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Monday, 11 February 2013

The Full Monty: Getting Naked in the Name of Art

Photo by Lisha Rooney
When I first came up with the idea for this year of challenges, I knew that getting naked had to feature somewhere. I seriously considered streaking, but decided against adding 'be arrested' to my list of new experiences.  Instead, I offered myself up as a nude model for a couple of life drawing classes. Alas, it transpires that you can't just wander into a studio and get your kit off. First of all, they want you to sign up to the Register of Artists' Models, which costs money. Then they want you to audition. Audition?! I think very much not. Forget it. No way I was getting naked to see if they wanted me to get naked. What if they DIDN'T want me to get naked??? That was the end of that idea.

Then 2013 dawned, and with it the last four-odd months of challenge time. I thought long and hard about what I hadn't yet done that I really wanted to do, and posing nude was top of the list.  Gazing across the fully-dressed landscape of my comfort zone, I saw the tantalising shores of butt-nakedness looking peachy-keen. If no life drawing classes wanted me, I would just have to set up my own. So, without thinking about it too much, that's what I did.

I booked a studio at the Islington Arts Factory, emailed their resident tutor, Eamon Kennedy, and set about recruiting some artists. I'm lucky enough to have a lot of very creative friends, and I put out a facebook and email call for anyone who fancied drawing. I asked the people who said 'yes' to bring along others if possible, so that I wouldn't be naked in a room entirely peopled by my friends - somehow that seemed more intimidating that a room full of strangers. In the end I had about twelve people on the list, and Eamon had kindly agreed to come and lead the session, which was a huge relief. I was anxious that the artists should get something out of the experience, and that seemed far more likely with a professional in the room. I (correctly) predicted that I would be far too nervous to do much in the way of organisation on the day, and we didn't want a naked amateur fussing about like a clothes-less chicken.

Over the next three weeks I did my very best not to think too hard about the impending doom. It had seemed like such a very good idea, but was I really going to do it? Take ALL my clothes off in a room full of people? Most evenings, when I undressed for bed, I had a go at posing in front of the mirror. Mere seconds was all it took for absolute mortification to set in. Then it got worse. I was talking to a couple of friends about it, and the subject of "grooming" came up. Whole new can of worms. They were both bare down there. Help! Is this normal? Don't answer that. Let's just say that there are limits to the things I am prepared to undergo in the name of art.

The night before was probably the worst. I had intended an early night but instead stayed awake until gone one in the morning, in a sort of reverse of the old Christmas adage that the sooner you go to bed, the sooner Santa will arrive. Let's face it though, not even Mrs Claus wants to see Santa naked.


The day dawned. I performed a final buff and polish during my morning ablutions, and got dressed without underwear to avoid unsightly marks. A professional in the making, I'm sure you'll agree. When there were no more excuses for staying at home, I shuffled through the rain to the Arts Factory, a former church. There, I was shown to a worryingly cold studio. WORRYINGLY COLD. And worryingly empty of anyone except me. My worst nightmare was about to come true. No one wanted to see me naked. Not even the professional life drawing teacher wanted to see me naked. Oh god. Is it because I'm not bare down there? I was about to get undressed in front of twelve empty easels, and sit there like a sad, naked lemon.

Then my cousin Daianna arrived. Crap. People did want to see me naked. Damnation.

In the end, six wonderful people showed up. The other six fell victim to the vagaries of bad backs, sickness, and kidnapping (well, sort of.) Or maybe they just didn't want to brave the rain for the dubious privilege of sketching my - admittedly perky - bosoms. Fair enough.

I knew five of the artists personally, and am immensely grateful to them for their support. Special thanks goes to Trish though, for being the token stranger in the room. Fortunately, Eamon also turned up, and was absolutely fantastic. Not only was he token stranger number two, he was also (not by design) the only man present. I must just take a second to say that he teaches a regular Wednesday evening class at the Islington Arts Factory and that you should all go to it if you can.


