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Life during lockdown, part 1

11 Sep 2020

Today, Friday 11 September, marks 6 months since the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General gave a coronavirus (COVID-19) media briefing to announce:

WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.

A pandemic. The first in my lifetime. The first ever to be caused by a coronavirus. Its impact on the UK had been limited up until that point, but we would soon experience its full force. Six months on, this country’s official COVID-19 death toll is 41,608 and rising, plus it’s estimated a further 23,000 people have died in excess of the number expected for the same period during an ‘average’ year.

The date of that WHO media briefing, Wednesday 11 March, was also the last date I modelled for artists. Seemingly every aspect of life has changed since then, and life drawing has been no exception. This blog is my reflection on a half-year of disruption and disconnection, but also evolution, both within my own personal state of being and across the wider world of life art.

Six months ago at Shine.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

That the virus would reach the UK and hit us hard was never in doubt. We followed its progress from New Year’s Eve when case details were first reported to WHO in China, through its unrelenting transmission across continents, to the nationwide lockdown in Italy from 10 March, and the declaration of a pandemic just one day later.

In the fortnight up to that point, life for me and Esther had continued pretty much as usual, albeit with a shadow of apprehension ever present. We even managed to get abroad for a 5-day break in Albania around the first weekend of March. Our last duo life modelling was for our friends at cave the day before WHO’s announcement.

In the Roman amphitheatre of Durrës, Albania.

From our last duo session, at cave.

As we entered official pandemic, however, the weight of concern could no longer be brushed aside lightly. One after another, life drawing groups started to close. Some ceased without hesitation, unwilling to countenance even the slenderest risk; others kept going until the unbearable burden of social responsibility, and eventually the law, made continuing impossible.

At the time, I had bookings in my diary through to 19 August. Early in the pandemic, life drawing organisers would send apologetic messages when inevitably they had to cancel. This practice didn’t last long, however. After a couple of weeks it was merely taken as understood that regular life drawing could not happen. Days drifted by and bookings evaporated until eventually all were gone. Respect goes to institutions that honoured their fees and even offered sick pay for models.

Escape from London

By mid-March we had some serious decisions to make. Esther’s autobiographical performance event with life drawing, ‘Growing Roots‘ had been due to take place at Candid Arts on 18 March. Would it be safe to go ahead? After long consideration of potential risks, she decided: “yes”. Ticket sales were limited and audience members could be seated 2m apart. It must have been one of the last shows in London before the arts sector closed completely. We’ve since verified there were no casualties.

Next came a bigger decision. If the country was to go into lockdown, where would we want to be locked down? We’ve been a couple for over 4 years but kept our separate abodes: my house in south Essex, Esther’s flat in south London. If we were to get through the coming months together we would have to share a home. We agreed the safest option was probably my place. On Friday 20 March, we packed as many bags as we could carry on a single train journey and, with little ado, Esther moved in.

We’d imagined we could shuttle to-and-fro her flat when other things were needed but as the national picture worsened over that weekend, it became clear this might not be the case. On the evening of Monday 23 March, we returned for all remaining items we could think would be useful. Whilst we were still there, it was announced the UK had officially entered a full lockdown. My mind reeled with dramatic visions of troops and tanks deployed onto the night-time streets – I said: “We need to go… now.

In fact the streets were quiet; not wholly deserted, yet still somehow oppressive. We took the DLR north to Limehouse, where we waited for a train to convey us from the capital. It felt like a wartime evacuation, albeit tinged with absurdity. Esther wheeled her bicycle with loaded panniers, whilst I cradled her beloved basil plant in one arm and hefted various bags on the other. It was late when, at last, we retreated into our Essex sanctuary, lowering the curtains on an unseen personal drama.

On the run – with seasoning.

Opting out

From this moment we effectively opted out of the life drawing world. Five days before full lockdown, as Admin of the London Life Drawing Models and Artists Facebook group I’d presciently posted:

The closure of life drawing institutions and groups for a few weeks – maybe months – is going hit hardest those who rely on them for financial independence. My personal suggestion for our community:

Artists and organisers – if/when you do book a model in the coming months, please could you prioritise on those for whom you know life modelling is a sole or essential form of income?

Life models – if (like me) you have a separate steady source of income but you are offered a new booking in the next few weeks, please could you consider suggesting the name of another model who you know relies on the work for their financial independence?

Around that time, Esther and I were approached by a life drawing group organiser to explore the idea of live-streaming a series of sessions for which we would meet with a tutor and camera operator once a week. At first, all parties were very keen – we even offered a spare room in our home for filming – but then unforeseen logistical problems and ultimately the full severity of lockdown extinguished our plans. The idea was never revisited and we were content not to pursue any similar notions.

