Medical Herstory: An Interview with founder Tori Ford

Interview by Hannah Lin

Cambridge alumna Tori Ford is the founder of Medical Herstory, an international award-winning youth-led non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about gender health equity through storytelling and undoing stigma. Despite spending just five months in Cambridge during her MPhil (cut short by the pandemic), Tori joined 10 different student groups, was Women’s Officer at Robinson College and volunteered at Relate, a sex and relationship therapy clinic. Having joined Medical Herstory myself as a volunteer during lockdown, I am so excited to share my conversation with Tori, where we talked about her experiences with healthcare and how this led to the launch of her platform.

Why did you start Medical Herstory and what were your original ideas or expectations? 

Medical Herstory is really born out of my own lived experience. I had been living with chronic yeast infections, which are very common and very unpleasant, for many years and I was just feeling so alone. I felt I was living with so much shame and stigma and although I talked to so many doctors, it felt like no-one was listening to me. I decided to write about this in a newspaper at McGill University – it made the front page and I then heard from so many other people that had eerily similar experiences of being disregarded within the healthcare system. A platform really didn’t exist to share these stories (when my story came out, it had a bowl of fruit on the cover when I was talking about desanitizing and sterilizing women’s health experiences and I was not happy about that!), and that’s why I created Medical Herstory. I really wanted to create a space where lived experience would be prioritized, where we could support and uplift other people’s stories, where we could tell them that they’re not alone. Since then, it’s grown into an international movement – we now have 70 volunteers across 24 universities in seven different countries. My intentions were never really to start a global movement; it was really about my own personal frustrations and wanting to get my word out there knowing how alone I felt, and wanting no-one else to feel that way. 

From your perspective, what makes storytelling such a powerful tool in achieving Medical Herstory’s goals in advancing gender equity and undoing shame and stigma?

Storytelling is really at the heart of all medicine – when you go to the doctor, you tell an emotional, vulnerable story and then you see your narrative transformed. It can be really dehumanizing and unsettling to see your story just get taken away from you, especially if you’re being dismissed or if you have a chronic condition that’s not being taken seriously. Medical Herstory works really hard to counteract that by taking these stories and honouring them in such a different way. We believe these patients and authors. We give them a space free from shame, stigma and sexism to tell their stories, as well as the support to do so. Beyond that, storytelling just humanizes a lot of these issues. After I shared my story, the most common feedback I got was ‘I’ve never seen this talked about, I’ve been living with this for years’. As much as statistics can help drive home how universal these issues are, hearing an individual voice is really freeing, not only for the person telling it, but also for those who get to see themselves reflected. 

How do your experiences as a Cambridge student feed into the work you do today? 

I’m really lucky that the Health, Medicine and Society program at Cambridge is interdisciplinary, so I entered with a real tight focus on history and very quickly found Medical Sociology. I had no idea I would write my dissertation on chronic yeast infections, but I produced a dissertation that I was so proud of, and it was also so cathartic and healing for me to speak to patients living with this condition and to hear their stories on such an intimate level. I ended up winning one of the Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Awards and that was shocking to me because here I was, talking about vaginas at one of the top universities in the world, and not only was it being accepted and welcomed, it was being celebrated. [laughing] That was probably the biggest power move in my life, getting to meet the Vice Chancellor and talk about my vagina, and the award just really showed that our work is being celebrated and that we’re on the right path.

Looking back at the process, what are you most proud of achieving? 

I’m most proud of giving space to other people to share their stories and hearing from them how impactful it’s been and how they’ve had a positive experience working with us. Seeing how big our volunteer team has gotten has been amazing, as well as seeing the turnout at our Zoom events, where people take time out of their days to have difficult conversations, hear other people’s stories and hold that space for them. I’m just so proud to have created that community. Internationally, seeing our work featured by UN Women within Sweden and CBC in Canada has been really fulfilling as well.

Do you ever feel disheartened by anything you come across in the process of doing your work and research? 