Eamon - a professional and very successful life model as well as a teacher -  put a lot of effort into explaining the subtleties of posing nude. This was wonderful because as long as he was talking, I still had my clothes on. He is passionate about figurative drawing and inspired us all with his enthusiasm. I was more than a little tempted to suggest that I stay on the papery side of the easel and he do the posing. The papery side of the easel looked super cozy, and significantly warmer than the plinth.  If you take a look at the picture to the left, you will notice a heat lamp on the wall. You will also notice, thanks to the distinct lack of red glowy bits, that said lamp is not on. We couldn't make it go on at all. No amount of switch flicking would encourage it. Until the end of the session, when I was dressed again. Then it came on with a vengeance. Perverse bastard of a heat lamp. Excuse my French.
Right. I can't drag this out much longer. I'm going to have to get to the bit where I took my clothes off. I went behind a curtain and took my clothes off. I put a dressing gown on. I emerged. Look, here I am in my dressing gown:


Photo by Daianna Karaian
Photo by Lisha Rooney

Then the moment came when I absolutely had to get properly naked. Look, here I am properly na...

Yeah right! You didn't think I was going to commit my wobbly bits to a photograph, did you? And then publish it on this blog? Just think what would happen when I became a famous novelist. People would stop focusing on the writing amidst the furore caused by the discovery that I had once featured in some mild artistic erotica. No siree.

So, the big moment. I was standing on the plinth, in my dressing gown, in a freezing room, pretty damn nervous. My friend Davina piped up with a well-timed "don't worry, we've all got them." "What, these?" I replied, shedding my robe in one swift movement. That was it. I was nude. I assumed a contrapposto and did everything I could not to burst out in fits of uncontrollable giggles.

I did two, two minute standing poses. 

Drawing by Trish Turk, photo by Lisha Rooney

Then a twenty minute sitting pose that helped me learn the true meaning of pins and needles. 

Drawing by Davina Glen, photo by Lisha Rooney
Drawing by Daianna Karaian, photo by Lisha Rooney

Drawing by Lucy Morton, photo by Lisha Rooney

Then another twenty minute lying down pose. Not, I think, the most elegant moment of my nude modelling career.

Artist Lucy Morton. Photo by Lisha Rooney.

Trish Turk and Gemma Clunie. Photo by Lisha Rooney.
Then a ten minute sitting pose. And then they'd had enough of me and made me get dressed again. 

Drawing by Lucy Morton. Photo by Lisha Rooney.
Aside from the 18 minutes of hell after I realised how painful pose number three was going to be, the time flew. I very swiftly forgot my embarrassment at being naked and became far more aware of the fact that I was seriously cold. I loved listening to the swish of the charcoal on the paper, and to Eamon's gentle narrative of advice and commentary. Strange snippets of song flitted through my mind, as did lines from various poems. At one stage I was just counting to six over and over again. It was a remarkably peaceful process. Almost meditative. There are so few moments in this modern life where total stillness becomes one's sole aim. I felt extremely tired afterwards, but very happy, and so grateful for the support of the seven people who gave up their Sunday morning and braved the rain to come and draw me. Lucy even took her drawings home and worked on them some more. Here's the finished version of the sketch shown above. I think it's beautiful:

Jojo seated by Lucy Morton


Here's Lucy's other finished creation, which I think is BEYOND beautiful. I really love this one.

Jojo reclining by Lucy Morton.

Since Lisha Rooney's photographs of the session are also insanely beautiful and moody, here are a few more of them:

Davina drawing

Daianna drawing

The class

Daianna and Gemma



In the end, the idea of public nudity was far more frightening than the act itself. The act itself actually felt very natural. As Eamon said, we have learnt to cover ourselves up, and to be embarrassed by the sight of nudity, but after today I feel that there is something innocent and almost pure in the act of putting your naked self on display. Whilst I don't feel the need to do this again, and wouldn't necessarily seek out the experience, I would certainly pose for someone if they asked me. Maybe not in winter, mind...

I received enormous encouragement around this task, and I'd like to share a couple of the messages that came through afterwards:

It's the hang ups people have with themselves, but doing shows you are extremely comfortable with yourself. The person behind the paper is also nervous, but the human body is the best thing for an artist to observe, always has been always will be. 