Nonetheless, those who were determined to keep running life drawing sessions in a safe and economically-viable way realised they had but one choice: to go online. It was an enforced evolution for both artists and models alike; one that few would have favoured by natural inclination, but which turned out to be right for the circumstances. Life drawing had been forced to adapt and, as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way…

Life drawing online

Just one week after the nationwide lockdown on 23 March, several London-based life drawing groups held their first online sessions. A few had sensed what was coming and made provision even earlier. Technology was not an obstacle; Zoom became the de facto standard platform for connecting artists with organisers and models whilst all remained socially-distanced in their respective homes. It’s free for participants, easily installed and enables events to run safely within prevalent coronavirus restrictions.

A few details unrelated to the virus were less straightforward to resolve:

  • how much should organisers charge artists?
  • how much should organisers pay models?
  • how to safeguard nude models from exploitation on the internet?

Having stepped back from the community, I paid little attention to online discussion of these subjects at the time. It was clear, however, that impassioned polarised opinions were at large. For example, some people realised their livelihood might be dependent on this for a long time and wanted to establish a fair business footing from the outset. Others saw it solely as an interim measure for the mental well-being of those isolated at home with no income, and felt participation should be by voluntary donation only.

Ultimately, a mixture of social ethics, peer pressure and market forces determined the broad commercial ground. Artists in general pay less, perhaps half as much as they would to attend a session in person. Models, by contrast, get paid more to recognise their extra commitment in creating the pose space, providing good quality broadband and accepting the lifelong implications of exposure on the internet. Event organisers, meanwhile, have realised the world has no limits as their marketplace for income.

Sex sells

The shift online was driven by organisers and models in desperation, doing whatever they could to keep their vocations alive, their finances afloat and spirits uplifted. Even so, necessity is the mother of invention and within days a whole new genre was born. The early ground-breakers helped many lonely confined people assuage their artistic cravings. It wasn’t the same in 2D but it offered contact and continuity for life drawing devotees, whilst opening the practice for hitherto unreachable audiences.

This brand new dawn was not without a societal cost, however. As life drawing went back to square one, so did its sense of body equality. In the first month of online life drawing, it was evident that the overwhelming majority of models being booked were either conventionally attractive, physically athletic or – most likely – both. There was very little, if any, representation of ‘ordinary’ everyday or unconventional body types. Given the wonderful diversity of models in London, this made a stark statement.

I don’t believe any individual made the conscious decision to ‘sex up’ life drawing but there’s absolutely no doubt that years of progress on body positivity went backwards in a matter of weeks. As a non-participating bystander, I wondered what was behind this apparent ethical slide. Three possible reasons came to mind:

  • commercial – organisers starting a new business selected only those models they felt would be alluring to the most customers and maximise their income in competition with other groups starting at the same time
  • excitement – organisers suddenly realised they were no longer restricted to the same loyal pool of London models they’d relied upon for years and could instead take their pick from around the world
  • availability – models who do not conform to mainstream body ideals may have felt less comfortable in baring all for scrutiny online, where bullying, abuse and body-shaming are still rife

Whatever, I felt sad that newcomers to London-based life drawing might see it as an elitist scene accepting only bodily perfection. Other life models may have experience and talent but during that period, if they weren’t a young dancer or acrobat, physically ripped or classically curvaceous, they had to look elsewhere for income. After the first month or two, a bit more diversity emerged – perhaps self-consciously in response to Black Lives Matter – but body equality still didn’t seem to be a consideration.

Much of the art world had come to a sudden halt. Institutions were pleading for funds, stressing the invaluable role of art in developing us, elevating us, lifting up our spirits and tearing down barriers. With so many people struggling to manage their mental health during on-going lockdowns and isolation, I hope life drawing online will realise its own potential to fulfil these roles. It helps people create, but can also help them simply to cope, to face their body image issues and show them they’re not alone.

Life on the outside

I’d publicly put myself out the game before the scene shifted in a way that would have probably excluded me anyway. Esther was of a similar mind. We’d agreed we would model online if it was for an exciting project or close friends but otherwise we weren’t drawn to it. For both of us, life modelling is about a connection with those in the room; a response to the space, the atmosphere, the relative positions of artists, the invisible signals, the inspirations of the moment. It’s about people and presence.

Working the spaces – at The Birds and cave last year.

With life modelling off the agenda for us, we looked for different ways to satisfy our artistic urges. The first priority, of course, was basic survival. By April, disease was running rampant and deaths were being counted by the thousand. Life was all about isolation, prolonged hand-washing, crossing the road to avoid other pedestrians and waiting in long solemn socially-distanced queues at supermarkets. Still, the sun was shining most days and we relished our long walks on open land behind my house.

My day-job continued throughout, busier than ever, though now working from home rather than an office. Enforced cancellation of foreign holidays meant I was left with several days’ leave to take, so I contrived about two months’ worth of 3-day or 4-day weeks. As England recorded its sunniest May on record, so Esther and I spent many hours pottering naked in the garden, tending our newly planted tomatoes, beans and courgettes. The pandemic slowed our lives and brought us back closer to nature.