I’m so happy that the message is universally embraced, but I’m so disheartened that so many people are going through this. So many women and gender diverse people are facing dismissal and although I’ve been able to create this momentum, it’s based around a lot of pain. Because the whole organization is so personal, being based on my lived experience which I think is what drives me so much, there are definitely days where I feel burnt out. There’s a lot of misconceptions that still exist out there that Medical Herstory does a lot of work to debunk, but at the end of the day, I’m just one person and this is just one movement, and to break down all the barriers we’re going to need to keep at it. But there’s definitely way more to celebrate than there is to mourn. 

Do you have any advice for young people wanting to start their own social impact movement? 

Start with your lived experience – I think starting with what is directly affecting you makes you the best person to solve those issues, and don’t be afraid to go for it. And practise a lot of self-care! As much as I think Medical Herstory does an amazing job of creating such a positive atmosphere, a lot of these stories are heavy and this work can be really hard, which is why it’s so important to have supportive communities. Also don’t be afraid to reach out to mentors – I’ve been blessed to have some amazing mentors in my life, so I’d really encourage that too. 

What can we all do in our everyday lives to add to this momentum in advancing gender equity and undoing the stigma surrounding so many women’s health issues? 

There’s so many different ways that you can get involved, and I believe that every individual, no matter what you are doing in life, has so much more power than you know to advocate for compassionate and comprehensive healthcare for all. I think it starts at the level of believing people’s stories and educating yourself, perhaps through attending an event that’s out of your comfort zone to learn more, and not being afraid to ask questions. It’s really in those day-to-day actions and standing up for yourself, standing up to other people if they are perpetuating gender bias and just continuing to learn more, as we’re all doing every day. 

If you would like to read Tori’s full story, it can be found (along with many others) on the Medical Herstory website: https://medicalherstory.com

You can find out more about Medical Herstory and keep up to date with our latest events here:

Facebook: Medical Herstory

Instagram: @medicalherstory

Medical Herstory is also recruiting for more volunteers, so if anyone wants to get involved, we’d love to have you on our team! Get in touch with Kainaz at info@medicalherstory.com for more information on different roles and how to join.

Image courtesy of Medical Herstory.

‘Lagging’: An Interview with Molly Taylor

I spoke to Molly Taylor, who is currently directing, writing and starring in her online show ‘Lagging’.

Lily Could you summarise the premise of ‘Lagging’ for us?

Molly ‘Lagging’ is basically a blatant rip off of Staged. I fell in love with Staged over the summer – it was the first online production I’d seen that felt really suited to the format. Lagging is a reality-based fiction about the cast of ‘5 Lesbians Eating A Quiche’ (the show we were going to do this term) who get cancelled and go to Zoom to do online rehearsals for their online production – we’re playing with the weirdness of online rehearsals as well as some classic student theatre character jokes. It’s quite fun to do something that’s so blatantly stereotypical and jokey, whilst finding some sort of sympathy for the characters. They’re all stuck at home, doing this as basically a bit of a favour, and no one’s really getting what they want out of it. But everyone’s still doing their best, which I think does summarise a lot of what Cambridge theatre has had to do.

Lily What was the thinking behind the decision to do it as a series of small episodes rather than a long production?

Molly Part of the impetus is that I was tired of doing three-month long rehearsals of something that was then cancelled. You can also do short musing, not entirely directed comedy much better in short episodes – people then have a lot more tolerance for stuff that isn’t plot heavy. But I was also really excited by the idea of being able to do something and seeing it come to life a week later. It’s amazing how quickly people got stuff together: my AD wrote an entire sea shanty in three days! We got an editor two days beforehand and he’s done an amazing job. A bit terrifying, but it’s fun doing something so immediate and kind of stressful after such a sedate year.

Lily How does the rehearsal process and filming work?

Molly Episodes are broadcast on Sunday, and we’re supposed to start writing the next episode the same day (I don’t know if we do). I really wanted to be collaborative with the writing so that anyone in the cast or production team who wanted to be involved with it could be. We have a writing gathering, an open Zoom call that anyone can come to for two hours, I gather everything together and then we have a sort of script by Tuesday. On Wednesday we do a rehearsal/read through and a staging of it. At this point, the script is still up for debate. But on Thursday we have to film, and it actually takes quite a while so at that point the script is a final product. It’s a tight turnaround and there’s a lot of room for people to make contributions if they want to, but not to openly devise, because otherwise things inevitably end up not getting done.