Doing the sketch class was really fun & loosened me up a bit. And you were an awesome model!

Just being in that environment today lifted my spirits - the objects, the materials, the smells, the artistry. If ever you had/have body issues, lose them now.

Hope you enjoyed it and felt beautiful. You were.

I did feel beautiful. And grateful. And not nearly as far out of my comfort zone as I was expecting to be. So look out next time you're at the rugby/football/international lawn bowls, I might be up for streaking after all.

Twenty down, ten to go...






Monday, 4 February 2013

Rhythm is a Dancer: My first (and last) 5 Rhythms class.

I've just been to my first rave. A hedonistic orgy of dance; arms flinging, sweat flying, beats thumping. Except there was no booze, no drugs, and a disappointing lack of glow sticks. In fact, I'm starting to suspect that it wasn't a rave at all...

Here's what happened: I had a really terrible day. At about 6.45pm I was sitting on my sofa in floods of tears, contemplating cheese on toast in front of the telly. Not a particularly grim prospect, all things considered, but also unlikely to cheer me up. Then I remembered that a friend had recently recommended something called '5 Rhythms', a form of moving meditation that might help me through these tricky emotional times. A quick google later and I was in possession of the knowledge that a 5 Rhythms class was due to start at 7.30pm at the Old Finsbury Town hall, in Islington.

I deliberated. Cheese on toast? Strange unfamiliar dancing thingumy? Once again, Thirty@30 made the decision for me. I grabbed a bottle of water and off I went.

Here is some pertinent information related to me and dancing:

  • I love dancing
  • I don't need alcohol to dance all night
  • I have tried all of the following forms of dance:
    Ballet, jazz, tap, belly dancing, contemporary, African, flamenco, salsa, tango, modern jive and hip hop
  • This happens ALL THE TIME:


Given all this, 5 Rhythms should have been right up my alley. Because although there's clearly a huge philosophy behind it, at its core it's just dancing. Lots of dancing. I should have totally rocked it...

When I walked into the room a trance-like, rhythmic music was already playing. Four bodies were writhing on the floor in slow motion, and another thirty-odd people were bouncing, twisting and gyrating slowly. One woman was juddering. There's no other word for it. I felt like I'd walked into a scene from Hieronymus Bosch. Now, I actually love his paintings, but I wan't expecting to find myself in one.

A detail from 'Hell' by Hieronymous Bosch.
So this is what I did: I knelt down on the floor and I started sobbing. A wave of utter despair passed through me. There was no way in hell I was going to be able to join in. I felt completely ridiculous. I felt like I was in a room of people speaking a foreign language that I had absolutely no frame of reference for. I was a total outsider. I went to the Ladies' and sobbed some more. I came back into the room, stood at the edge, and sobbed for a bit longer. I  thought about leaving. I really, really wanted to leave. Of all things, OF ALL THINGS, a dancing challenge was about to get the better of me. I was small and awkward and embarrassed. I couldn't understand what was going on around me. I couldn't tap in to the energy that was making these people dance. I felt like I'd walked into an orgy that included my parents, all my ex-boyfriends, and a selection of zoo animals. So, pretty wrong then. I grabbed my handbag and made for the door.

I stayed. Out of absolute sheer bloody mindedness, I stayed and did everything I could to join in. By closing my eyes I managed to centre on the music enough to do a bit of bouncing and gyrating myself. A very small amount. Then a little more. At some stage, my arms engaged in some moderate flailing. After four or so tracks of this the class leader, Cathy Ryan, took to the microphone and started what she called 'the body parts meditation'. This was massively helpful, because I felt less of a twit twisting my elbows around when someone was telling me to do it. That's just the kind of twit I am. 

