Calendar & Exhibition (2012) - an introduction by Victoria Bennett
"The Naked Muse brought together 41 poets and photographers in what was to be on of the largest exhibitions and collections of male nude portrait photography, shot by female photographers. The instruction was simple: put together one female photographer + one male poet-muse + one poem by a female poet on the subject of the muse, and give them one photoshoot in which to meet, read the poem, collaborate on ideas, and create a series of nude photographic portraits inspired by that mix.
The images were then gathered into a beautiful calendar and touring exhibition of prints, featuring alongside the poems by 14 wonderful female poets.
The inspiration for the project came from the experience of our young toddler being diagnosed with Type One Diabetes, and his bravery in facing the challenges that it brought with it. I couldn't change the reality of his diagnosis, nor the fact that mis-diagnosis nearly took our son from us at the age of 2, but I could do something creative to make a difference to the lives of others facing the same challenges.
But I couldn't do it alone. I am forever grateful for the courage, generosity, and creative talent of all those who worked on the project, who did so for free and with joy, and many businesses and individuals sponsored it at various stages of production. The project was endorsed by JDRF (the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) and aimed to raise awareness of Type One Diabetes and the work of the charity.
This is a little peek at the project...thanks for stopping by."
The Naked Muse was created by Victoria Bennett, in aid of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, after her son was diagnosed with Type One Diabetes in 2010, age 2. His courage was the inspiration. Fourteen brave and generous male poets agreed to be photographed nude by our collaborating photographers, in a series of portraits inspired by the poems. Fourteen fabulous female poets donated the poems, which explored and celebrated the idea of the muse and the poet. Thirteen amazing female photographers collaborated on the project, working with our Naked Muses, to create a series of beautiful nude portraits in response to the poems. The poems and portraits were gathered together to create a stunning A3 calendar, as well as a touring exhibition. Everyone who worked on the project donated their time and creativity to support the vision, and help to further awareness of Type One Diabetes and JDRF.
“Poetry perhaps is the most exposed you can get, but second to that has to be standing completely naked in a river with only a rope swing hiding your couplets whilst walking parties trek across the banks behind you! Poetry has always taught us that anything can be beautiful, the most ordinary thing is worthy of celebration. The same is true of flesh, of bodies; the same is true of us.”
Andrew McMillan, Naked Muse
Photograph by Annabel Williams
“Victoria Bennett’s Naked Muse “Unveiled” exhibition manages a rare and precious feat: it showcases unquestionable talent by people from different creative worlds, whilst simultaneously making us laugh, moving us and reminding us that frailty and strength exist in all of us in equal measure, whoever we are.”
Charlotte Medlicott, Naked Photographer
John Challis, Muse
“...life affords us opportunities to make things of it; this was one of those things. Either you live or don’t live, it is a choice in each moment. I found it a very rich and nourishing experience...For me to be looked at this way gave me so much back...To be seen, to be acknowledged is a basic human need...”
John Siddique, Naked Muse
Leonie Hampton, Naked Photograper
Extracts from a Naked Diary - Victoria Bennett
The Photo Shoot
We are up early but not early enough as to beat our intrepid pair, who are waiting in the lobby downstairs. They look damp with morning and slightly wide eyed from the early start.
"We're done for the day, so we can knock off now!" Sandy tells me. Apparently they have already done their shoot. At five a.m they had taken a stealth walk into the grounds of the local hotel to walk along the path where Wordsworth composed The Prelude. Once deep enough into the covering, Claire had set up camera and instructed Sandy to remove his clothes. He emerged from the undergrowth shortly after, displaying what he referred to as his "silverback" qualities - a description he had given me when he had gallantly agreed to be part of the project.
We listen as Sandy recounts the morning's adventures. As we do, I notice a rather hung-over biker on the sofa nearby. He is trying very hard not to smile but in the end, cannot stifle his amusement as Sandy, imitating Claire behind her camera, stands up and shouts "More gorilla, give me more gorilla!", with the mountain mist draping his modesty. As the biker gets up to leave, he gives Sandy a nod "Fair play, mate, fair play!" he says in admiration, stumbling his way to bed.
