Interview with Claire Collison

Interview with Claire Collison

November 25, 2019

Claire Collison is a writer, an artist, a breast cancer survivor but beyond all else, she is an inspiration. Since deciding not to have reconstructive surgery following her mastectomy in 2014, Claire has been asking, 'Why are thousands of women like me hidden'? This year, Claire is taking part in The Big Draw Festival ‘Drawn To Life’ as an individual organiser, and will be running two life modelling performances in October. All women, regardless of artistic experience, are invited to join these sessions, during which Claire will perform a monologue linking her own experiences to life-modelling and storytelling.

On a lovely, sunny morning in August I was thrilled to meet with Claire for a coffee in Trinity Buoy Wharf to find out all about her life and her work - it is with great pleasure that I share our conversation below.

Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Claire Collison.

MB: Claire, you’re a writer and a visual artist, and I’m curious to know how this works on a day-to-day basis. Do you find that some mornings you wake up wanting only to work with the visual, and vice versa? Or do the two often work together?

CC: Yes, I’m both, and both are crucial to me. The way I use verbal and non-verbal has something to do with mind/body, or intuitive/rational. Sometimes I feel words nail things too absolutely, or that there just aren’t the right words, whereas working visually can unlock things I’ve not even begun to understand in a conscious way.  But the reverse is also true: I can use words to make a bossy X-ray more ambivalent. I was on a residency a while ago, trying to find ways of using poetry and drawing equally - so that drawing wasn’t an illustration of words, and words weren’t the explanation of a drawing. I was using my own medical files as source material, redacting medical letters, and transcribing my ECG into a score to be played on a musical box (‘Heart in C Minor’). I think play is massively important, and not having too fixed an idea of what will result.

[Left: 'Your East / My East' by Claire Collison. Right: 'BADA BING' by Claire Collison.]

[Left: 'Your East / My East' by Claire Collison. Right: 'BADA BING' by Claire Collison.]

MB: It’s interesting that you mention using medical documents - with this year’s Festival ‘Drawn to Life’ placing emphasis on the importance of creativity in our health and wellbeing, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to engage with these themes?

CC: I’ve always made work from personal experience, and used self-portraiture - ever since working as a life model, it made sense to use my own body to express the things I wanted to say - and there’s always been a correlation between what I make and how I make it: form and content. I was working with photography in the 80s when I developed ME, which made me allergic to my chemicals. I’d been commissioned by Camerawork to produce a series of work, making this invisible (and contentious) illness visible. Finding processes within the constraints of what I was able to do without detriment to my health, I began to appreciate these decisions were both creative and political. These were the early days of Disability Art, and I was invited to be Arts Editor of Disability Arts Magazine. I met and became friends with Jo Spence, who included my work in What Can A Woman Do With A Camera?  When my mum was diagnosed with cancer soon after, I became her carer (in fact, Mum’s healthcare owed a lot to what Jo had taught us). When Mum died, I wrote a novel about that time, Treading Water. Then, five years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So it was only natural that this would become a focus for my work. I’ve been writing throughout (I recently won the Women Poets’ Prize), and as Artist in Residence at the Women’s Art Library, I’ve been riffing off the work represented there, experimenting with various forms trying to find a form that holds all that I want to explore. My new work is much more participatory, and the closest I’ve got to a synthesis of word and image.

MB: We spoke of the distinct lack of representation in the media of women who have not had reconstructive surgery following mastectomy. In your poem The Ladies’ Pond you write about remembering an encounter with an old woman:

               The scars were old, and she was old -

               and she was here, and swimming,

               pond from the neck down.

I find it so powerful that this encounter, an almost forgotten memory, had such an impact on you so many years on. The memory of her being there, swimming, ‘dismissing’ her scars, was enough to give you a sense of peace in a time of such uncertainty. Could you tell me about the importance of representation and recognition of women who have not undergone reconstructive surgery, and what it means to you?

CC: The encounter I describe in that poem is completely true! It was as if she was a ghost from my future, come to reassure me I’d be okay, and that I’d made the right decision. I was totally unprepared for the breast cancer diagnosis; it came following a routine mammogram; and I was baffled that the first thing I was told I needed to decide was whether to have reconstructive surgery at the time of the mastectomy, or later: not if, but when. I remember feeling a nuisance to be questioning reconstruction - and it’s taken a long time to uncover statistics, such as only 31% of women choosing reconstruction, and over 47% of those who do choose it expressing regret. I made the decision not to have reconstruction. Just to be clear, I have no agenda - I think it’s brilliant that we have an NHS that provides us with these options, and I appreciate that for some women reconstruction is important - but making an informed choice is hard when there is so little representation of difference in our society - and social media, with its proliferation of unfeasible and unachievable bodies, is only making matters worse. I realised I was in a fairly unique position to do something about this lack of representation. In the same way that the woman in The Ladies’ Pond had done for me, by making my experience visible, I could help open up conversations that would enable women to ask questions and make informed decisions.

MB: It’s wonderful that you have found such a great platform to open conversation, reassure and raise visibility. What made you choose to do this through life modelling - and in particular, what inspired the unique format of your life drawing sessions?