Mid-class, I almost found my mojo. I indulged in some intense bouncing. I managed to make eye-contact with a couple of people and not instantly wish that the ground would swallow me up. I positively pranced at one stage. But I never lost my self-consciousness in the way that the others seemed to. Despite the weird, primal movements going on all around, no one else seemed as uncomfortable as I was. One woman spent 99% of the class on the floor. At one stage she was curled up, semi-foetal, caressing someone's shoes, in danger of being danced on. She troubled me quite deeply. I wanted to know what was going on with her, what she was getting from the experience. When she did kneel up for a while, I couldn't tell if she was about to cry, or just at the edge of orgasm. 

There are no specific steps to 5 Rhythms. It's all about how the different rhythms - Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness - work, to, erm... so then there's the maps - the Waves, Heartbeat, Cycles, Mirrors and Silver Desert - well they, erm... OK, so I've read the Wikipedia page a couple of times and I confess that I still haven't got my head around the theory. I strongly suspect that the only way to really get it is to do it a lot. Which I won't. In fact, I think that this is the first of my challenges that I have no intention of repeating. I know I said that about the triathlon, but frankly I think the triathlon was easier. I wasn't expecting to find it so incredibly difficult to let go. That is clearly something I need to work on, but 5 Rhythms was just too intense for me. 

I'm really pleased that I managed to get to the end of the class, though. Considering the state I was in at the beginning, it was no small feat. Plus if I'd left I would have missed the elderly dancer singing a full verse of  'If You're Going to San Francisco." Don't ask. I don't mean for this to put anyone off trying out 5 Rhythms. It may not have been for me, but everyone else seemed to be attaining significant levels of bliss. In fact, I strongly urge everyone to try 5 Rhythms at least once, if only to assure me that what I saw tonight was real. Perhaps the greatest thing I gained was the knowledge that this strange, tribalistic ritual is actually going on. Now, the next time I am sobbing on my sofa, I can cheer myself with the knowledge that somewhere out there a room full of people are freestyle gyrating in a village hall. This happy vision will doubtless dry my tears and allow me to enjoy my cheese on toast.

Nineteen down, eleven to go...

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Fifteen minutes of not much fame: My first YouTube video.


A few days before Christmas I went wandering around my old stomping ground of Muswell Hill. I bumped into my former Head of Year in the bookshop. He didn't remember me until I cited my parents.  "Oh yes! The leggy Venezuelan and the comedian who plays two recorders up his nose." Turns out my parents are significantly more memorable than I am. This has nothing much to do with the story, by the way, it just entertained me.

Having failed quite spectacularly to buy any Christmas presents, I met my dad for a coffee, where we discussed the woes of the season. I explained how the more shops I went in to, the less inclined I was to get sucked in to the commercial frenzy. Everything seemed cunningly designed to make us all spend money we didn't really have on items people wouldn't really want. Bah Humbug. Dad had a related story that really made me laugh. He'd bought a slightly bulky gift for his girlfriend and had "hidden" it in a plastic bag behind the sofa, giving her clear instructions not to peek. A day or so later she texted him the following:

U kno that present? I havnt looked but if it is a slow cooker i don't want it.

Why she suspected him of buying her a slow cooker I am not sure, but my father is renowned for slightly unusual presents. The year I went to university - where I would be living in a dorm with no kitchen facilities - he bought me a pastry cook book... Go figure. He hadn't bought his girlfriend a slow cooker on this occasion, (it was actually a lamp), but her message really tickled me.

An unwanted slow cooker is returned to the shop.

That evening, around 10pm, I thought there might be a poem in there somewhere. About slow cookers, unwanted Christmas presents, and all the things we get that we really don't want or need. I started scribbling, and an hour or so later I had something I was fairly pleased with.

I was just about to type it up and send it to dad when I had another idea. Mum suggested some time ago that a good blog challenge would be to post my first video on YouTube. I thought this was a great idea, but had been unable to think of something I could do that was worth posting. Unfortunately, I never did learn advanced pastry making.  What if I recorded myself performing the poem?

I have always loved poetry, but it was only very recently, at an amazing Amanda Palmer gig, that I had my first taste of the art of spoken word, in the form of Scroobius Pip. I loved it. The rhythm and music of it. The passion and power of the rising voice. I went home inspired.

