There are many conventional ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, but staring at a naked man with a group of strangers beside you probably isn’t one of them. Neither is it very conventional to then sit and discuss with said strangers the eight critical moments in your life when you really became aware of your body, but that happened too. Don’t worry, I haven’t joined a cult – I was one of the participants at Philip Cowell’s workshop on life writing (with the addition of a nude model), held as part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love.
The event jumped out at me from the festival programme many weeks ago, because it seemed like the perfect antidote to my current situation. Having spent the last few months dealing with a particularly vicious episode of a long-term illness (hence the sporadic blogging and unusual social media silence), I’m sick of having to think about my body as a badly functioning vessel. I’m tired of the trial-and-error method of medication combinations and the dull repetition of my entire medical history, told to a rotating band of professionals which, at peak time, changed every single day for three weeks. I tentatively booked up, hoping I’d be well enough to go when the time came. Fortunately, this plan worked out, and I’m so glad I pushed myself to attend. This turned out to be one of the best creative events I’ve ever signed up for – something I know many of the other forty-odd participants echoed.
Philip began the workshop with simple stretches followed by mind exercises, asking us to notice the room itself but also the unseen emotions within it. These exercises were a brilliant ice-breaker as it soon became clear that most of us were nervous or apprehensive about what was to come. We were then introduced to the life model, Paul Cerigo, who was to be the starting point for most of our writing during the session.
Our first challenge was a few minutes of freewriting which, if you haven’t heard of it, involves scribbling non-stop about whatever comes into your head. This is the perfect way to open your mind and stare writer’s block in the face, even if you’re underwhelmed with what you produce. Think of freewriting as a warm-up for your brain.
Whenever we’d completed a task, Philip invited us to read our work aloud, but there was none of the schoolroom-style pressure that many of us were dreading; you could choose to volunteer or simply keep things to yourself, without the fear of being singled out to spill your soul to the class. One woman, reading her piece to the group, described how she was looking around the room and wondering when everyone else would stop writing, “which took me straight back to doing my O-level exams,”. It was this kind of confession that really got everyone to open up and set the group at ease.
Further tasks included describing how we’d draw our life model, and examining how the light fell on his frame. These kind of challenges threw up mixed feelings for me, due to my background in art; I studied it as part of my undergraduate degree, but was made to feel thoroughly inept and degraded at regular intervals due to a handful of unpleasant tutors, one of whom spent zero teaching hours with me for an entire term (funnily enough, my tuition fees were still gleefully grabbed by the university). However, when I channelled this anger and unease into my writing and then read it out during the workshop, I could see others in the room agreed with my gripes about the rules of life drawing, like the search for ‘negative space’ and the plumb line, when all I wanted to do was capture the ‘Lindsay Buckingham-style curls’ of the model, as I explained in my writing. It was reassuring to know I wasn’t the only one who’d felt the frustrations of an art class.
Before long, we were examining eight of our most body-conscious moments, which meant a dinner party disaster for one woman, scraping salmon off the floor to feed her guests, and the excitement of kissing a first boyfriend for another woman in the group. We then plunged into describing a series of dynamic poses from Paul, “both showing and telling” in our written responses, as Philip pointed out; each exercise made us delve further into what he called “the wriggly subtleties of the body” and we didn’t hold back.
We picked out so many different elements each time we looked again, sometimes harking back to our own lives and sometimes leaping forward into the story of an imagined character. For one participant, a writer called Alice, Paul reminded her of one of the key protagonists in the novel she’s currently working on; it gave her a new perspective on that character’s interactions.
The workshop culminated in a few minutes of constant movement from Paul, which we were asked to interrupt whenever we wanted, to focus on a certain freeze-frame moment. “The act of stopping him [Paul] was a Cubist composition,” said Bob, a prolific artist who attended the event (N.B – you can read more about Bob’s extraordinary life as an LA-based performance artist here).
In just two hours, a bunch of strangers had teased out hundreds of narrative strands from one body, led by Philip’s inventive exercises and prompting. We’d shared confidences about our lives, explored our own biases and exorcised a few demons along the way. I really hope the Southbank Centre hosts similar events in the future, as this workshop was a fascinating experience for everyone who attended.
Even if you weren’t lucky enough to be there, hopefully it’s inspired you to pick up a pen and do a little freewriting next time you’re struck by the visual. You never know what might happen if you do.