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What it's really like being a life model

 

The relationship between artist and subject has always been an intriguing one. As the world-famous painting by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, Female Nude, goes on display at the Ulster Museum, Stephanie Bell talks to two NI women who bare all for art — and asks artist Colin Davidson about his approach to the discipline.

Stripping off in the name of art to pose nude in front of strangers has always been considered a risque occupation, but a rare glimpse today into the world of two local life models reveals a very different story.

In an era when girls in particular are bombarded by images of the perfect body, two women who are experienced life models say they have never been more confident in their own skin.

As one of the world's most famous nude masterpieces goes on display in Belfast, life models Michelle Martin (50) and Skye Bompas (31) open up about their unusual occupation.

Female Nude by Amedeo Modigliani, believed to have been painted around 1916 and now in the Ulster Museum, is noted as one of the most arresting and powerful works of the early 20th century.

The Modigliani painting has taken centre-stage with other works from National Museum NI's collections, each exploring the relationship between artist and sitter.

The painting is on loan from The Courtauld Gallery in London, home to a celebrated collection of works of art from the Renaissance to the 20th Century.

It was established by philanthropist Samuel Courtauld, chairman of textile firm Courtaulds Ltd, which opened a factory in Carrickfergus in the 1950s. At its height, the factory employed 2,000 people.

The project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, also includes William Orpen's Resting (1905), Study of Elizabeth Siddall for The Return of Tibullus to Delia 1851-5 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Sleeping Nude (1928) by Mark Gertler.

Senior Curator of Art at National Museums NI Anne Stewart said: "Modigliani's works revolutionised the perception of women, and we are thrilled to be able to display a painting of such significance as Female Nude. This is a rare opportunity to see the work of one of the 20th century's most revered artists."

The exhibition runs until October 28 in Art 1 Gallery at the Ulster Museum.

'I feel empowered by it... it's helped my body confidence'

Michelle Martin (50), from Belfast, has been a life model at the Crescent Arts Centre in the city for over two years.

A mum to two grown-up girls aged 27 and 30, she also works as a lab technician in the health service.

Michelle says she not only surprised all of her friends and family when she decided to apply to be a life model, but also herself.

"Everyone was very surprised, including me, and I suppose it was out of character for me. I am not the type to even walk round the house naked - I'm a dressing gown girl," she adds.

"I've always worked two jobs and always had an interest in art, and a couple of years ago decided to do it for the extra cash.

"My friends laughed when I told them and said I would never be able to do it, but I really do enjoy it."

Michelle was surprised by the thorough and lengthy application process, which took three months and involved getting references from her main employer.

While the first time she took her clothes off to pose in front of a class of around 10 people was nerve-wracking, now, after dozens of times, she feels completely at ease and says it has given her more body confidence.

"My first time I had a young teacher who was lovely and really helped to try and put me at my ease, but I was nervous," she explains.

"Most people in the classes are older and there are many retired people and most of them are really lovely.

"The first time I stepped onto the podium, I took a deep breath and dropped my dressing gown and then just picked a spot to look at and stared into the middle distance. Now I don't even think about it."

It is usually up to the model to decide what pose to strike and, as Michelle explains, there is much more to posing nude for artists than most people realise: "You have to sit in a way that gives each person around you something to paint.

"You are very aware of how you are posing and what people are getting out of it. We usually have a series of quick, 10-minute poses and then a longer pose of about half an hour or 45 minutes when you are seated.

"It can get quite sore as often you are holding unnatural postures with your body twisted in different directions."

Michelle enjoys walking round the class after her sessions to see what the artists have produced.

"You have to be pretty thick-skinned," she says.

"Some of them are really fantastic and some are not so fantastic.

"I do appreciate that people are learning and some are trying out new ways of drawing."

While holding the same pose for a long time can prove physically uncomfortable, painful even, the job is one which Michelle has found personally rewarding.

She says it makes her feel empowered as a woman.

"I treat it as a job and I do enjoy it because I am interested in art," Michelle adds.