I am a completely tuneless singer. I find this very frustrating, as I'm utterly convinced that the world has thus been deprived of a once-in-a-lifetime pop idol. Or something. The point is that I am a frustrated performer and that, for a frustrated performer like me, spoken word seemed a potential alternative to the off-key caterwauling that regularly takes place in my shower. No one wants to hear that.

By 1am the next morning, I had polished the poem, more-or-less learned it, and had filmed myself approximately sixteen times. Most of these takes stop somewhere in the middle with an elegantly poetic: "S**T BUG**R BO***CKS" as I forget what line comes next. I wanted desperately to go fast, because I could hear the rhythm of the poem pounding in my head, but my mouth worked faster than my brain and I kept getting lost. I finally managed an almost perfect take, but the light was bad, my hair was all over the place and I basically looked a bit like a tired poet zombie.




My dreams that night were filled with visions of mountains of unwanted presents and I woke up with the poem scrolling infuriatingly around my brain. That morning, I did something quite pathetic: I pulled a Christmas cracker with myself. And no, that is not a euphemism. I wanted the hat, you see? For a prop. I was getting seriously professional.

I started filming again, this time avec hat, clean hair, and a more carefully chosen background. It was difficult to keep each take feeling fresh and spontaneous. The writing of the poem was easy in comparison with capturing the performance the way I wanted it. As so often happens with my creative endeavours, the more I worked on it, the worse it seemed to become. Eventually I stopped and decided that what I had would do. The performance was a little slower than I was hearing it in my head, but I hoped it was engaging enough to keep people watching.

Another hour or so of faffing and occasional expletives and I'd managed to add a title and end sequence to the poem, and upload it to my very own YouTube channel. I posted the link online, sat back and waited to go viral.



A little over a month later, this is what I have learned: I am in no way as entertaining as any of the following:

Gangnam Style OK, fair enough.
A slow loris that loves being tickled This is a truly awesome video, so I can't complain.
A cat that fails to jump over a baby gate I've watched this at least fifteen times myself.
7.5 minutes of paint drying/watching a slug crawl on a box  Seriously!? How can I be less entertaining than a slug on a box? This video had 77,112 views at time of writing this post. Come on, people. Go back to work! Or at least be more discerning in your choice of entertainment...

I, alas, have attracted a paltry 306 views, far less than I had hoped for.

Looking slightly concerned at my view count.

It's taken me more than a month to sit down and write up this experience because I've been secretly hoping that my view count would suddenly rocket up.  It hasn't, because it's not Christmas anymore and also because, well, my poem is just not as funny as a slow loris that likes to be tickled. It's just not. In fact, I realise that  the tone in which I performed it is a bit too hyper-realistic. I suspect it might make people feel slightly uncomfortable, because I seem so bitter. This is actually testament to my acting skills, since I have to say that I am generally spoiled rotten as far as presents are concerned. This poem is nothing to do with personal disappointment. It's meant to be a joke, but I am too earnest. It's a lesson learned, for next time.

I've also learned that I love reciting my poems aloud. I want to do more, and get better. I want to learn to build a rhythm, rise to a crescendo, tell a story in verse. I think it's the closest I'll ever come to singing, to experiencing that transfer of emotion from voice to ear to heart. I may not quite have mastered making people laugh, but I have a feeling I can get there, with more practice, more patience, and by going to see other performance poets in action.

Worthwhile success takes time. It takes patience, It takes knock-backs. You have to film yourself over and over, and then wake up and do it again in the morning. You have to post one film, and then another, and another, and another, and still, no one might notice you. BUT if you're good at what you do, and take pains to get better, things might just happen.Take this blog. It's had over 9,000 views. 9,000!!! That might be small fry in comparison to many other blogs out there, but to me it seems a huge and magical number. One day, maybe 9000 people will have watched a video I made, or read a story I wrote. But if not, well, it doesn't really matter. Because the point is that I created something. I found the ingredients, mixed them, tasted them, made them the best I could. And, since it turns out they're not going to ignite all by themselves, I've shoved them in the slow cooker.

Eighteen down, twelve to go...


p.p.s. Buy less stuff!