Lily With comic timing, doing it over Zoom obviously makes things very different to how they would be on stage. Do you record it with everyone on Zoom or do you record individual parts and then edit it together? 

Molly That was the biggest challenge. We realised quite early on that you can’t really get an actor in a comedy to just sit down and record themselves reacting to jokes. So instead, we have this elaborate setup: everyone is on a Zoom call, but we use the Zoom option ‘Hide non video participants’ so that those not in the scene can’t be seen. When someone enters a scene, they’re already in the room and then they can enter on cue easily, because there’s a whole lot of late entries or people coming in at the wrong time (classic Zoom banter). You have the Assistant Director screen recording the grid, and everyone separately screen recording themselves so that you can cut between group and individual shots. For comic timing, it was crucial that they all were on the call together. 

Lily You act in it as well as directing, which is a theme throughout with production team members making cameos. Is that something you’ve done before? And for those who were acting for the first time, how do you make someone feel comfortable? 

Molly I think a lot of people who were willing and excited to do it had done acting before, and if not, there was very much a willingness to do it, as it doesn’t require incredible acting skills. I really considered casting someone to play myself, but it felt a bit strange to have everyone else play themselves plus this other person as I lurked in the back. And, you know, it’s quite fun. It creates more of a community as well because we all do really enjoy hanging out with each other, even if the script says otherwise!

Lily It’s nice that it’s something for you guys as much as it is for the audience. What themes are you keen to explore in the weeks coming forward?

Molly The future episodes see a lot more joking around with online theatre as a concept rather than Zoom. Each episode is based around a related issue. You’ve got an episode about getting the rights for online theatre, which is trickier than you might think. We’ve got one about intimacy direction on Zoom with a fun cameo from a Cambridge Theatre classic coming in to play the intimacy director. The cast in future episodes, especially two of them, also get closer – the sea shanty becomes more relevant! How you start friendships or relationships and maintain them remotely will definitely become increasingly relevant. I think those two are the emotional heart. I hate that phrase, but they’re certainly the avenue through which we explore relationships.

Lily What advice would you give to anyone else who’s playing with the idea of theatre during lockdown? 

Molly There’s lots of funding available if you send forms to the right people and there are always people you can go to and ask for help – ADC online and the ADC are incredible at supporting online shows. But you don’t necessarily need them – we applied to ADC online with this show and didn’t get a slot, but I was so determined and so fed up with being cancelled that we decided to do it anyway. Use the fact that online theatre doesn’t need a budget because YouTube accounts are free. There are also so many people at the moment who are willing to give up their time to create something. And you don’t need to know people either – I put up the editor ad on Facebook and got loads of applications. The resources have almost never been easier to access, so use them! It’s a great way to flex directing and organising muscles, get to know people, and make theatre connections so that hopefully when theatre comes back in person, you’ll be a better, more experienced person for it. And we can all get on with making the theatre that we would ideally be making. 

You can watch episodes 1 and 2 of ‘Lagging’ on Youtube here. Episode 3 is due to be released on Sunday 14th February.

Sex positivity and social media: an interview with the creator of @vive.la.revulvalution

By Martha French

Illustration by Lucienne

CN: Detailed discussion of consent and pornography, brief mention of abortion

Lucienne Jacobs, a 2nd year Classics student at Christ’s, started the Instagram account @vive.la.reVUVLVAlution during the first lockdown, with the intention of creating a platform for the discussion of female sexuality with friends and peers. Since then, it has amassed over 400 followers, and covered topics such as libido, catcalling, and body hair. Most recently, Lucienne collected stories from followers about their experiences on any and all kinds of contraception, resulting in a brilliant resource series explaining the pros and cons of everything from various combined pills to condoms to the vaginal ring. Over the holidays, I caught up with Lucienne to chat all things sexual health and social media. 

Martha: What inspired you to start the account, and why did you choose to run the campaign on Instagram?

