questions at any time. She explained that in this organisation, one which ‘champions body positivity, feminism and personal empowerment through the practices of life modelling and life drawing’, we would have a chance to speak with our models and learn about their experience. 

The thought of active participation was a nervous one for me

Immediately, the thought of active participation was a nervous one for me, but as we began sketching our first pose, it became apparent to me that the reality was rather different. The models introduced themselves and began to tell us their stories: when, how and why they started modelling; what friends and family had thought about it, and right away I began to loosen up. The atmosphere was cosy and relaxed, with bits of laughter here and there as amusing questions were asked. It’s a surreal experience chatting away to someone who is completely naked, but with the barrier of silence broken, it wasn’t awkward or embarrassing. Rather, it filled the room with a sense of creativity I have experienced very few times. Both women shared their own experiences with issues such as negative body image, one of the key problems Spirited Bodies aims to tackle with their sessions. Hearing them both talk so freely, all whilst in such a vulnerable position was not only fascinating, but really quite inspiring. Geeta said something that stuck with me: ‘It’s nice, as a life model, to be heard as well as seen’. It’s easy to forget that the models we draw in art classes are real people, but having the chance to interact with them in a way that wasn’t simply one sided was an incredibly refreshing experience. 

My time with Spirited Bodies made me wonder why this isn’t more common, why life models continue to be silent objects in art schools across the world. I think we could all benefit from this kind of interaction, and that’s exactly why Spirited Bodies do what they do. The implications of body and self-image on our minds are huge and I could see the implementation of these kinds of sessions in schools and communities being incredibly helpful in allowing people to forge a kinder and healthier relationship with their bodies. We are all living in a society which increasingly places importance on the outward expression of beauty, so taking time to experience and take in the wonder of the human form, whether it be alone or in sessions like these, is something we all should be doing.