After our son is decorated with several beautifully crafted balloon animals courtesy of poet and entertainer, Graham Eccles, the other members of our party come downstairs and we go to the breakfast room. On one side of the room are the biker party. I have never seen such enormous bodies and I calculate that we could probably fit at least three poets into one biker, so to speak. It is an uneasy moment where the gentlemen in each party check each other with an element of suspicion and fear. This is the meeting of different tribes and the clash of stereotypes is too obvious for fiction. As our bards nurse black coffee and roll cigarettes, these giants order four rounds of toast, several eggs, a farmyard of meats. My three year old son happily chats amongst them, tucking into a plate of what he calls 'hospital toast', which is sliced white bread slathered with butter and threatening the blood glucose reaction of forty-five grams of fast acting carbohydrate, extended by the fat of the butter. I bolus with hesitation. He is not used to such a high breakfast insulin dose and if he is active, he will fall rapidly. If I do not though, he will spike and run high all morning. Either way, he is eating the toast and I do not stop him. For him, this is a great holiday with friends and he is loving it. There is an air of excitement that he is picking up on and he is doing his best to emulate the younger poets of our group, who are gently amused by his attention.
We talk through the day and what will happen. Conversation switches between how the poems can be creatively interpreted, what the boundaries of the shoot are, what the timetable is and more questions about how diabetes affects my son's body. I am touched that those involved are genuinely interested in what his life is like with Type One, and in understanding the cause that they are doing this for.
The slight discomfort of the night before has disappeared and is replaced by a mix of excitement and absolute dread. The younger men are most fearful. Sandy laughs at their body paranoia and recounts his gorilla story again. I notice our neighbours listening. Andrew whispers "That one is a giant. I bet that one could pick me up with his little finger!". I notice the bikers are also whispering. I am concerned that there is going to be an unpleasant scene and wonder what to do about this. I consider, not for the first time, whether the booking receptionist for the hostel was amused when they double-booked this weekend and wrote down "two parties: biker stag-do and naked male muse poetry calendar shoot".
As it is, I needn't have worried. We are just about to leave when the largest of the men approaches us.
"I'd never have the balls to do what you lot are doing. Brilliant, mate, brilliant. Good luck - hope you make loads of money for him!" he says, gesturing at my son, and nearly crushing one of our young muses under a friendly back slap. Once again, I am amazed and touched by the generosity of people in their kindness for our little boy.
But not as amazed as the muse who is, for once, lost for words.
(This diary extract features the wonderful, and much missed Alexander Hutchinson, one of our lovely Naked Muses. His shout of "Give me more gorilla" will be forever held in my mind!)
It is launch day. Together, we stock a large van with wine and cheese and breads, enough to feed a Roman Army I suspect and, along with boxes of food and drinks, blue balloons and endless fairy lights, we carefully place thirty-six naked muses, beautifully framed, each one peeking cheekily from the bubble-wrap that delicately conceals. The final load, several heavy boxes of calendars, newly arrived from the printer. Today we are releasing The Naked Muse. I am juggling diabetes supplies and decorations, aware that I may, or may not, have packed a change of clothes. Too late. We are all in and ready to set off on the road - a gaggle of poets and friends, bound together by love and a willingness to be bold and, at least in certain cases, naked. For me, I have let my life be made naked, shown people our world. Today is our party and my son delights in the company, talking happily about his calendar and the studio party as if it were all in a usual day for him. I smile at his cosmopolitan air. There is laughter today, and we are not alone. Our blue bus heads south to Manchester, carrying new friends and old. It is a jumbled crew, but a good one and I am thankful.
When we reach our destination, I am glad for the patience of those who are here today. The venue, which is created from a film-script, beautifully decrepit and impossible to find, is an attic studio in a once busy factory, hidden down an alley in the Northern Quarter. There is no lift and the stairs are steep. There is nothing for it, together we must haul the wine and cheese and fairy lights and calendars and thirty-six naked muses of varying shapes and sizes, up every step to the fifth floor. We manage not to swear. I am counting carbohydrate needs with each step as I watch my son gallop up, two at a time.
