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Women We Watch: Fat Life Drawing
June 14, 2021 - Alice Barnes
It’s National Nudes Day today! While we really thought about celebrating by strutting around in our birthday suit for the whole day, it didn’t seem quite as fun as catching up with Emily and Isobel, the sisters behind the lockdown-started life drawing classes; Fat Life Drawing!
Hey Emily and Isobel! How would you describe Fat Life Drawing in five words?
Community, intersectionality, creativity, visibility, and diversity.
You started these online life drawing classes in March last year, what inspired you to start Fat Life Drawing?
We both used to go to life drawing classes before the pandemic, and when we entered lockdown, we realised it was one of the few creative outlets that could be replicated online. We went to a few different online sessions, enjoying the fact that we could practice drawing from life away from (sometimes anxiety-inducing) in-person classes, and in the comfort of our own safe space.
While we enjoyed the classes we were going to, we wanted to find a less “academic” class, with more diverse models, that was perhaps a little bit less intimidating to go to. One Sunday morning, I (Em) woke up with an idea to start our own classes with models of diverse body types, to be called “Fat Life Drawing”, raising money for charity, with the view to find like-minded people that were keen to join in. I sent Isobel a text about the idea and they replied STRAIGHT AWAY with enthusiasm and support, as they always do. And then I guess we made it happen!
Why is it so important for you to create this safe space?
We both occupy bodies that defy the “norm” of what society perceives as beautiful: I (Em) am, and always have been, fat. Isobel was born with a cleft lip and palate and has facial differences. Having lived the experiences that we have, as well as having general anxiety about how the world can perceive us sometimes, it was really important that no-one ever felt out of place or uncomfortable because of the way they looked in our classes.
Because our models generally occupy bodies that are marginalised by society, it’s even more important that we make sure our classes are fully safeguarded. For this reason, we require all our participants to remain with their cameras on, as well as requiring a Zoom account so that we can track our attendees.
All we really want is to create a fully inclusive, warm, welcoming space for an hour each week where our community of artists can switch off, without any fear of judgement or pressure.
From people being able to join from all around the globe and even having a show and tell of their furry friends, what is the best part of having your classes over Zoom?
There are so many best bits. We have made so many pals from all over the world, and we never would have had the conviction or confidence to start a project like this in person - we are far too self-critical and anxious!
For us though, the best part about running the classes over Zoom is that the model is allowed to pose and take up space - in their own space. They can curate how they want to be depicted: some have posed with their pets, some have posed with their own artwork in the background - one time a model even posed in their bath because they felt most “themselves” in water!
It’s amazing to see so many different types of bodies and people involved. Where do you find your models and what do you look for in one?
We are actually lucky enough to have people message us volunteering to model for us! We currently have a waitlist of over a year, so our list is closed for the time being with the exception of prioritising BIPOC models. Because a big part of what we do is raising money for charity, we work with a lot of first-time models, many of whom have gone on to take it up as a profession - and we are so proud of them.
In terms of what we look for, we really want our classes to represent all bodies, in all their glory. We tend to say that our models are the kinds of people that you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a life drawing setting on a regular basis. There are certain poses that bigger bodies may feel less comfortable holding, and we want our space to be welcoming and inclusive for models of all shapes and sizes to try out modelling, and to be seen and represented in the world of art.
Have you had a stand out class from the past year?
It’s hard to pin-point one class in particular, because every class is a bit special!
One class that does stand out though is a special portrait class that we recently ran. We hired three models from around the world, all with facial differences. We donated a portion of the class to Changing Faces UK, but more importantly, we saw absolutely incredible work come from it. It is so rare to see artwork of models with facial differences represented in a neutral way, and for us it was really emotional to hear the models speak about their stories and how much the session also meant to them.
Another of our favourite classes has to be when one of our regular artist attendees, Alice, modelled for us. We saw that they were fundraising for a mobility aid that had the potential to improve their day-to-day life in a big way, and we knew that we wanted to reach out and ask them if they wanted to model for us. The community around FLD has really astonished us, and we wanted to be able to give something back to them. The class was particularly special because it’s also very rare to see a disabled model portrayed in a neutral setting. The best news though, was that we managed to help them meet their fundraising goal for their mobility aid.
Do you have any top tips for someone who has never tried life drawing before but wants to give it a go?
Definitely try lots of different mediums. Get yourself some cheap materials: pastels, pencils, paints, chalks. Have fun with them and play around with doing things differently - you’ll soon find that you settle into a medium and a style that you enjoy and feels right for you. From there, it’s just more about the practice than it is getting things to “look right”. Sometimes, the more abstract, shorter poses can be the ones that you end up liking best!
Readers, we recommend you check out the Fat Life Drawing playlist on Spotify! Do you have any particular songs that make you feel creative?
Isobel: I quite like something I can sing along to. Don't get me wrong, I can't sing for the life of me, but it gets me in the zone - especially during a class. If I had to choose any particular song, I'd have to say 'Hope to Die - Orville Peck'. I’m big on dramatic songs.
Em: When I was studying art at A Level I always used to put on the Amelie soundtrack in the background - I still listen to it whenever I need an extra burst of focus and creativity.
Have you got any exciting classes coming up soon? Or any projects you are working on?
Next week, we actually have our one year anniversary of our first ever class - so expect cake, balloons, the works! We will also be having a returning model in a few weeks for a special outdoor session in the woods (think fairytale woodland wonderland), which will be super exciting.
For anyone who can’t make our usual Sunday classes, we are also running a collaborative weekday class every first Thursday of the month until September, in partnership with the lovely people at The Civic arts hub in Barnsley, Yorkshire.
Are you ready for some quick fire questions?
Paint or pencil?
Always nude or never nude?
Both: Always nude
Black and white or technicolour?
Favourite Instagram account to follow?
Thanks for chatting to us Em and Isobel, we just LOVE what you are doing and cannot wait for the next class! Keep updated with all things Fat Life Drawing on their Instagram and head to their website to book your ticket... Happy drawing!!
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