Tending our crops.

Back indoors I began spring cleaning with the aim of completely clearing a room that would become Esther’s studio for art, yoga and mindfulness. I feel rather ashamed it took a global crisis for me to tidy the place, but maybe when our world seems out of control, all that’s left to do is get one’s own house in order. As a performance project, whilst on our once-a-day rationed walks for exercise we recorded location footage to create a short film marking a personal milestone for Esther – Friday 8 May.

Salvaging summer

On 10 May, the government announced a “conditional plan” to reopen society. Esther visited her flat that weekend for the first time since lockdown; gradually thereafter she divided her time between our two homes. Reopening society was to be a frustratingly slow process. Most people’s plans for summer gatherings or events or holidays were in some way thwarted. Even the London Naked Bike Ride – a June tradition – was cancelled, so Esther and I improvised our own ‘Not the World Naked Bike Ride‘.

Not world naked bike riders.

Another tradition each June is our gathering with friends to mark the summer solstice. This year we went to the Millennium Stone Circle on Hilly Fields, expecting to see a handful of people. Instead we found the place crammed with musicians, Black Lives Matters activists, and many young people. The public had lost its faith in government hypocrites who break their own coronavirus rules, and this was a consequence. Only in the evening was there space enough for some fleetingly-skyclad solstice capers.

Hilly Fields solstice by day…

…and by night.

Come the first week of July, lockdown rules were eased to allow overnight stays away from home. By lucky alignment, this was exactly in time for a trip north we’d booked months before. We weren’t allowed to stay in Scotland as originally planned, but our train tickets took us to the Lake District instead. A change of scenery was bliss, as was being ahead of the UK’s ‘staycation’ rush. We even managed an outdoor meet at Castlerigg Stone Circle with our Cumbria-based friends, Ursula and Simon.

On Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Simon, Ursula – with Octy, of course – and Esther.

When subsequently we tried making plans for a mid-August break, it was clear we’d lost our initiative. The rest of the UK had caught up and overtaken us. Trendy holiday hotspots had long since been fully booked, but we managed to find room at Havant on the south coast. From there we explored the islands of Hayling, Thorney and Portsea, and dined on pub cuisine of varying merit. Life was creeping back towards normality; even life modelling in the same room as artists looked set to return.

On Thorney Island.

On Hayling Island.

The new normal

But life still isn’t a recognisable normal. Not the normal of last year or the year before. Our new normal is uncertainty. Sure, we have life model bookings in our diaries again, we boldly make plans to travel abroad, we book gallery tickets and restaurant tables; we wear masks, wash our hands, keep a distance. Yet we may lose it all within days. Coronavirus cases are once more on the rise, scientists are gravely prophesying and our piss-poor politicians are priming us for another lockdown.

Although I’ve written critically of life drawing online, I mean no malice towards anyone involved. We’ve all done the best we can simply to keep going and survive. There was never a guidebook for this. Now, however, I believe life drawing online is here to stay, with or without a pandemic. The earning potential has proven far too great for it to be abandoned, even when traditional life drawing returns – in the flesh. I can’t see it ever being my thing, but I do hope it will re-evolve to embrace broad-based body equality.

In the past six months I’ve felt fear of loss, fear of a future I’m powerless to influence, the stresses of work and making life work, the extra burden of responsibility to others. I’ve also found moments of tranquillity, learned new skills, discovered beauty outdoors that I never knew was within walking distance of my home. Above all, I’ve been lucky. My sincerest condolences to anyone reading this who has lost friends or loved ones. The virus does not discriminate. It could easily have been me. It might be me next.

I appended “part 1” to the title of this blog because the virus is still out there…

Stay safe, everyone! Life goes on.

From → Art

  1. Jaideep permalink

    Very well written Steve and I agree with you about online thing too. The Beehive class is back but Shine is no longer sadly.

  2. boykog permalink

    great read Steve! Love the Naked Spy theme…keep it up. Looking forward to next installments…

  3. Enjoyed reading this and looking at the photos. As a life model myself, I agree with you about the shortcomings of online modeling. I don’t need the income, I do it for all the reasons that you cited, none of which apply to the online experience, and felt happy to leave the field clear for those for whom modeling fees are vital.

    Then in August I was asked to do portrait and a life modeling sessions on Zoom by someone for whom I’d done life modeling a long time ago, so I accepted just to see what it’s like. I converted a spare bedroom into a Zoom studio and did both sessions, but found it dissatisfying: lifeless, soulless, everything-less! I admire those who have persevered with it, but it’s not for me.

    Until I read your blog I was unaware that the online market has been limited to the “ideal” body types, but I see that you’re right, when I look at the ads for the sessions. That is a great pity because it distorts the market for models and misleads people about the purpose and role of life drawing in the development of artistic skills.

    Keep enjoying your communing with nature and getting the best out of this awful situation!

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