CC: A while after my treatment, I went to a life drawing class run by Esther Bunting of Spirited Bodies. Esther creates safe spaces for anyone curious to explore the positive effects of life modelling. It was a powerful experience, exposing my single-breasted self for the first time in a non-medical space; realising I was still whole and complete, and seeing that the drawings didn’t dwell on any absence, but engaged with me as I am. I started thinking how this could to be beneficial - not just for the life model, but also for those who were drawing, and for those who would see the drawings. After inviting me to model at WOW (Women of the World festival) Esther then asked me to participate in her series, Stories of Women. I went along to one, and it blew my mind: the life model, Jennifer (she had a name!) was moving about, and telling her story as she posed. I realised here was a form that could hold the verbal and non-verbal, and in 2017 I performed ‘Truth Is Beauty’ for the first time at the Feminist Library in London. Since then I’ve piloted it in a range of venues - including a pop-up shop in a Southend shopping mall; for PhD drawing students at Loughborough University; as part of ‘Women, Protest, Power’ in Birmingham, and at the Ministry of Justice this year, for International Women’s Day. In October, I’ll be performing a shiny new version in Liverpool and Peterborough.

MB: Can you describe what happens in the performance?

CC: I perform a monologue while life modelling. Participants draw me whilst I’m posing and talking, and their drawings are then shared, exhibited and archived. The monologue includes my poetry and anecdotes as well as a patchwork of quotations, including a recitation of all the slang words for breasts. Hopefully it’s funny and irreverent, as well as thought-provoking.

MB: It sounds incredibly powerful. Who generally takes part in these sessions?

CC: Right now I’m performing in women-only spaces, though the exhibition launch the following day is open to everyone. I’ve said before that Truth is Beauty is aimed at ‘anyone with breasts, and anyone who knows someone with breasts’. I hope people come who might not have thought this sort of thing was for them: it is! Participants have included experienced artists through to those who’ve never drawn before in their life. They are encouraged to approach the drawing as a form of understanding, and to consider the drawings produced as a bi-product of the experience, rather than its sole purpose. I’ll be performing for medical students at the end of October, which I’m really excited about. I’d love people who make and sell bras to come, because maybe then they’d start to cater for us better.

MB: Traditionally, life drawing is a very quiet space. I imagine that the addition of spoken word within your performance must really change the atmosphere! Could you tell us about the effect that this has on the overall experience, for both you and the participants?

CC: It absolutely does change things! If you’ve come from the experience of spoken word, or theatre, where you’re supposed to be silent and passive, then being invited to do something while listening and watching is very new. You’re no longer in an audience, you’re a participant. Equally, if you’re used to conventional life drawing classes, where poses are fixed, and the model is still, it’s also a big change. I’ve discovered that when participants take in what I’m saying while drawing me, the content is received kinaesthetically - which means its processed differently. Quite often participants include my words in their drawings, the two are so interconnected. Also, being granted permission to really have a good look takes the stigma out of difference: we are much less afraid of things if we can see them.

[Left: Life drawing by Laura Adamson. Right: 'Bra of my Own' life drawing by Angela Hodgson Teall.]

[Left: Life drawing by Laura Adamson. Right: 'Bra of my Own' life drawing by Angela Hodgson Teall.]

MB: And what happens to the drawings after each session?

CC: We always ensure there’s time to look at each other’s drawings, and then I exhibit everything that people are happy to either give or lend me. I’ve been overwhelmed by people’s generosity, and I’ve accrued a rather extraordinary collection, which I’m archiving to share on social media. I’d love to turn them all into a book one day. Some of my favourites have been by people who have never drawn before, there’s a real honesty to them.

MB: I love that you say that! There is such a fear in our society around drawing; I’m sure we have all heard - or perhaps even uttered - the dreaded words ‘I can’t draw’ countless times. At The Big Draw we believe that drawing is a life changing tool for communication, creativity and expression. How did you first come across The Big Draw, and what inspired you to take part this year?

CC: I love the way The Big Draw advocates for drawing as process, not product - slow and analogue - a form of mindfulness - a way of understanding the world and our relationship with it that bypasses logic and reason. These are all qualities I want to reflect in my work. The Big Draw has been on my radar for a long time; I feel we’re part of the same tribe, championing the same values. I’ve taught Visual Literacy for The Photographers’ Gallery, and I think now more than ever it’s vital that we are discerning - not just about what we’re looking at, we also need to be asking how and why we’re looking - and drawing is a brilliant tool for this.

[Life drawing by Lucie Russell - @Drawing.People.Together.]

[Life drawing by Lucie Russell - @Drawing.People.Together.]

MB: I understand there’s an opportunity for participants to try life modelling, too?

CC: That’s right. I’ve continued to work with Esther, who facilitates for me, and provides a space after my performance for any woman to try life modelling. The conversations that emerge during these sessions are so powerful and humbling, and Esther is fantastic at ensuring everyone feels safe. Feedback from pilots and on social media has talked about the sense of exhilaration at this permission-giving, as well as increased body confidence, and a greater acceptance of difference.

MB: What do you hope to achieve with the work?

CC: I want to open up conversations - not just about breasts or breast cancer, but about plurality and inclusivity. How can we make informed decisions about our healthcare unless we are able to see ourselves reflected in the world around us? One of the wonderful things to come out of my performances was hearing from a participant who, since her mastectomy, had consigned herself to changing in the cubicle in her local gym, but after attending Truth is Beauty found the confidence to use the communal changing rooms again.

[Left: Claire at the exhibition of drawings following Southend performance of Truth is Beauty, 2018. Right: Life drawing by Lucie Russell - @Drawing.People.Together.]

[Left: Claire at the exhibition of drawings following Southend performance of Truth is Beauty, 2018. Right: Life drawing by Lucie Russell - @Drawing.People.Together.]

MB: So, in a way, you have become the woman from The Ladies’ Pond!

CC: Yes, I suppose I have! I know women who’ve come to my performance because they’ve never seen anyone who looks like them. It’s strange to think how many of us unreconstructed women are out there, but we’re disguised and invisible, even to each other. And maybe there’ll be someone attending my next performance, or reading this blog, who finds herself having to make the same decision I had to. I really hope this will help her.

MB: Thanks so much, Claire!