"You are there to provide a service and it is not sleazy or sexy. I sometimes take pictures of the work the students do and when I show them to my friends I think that's when they appreciate what I am doing and can see it from a different perspective.

"My daughters are happy for me to do it, but I think they worry about other people's perceptions. People tend to perceive it as sleazy, but there is nothing sleazy about it.

"I'm not subjected to anything I don't want to do and I feel empowered by it, not ashamed. If anything, it has helped me with my body confidence.

"I think I would love to have done it when I was younger and had a better figure, but I didn't have the confidence then.

"Now, as I have got older and my figure is not as good, my confidence has grown.

"I see it as a positive thing. There's no downside to it."

'I was able to let go of a lot of stuff ... it helps you see yourself in another light'

Skye Bompas (31), from Belfast, is an artist as well as a life model, so she knows what it's like to be on both sides of the easel.

She has been modelling for the past five years and offers others the chance to come and model for her in life drawing sessions.

"I have just started doing my own classes for life modelling, giving people a chance to have a go," she says.

"I also draw people who want to do it privately rather than in front of a class, and I've also had a lot of couples who wanted to have life drawings done.

"When I was in art college, one of my favourite things was the life drawing. In those classes I didn't notice the time going by. Drawing the human figure is so wonderful and there is so much to learn.

"I had a friend who was a life model, and watching her model I thought I could give it a go and could contribute and come up with some poses which would be interesting and challenging to draw.

"I decided to try it five years ago. The very first time I was surprised to find that, sitting there nude, I actually was really comfortable.

"You can sometimes go into the class feeling really heavy, but being there I was able to let go of a lot of stuff. It is very relaxing.

"I suppose I was just expecting to be documented, but in the end I really felt part of it. I walked round the room after and looked at the pictures and it's like being looked at differently because the artist isn't focused on just one part of you but analysing everything, from head to toe, all the glory that you are.

"The way you look at yourself is not the way people see you. One gentleman always draws me so strong and so defined and he told me it's because he sees me as a strong person, which surprised me."

Like many young people, Skye struggled with her weight in her teenage years and battled negative thoughts about her body.

Since she started life modelling in her mid-20s, she has felt comfortable and confident about her body for. "We spend so much time looking down on our bodies, and life modelling helps you to see yourself in another light," she explains.

"It is such a natural thing to do, and for me it has allowed me to see beauty differently. I think when you are comfortable with your body, the beauty shines through, and the beauty on the inside comes out."

'You look at the human form as a beautiful object in its own right'

Colin Davidson is one of Northern Ireland's most successful contemporary artists. Best known for capturing portraits of famous figures such as the Queen, Brad Pitt, Seamus Heaney and Ed Sheeran, he also has a collection of life drawings.

Colin saw Modigliani's Female Nude a number of times in the Courtauld Gallery in London, and was one of the first people to visit the Ulster Museum when the work went on show there earlier this month.

He says: "I've seen it many times in London and it was really interesting to see it in another context here in Belfast where it takes on a new life.

"Modigliani approaches it slightly differently from the way I would and it is interesting how another artist looks at the same thing in a different way."

Colin (49), from Co Down, is married to Pauline and has two girls, Emma (21) and Sophie (18).

The award-winning artist has been doing life drawings of both men and women since his art college days.

"It disciplines you to draw something which we all instinctively and intuitively as human beings know is right or wrong," he says.

"It challenges your observational and aesthetic skills, and each time you do it you get to really look afresh at things. The challenging part is to draw what you see and not what you think you see.

"My nude paintings are all about the discipline of looking at and developing how to look at the human form.

"I try to do a few each year just to ground me."

Whether it is a male or female posing nude, Colin says the approach for the artist is always the same.

He adds: "Whenever you are painting, you don't distinguish between the male and the female. You just look at the human form as a beautiful object in its own right.

"You aren't painting a sexualised object - you are not looking at the human form in that way at all - and it is not an exercise in anything other than discipline as an artist."

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