Transformation Through Life Modelling With 'Girl in Suitcase' and 'Spirited Bodies' by Esther Bunting

Esther Bunting who performed ‘Girl in Suitcase’ in Edinburgh in association with Ragged University in 2011 explains a bit about this life drawing performance, and about her work with ‘Spirited Bodies‘ which will be coming to Scotland in September 2013. There are opportunities to draw whilst watching this show, so have your charcoal and pencils ready!

Girl in Suitcase is about my family’s situation with Mum becoming ever more dependent on Dad (and the rest of us); and my personal need to ‘come out’ as an ex-sex-working life model.

Spirited Bodies

It’s about coming of age in your 30s when you’re not going to breed but you can finally appreciate your parents for who they are. It’s about being ok as you are, sharing what you know. It’s about letting go of what you think is right; letting go of thinking sometimes; about being less passive; being in control of being objectified; turning the tables to empower yourself.

Esther Bunting

With Spirited Bodies we find lots of other people ready for a change, a milestone experience and we find out some of their stories. I personally love it when middle aged women come across us, and it sparks in them the realisation that they too can reclaim their body, their beauty. If you have not felt appreciated in a while, Spirited Bodies can be a safe place to touch base with your bare physicality (again). It is not a necessarily sexual context, but of course you can’t rule that out either. What it is, is a chance to be enjoyed by artists who may merely be practising their anatomical measurements, but nonetheless their gratitude is palpable and you can go away with a warm glow about your being.

spirited bodies

There is not the pressure to figure out the mystery of posing by yourself; Spirited Bodies takes care of that, creating the opportunity as well as demystifying some technique. We facilitate as best we can, and we know what we are doing because it happened for us. Life modelling returned something to us which had been missing. I was recently asked ‘When did you first get into nudism?’ I was born that way! And I wasn’t too fussed as a kid either. My parents have photos of me aged about 7 skipping outdoors nude with my family. Socialisation probably kicked in a little after that, though I do recall at primary school being the open kid in the class, so when more pushy characters in the playground wanted a body to examine; I was laid bare on a bench!
After my A-Levels I dived into Soho and got back to where I started if only in terms of being naked. Being nude and semi-nude on show was part of my first job and I was basically fine with my body. I had issues but my body was not one of them. A gap of several years followed – going to college and doing other jobs, before I became a life model.

spirited bodies

When I first started posing for artists, I noticed how I’d developed minor inhibitions about my body in the interim, partly I imagine from not practising nudism, and partly due to reduced confidence incurred (perhaps as a result of not being prepared for society’s reaction to my earlier career choice). Beneficial effects of life modelling built up gradually but steadily, and after a while I realised I had become more comfortable with my body than ever before.
In my youth I was quite concerned about appearance, wearing make up and dressing up when not nude, and now the more mature me really doesn’t mind if my pubes are straggly, my eyebrows ungroomed or if bags show under my eyes. As a life model I experience transmitting far more powerfully than my surface features do alone. I convey energy, spirit, light and form through how I hold a pose, and what I hold in my mind at the same time.

That feeling of comfort has just kept on growing as I have generally gotten happier with myself which also has to do with a lot more than my body, but it is a good place to start. I can enjoy cosmetics, self-decoration and fine attire, but their position in my requirements is not high.

spirited bodies

In Girl in Suitcase I wanted to capture some of the tension and estrangement that was present in my Mother’s relationship with her daughters at the time portrayed. I also wanted to contrast the calm open space created by the life drawing sequences. There is a comparison between how the Mother’s body has become an object through paralysis, which must be manipulated by others, often awkwardly so in order to keep her alive, and how the daughter’s body used to be manipulated by strangers for their pleasure. Yet both characters arrive at a point of comfort with their situations, and both now spend long periods of time not moving, being perfectly still.

spirited bodies

The female body can be seen in this play as a hindrance, an object and ultimately as an instrument of power once the emotions and psyche have been tempered and channelled. It needn’t work in a conventional sense – walking about, having a job etc, but it serves a timely purpose. Sara (the Mother) doesn’t need to do all those rudimentary things; what she needs is to be at peace with her offspring, her loved ones, and sometimes such limitations as illness may be perceived, can in fact open doors to deeper connection.
The shift in the daughter/model’s predicament is embodied in her role reversal with the art tutor/Mother. She recasts the art tutor in the role of model, stripping her of her clothes, and in the process the tutor loses her mobility. When the daughter tells the audience how to draw her, she the former object has a voice and an active will too.  I am not a fine artist and my own drawing is instinctive at best. I cannot really instruct beginners in how to draw, but in the play and in Spirited Bodies workshops I do.

Anyone can enjoy drawing and when we lose our inner judge criticising marks we make, who knows what we may dare to create.

spirited bodies

It’s the same with life modelling; what was a more hidden realm is being uncovered and offered to all for the uplifting, natural high available. It’s about switching on the other side of the brain and losing our fears.
Spirited Bodies is the project I set up in Autumn 2010 with fellow life model Lucy Saunders. We organise events where people are invited to try life modelling generally for the first time. They model in groups and get drawn by artists, and for some people it is a profound and magical experience. The new models come from a multitude of backgrounds; adults of all ages, shapes and colours, stripped of their usual masks, down to the bare forked animal Shakespeare described.
In the silence and stillness of the studio set-up there is a scene of figures connecting in space. Inside each of them is a chance to face themselves in a new context. In a ritualised environment that is well disposed to meditation, quietly being amongst other nude humans, it feels like something is being returned to you that you didn’t even know was lost.