It’s an overwhelming understatement to say that it’s been a difficult year, for very obvious reasons. Everything, in our personal, professional, and literally physical existences, has become increasingly strained and under pressure. Approaching the year anniversary of our first lockdown, this pressure is building more than ever. This also means that it’s been almost a year since societies have been able to run any regular events. In-person events are crucial to the running of many societies and with guidelines changing all the time and the country moving in and out of lockdowns and tiers, the impact has been far felt. However, COVID-19 has had a particularly dramatic impact on the art community in Exeter, with restrictions preventing perhaps the most personal of in-person events, the life drawing class.
Life drawing has been a popular form of art perhaps since forever, and there are even records of life drawing classes taking place as early as the 5th Century BCE. In Exeter, Art Society’s Life Drawing Coordinators Anisha Bryan and Tilly Blake are well aware of the popularity of this very human art form. Tilly Blake attributes this popularity to the formative skills it provides many budding artists, as “it really makes a difference to larger pieces after having practised the shape, tone, and observational skills when in a session.” As for Exeter’s Art Society sessions, Anisha credits their success to the relaxed atmosphere they work to create. She told me how “there is not a lot of pressure to produce ‘accurate’ or ‘perfect’ drawings, as many of the poses are very short so it forces you to get out of your head about being precise and to just let your artistic intuition take you to wherever it wants to take you. Some of the drawings will end up looking really great and some maybe not, but it’s all about experimenting and enjoying yourself. I think a lot of people do life drawing to try and get back into art, as it’s quite a relaxed, meditative space to try drawing again, and as I said before, with no pressure.”
The key to these classes seems to be fostering a safe environment for the models and artists. Anisha’s approach to creating a safe and healthy environment is to always have good communication with the models, and to make sure that she is accommodating their needs, “such as making sure the room is not too cold or that they have a pillow to sit on or a robe to cover themselves with beforehand.” On the other hand, for the people attending “it is nice to have a break in the middle with some tea and biscuits to make it a bit more social!” Tilly agreed, with her key to a good session being one of creating a relaxed atmosphere. “Friendly faces, tea breaks, just letting people draw how they want to draw, and a nice gentle soundtrack always created an environment that felt safe in my experience.” In this regard, everybody attending life drawing is working for the same goals: to relax, practise their art, and have a good time.
However, these classes, like so many other society events, have been severely restricted by the pandemic. Anisha told me that socially distanced sessions are impossible, as the model and the coordinators would already take up half the group size, meaning that only a few people could attend. Online classes are a valid alternative, but they also carry an extra degree of risk that regular life drawing classes do not. Anisha explained how “running an online class with a live model can be risky as we need to make sure they feel safe being exposed on camera, and that nobody takes screenshots or pictures. But luckily, we haven’t had any of those problems, and everyone has been very respectful and professional when we have had a live model.” Tilly agreed with this perspective, saying how “there was a feeling that holding the classes online with live models could introduce a risk factor as both the potential model and partakers in the class could do whatever they wanted, but fortunately we have not had that experience and we don’t think we will in the future either.”
Looking to the future, Art Society isn’t hopeful that in-person events will be able to restart any time soon. As Tilly Blake says, “there is always hope to restart the classes during social distancing with guild and government approval. However, looking at the current lockdown, it seems like we will be remaining online for this term at least.” This doesn’t mean that they aren’t prepared to adapt, as Anisha Bryan said, it’s all a matter of “seeing how everything develops.” Tilly Blake is hopeful, saying how “when the weather gets a bit warmer it might be possible to hold some classes outside, with clothed models or even still life objects. This would enable us to remain socially distanced but still have that art class feeling.” Like many activities this year, art has had to make sacrifices to exist during life under a pandemic. It’s also an example of the wonderful adaptability of humans to make things work, no matter the circumstances.
– Emma Ingledew
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