When we reach the top, we are greeted by grimy windows, crumbling walls, electrics that hang from metal pipes and a well-worn leather sofa in the corner. Dust and remnants of a photographic shoot litter carpet the floor. We have three hours until opening. My son is running around at top speed, refusing to eat. I go into Director mode and start designating (though more truthful it is because I am with people who can guess what needs to be done, and take it on without me needing to ask). We start to tackle to room. Someone finds a plug. Music goes on. A friend uses her teaching skills to quieten my son, bring him to settle with crayons and toys. I am glad of these friends, who remember to bring bags of crayons in their handbags, and do not mind blowing up one hundred blue balloons. I feed smoothies to ward off the lows, and trust everything will Be Ok. It is a hard thing to do, but today, I must.
We work impossibly hard, and somehow, together we turn a run down empty space into a gallery, beautifully lit, complete with performance space, film screen, sound system, bar, food and of course, those blue JDRF balloons. I allow myself a moment to stop and stare. It looks amazing. Then we pick up my son, pile into the van and negotiate our way around cryptic streets to find our apartment hotel. We have less than an hour to go.
When we get there, it turns out they have upgraded us to the penthouse apartment as they heard why we were here and wanted to make our stay special. We go up in the lift to find ourselves surrounded by glass, staring out over the city. We even have a balcony, which my son wants to play on but which I place strictly out of bounds. My vertigo is struggling enough with floor-to-ceiling windows. I try to organise food for everyone, resort to pizza, and raid the bag for clothes. I am unused to dressing up and find it odd, like my body belongs to someone else, someone older, certainly someone greyer, and with dark purple bruises for eyes. I am wearing blue. The colour of hope, the colour of a cure. I look into the mirror and I see a Diabetes Mum.
We make it (albeit late) to a crowded room and are greeted by praise. Photographers and poets gather, alongside family, friends and those invited to share this night, our night. I am amazed at what we have done together. It is beautiful, and everything I could have hoped it could become, and I know it could not have been done without every one of these people, who have given everything simply because a woman once asked them, can you help my son?
Despite the excitement of the night, or because of it, my son has fallen asleep on my lap. I sit on the floor, cross-legged, and listen to our compere introduce our cause, our story and then listen closely to the quiet words of the poem, written just for our son by the wonderful poet, David Morley. I look at my son's face, brushed clean of the day into a world of dreams, and I cry. Because this amazing thing, this wonderful coming together of people from every part of the country and every thread of life, this act of love is because of him, because he is braver than all of us, every day, and even though I am proud of this moment, I would love for it to never have been grown because its soil is one of loss. I look up to see that it is not just me that cries, such is the love inspired by this little boy who is still only three.
The night is perfumed with amazing, erudite, exciting words, performed by poets whose naked bodies flash from the eight foot screen. Around us hang photographs, lit by stage lights and fairy-bulbs. People stand side by side, examine and respond. I listen as these shy poets share their stories of how it made them feel, to stand naked before the lens, and listen to the photographers who held these moments so tenderly, describe their tentative approach. All around me, people are revealing themselves, their fears, their passions, their loves, hopes and lives; their bodies.
Yes, we are standing surrounded by naked men, talking of love and poetry. It is not uncomfortable. There is no sniggered laughter. I am not afraid that my son is asleep in the corner, lying atop his Daddy's knees. Even when some of the poetry takes on the literal translation of nakedness, it still does not feel strange. No one mumbles offence or discomfort, no one turns away. In this space, nakedness is not shocking. To be revealed is not shocking. We are seeing the person, not the flesh. This is a perfect moment of creativity, where everyone here is celebrating and everyone here is humbled, literally laid bare, revealed to discover themselves embraced.
It is then that I realise we have created more than just a calendar, more than just an exhibition. That we have done more than simply raise awareness about diabetes, though it remains with such honesty at the project's heart that no one loses sight of it. Together we have done something really special. We have created Art, capable of being beautiful and generous and bold. Like the people who have made it. Like my son.