Lucienne: Well, I have always been interested in sexual health and sex positivity. It started from just being the one in my school friendship group who disclosed everything, who didn’t shy away from any topic despite its taboo. But this interest manifested itself in quite a passive manner at first: it was mainly liking posts on Instagram or sharing them on my story etc, but I had never thought of making content myself. I guess I was just afraid of trying something and failing, and the subsequent embarrassment that comes along with it.

But over lockdown, a video was posted by Buzzfeed titled, “Why I Always Hated My Vagina.” This video was about an employee’s journey towards accepting her vulva, which she claimed to be non-conforming to the general “standard” of vulvas. By this, it was assumed she referred to having what social media have begun calling an “outie” vulva, where the labia are longer than what is deemed to be “normal” (although this, of course, is nonsense). I was incredibly moved by this video, not only because of the strength it must have taken for the employee to air her largest insecurity on a huge public platform, but because her insecurity was also my insecurity. In the video, she shares articles about girls as young as nine years old enquiring about labiaplasty (the procedure to reduce labia size), and I was instantly taken back to my teenage self, sitting in front of a computer screen, looking up the cost of the procedure, or scrolling endlessly through Reddit feeds questioning “what do boys think of longer labia?” hoping to, at some point, find a comment which didn’t include the words “beef sandwich.”

Firstly, the video made me question why we’re not taught about these things in our education system, and what else has been ignored by schools purely because they’re slightly taboo. Yet, this video also comforted me. It reminded me that I’m not alone in this insecurity, and that’s what caused me to begin my account. I didn’t just want to inform, but I also wanted to comfort. I wanted to do the same thing for other girls as she had done for me: remind them that they’re not alone in their insecurities, and to create a safe-space where anything and everything to do with women’s health and sexual experience can be spoken about.

I chose to create the account on Instagram mainly because I found it the easiest way to access people. Initially, it was just an account for all my female/non-binary friends to follow, where I would just do very low-key posts, but it’s become a little more than that now. I guess Instagram also worked well with my target audience, since my posts are primarily for young people.

Martha: What were your first experiences with sexual health education? How much were you self/peer taught?

Lucienne: So, my official sex education began in primary school, but that was barely anything, mainly anatomy at that stage. We then had a PSHCE day once a year from Year 7-10 regarding sexual health. The main thing I remember from those days is learning how to put a condom on a plastic penis and being shown pictures of the effects of different STIs, but that was in Year 9, and realistically, who’s having sex when they’re 13? I definitely wasn’t.

So, my school was pretty pathetic when it came to sex education. I might be wrong, but from what I recall there was no mention of pleasure, no mention of varying appearances, no mention of consent. I learnt other things from speaking to friends, but I also had to learn a lot from the internet, and by internet, I mean porn, which I can tell you was not the way to go. Because of the ubiquitous “designer vagina” aesthetic found in porn, my insecurities were exacerbated. The industry also undeniably offers a very warped form of sex, one which is often aggressive, even violent, which I think no doubt has impacted my view of sex to this day.

Martha: What does it take to make a post?

Lucienne: Ok so, this makes me sound all high and mighty, and I really don’t want to come across that way, but I’d like to think all my posts are special in some way. When starting the page, I almost viewed it as a product to be sold – it needed a USP (Unique Selling Point). I found that there were lots of sex positivity Instagram pages, and I didn’t want to just post random screenshots of tweets from people, or articles written by others. I wanted my account to be personal and intimate, I wanted to make posts people would actually read and engage with, posts which come from my own opinions and my own voice. Each post, therefore, is thoughtfully constructed. They take research, they take thought, and perhaps most importantly, they take emotion. I like to truly feel something as I write, whether it’s anger, pride, insecurity etc.

Martha: How has it been balancing the account with your degree work and other extra curriculars? Have they informed each other or is it a bit of a battle to keep on top of everything?

Lucienne: If I’m being completely honest, it’s been challenging. I posted only once during Michaelmas term, because I just couldn’t find the motivation to carry on. Particularly under the current circumstances, I was just completely overwhelmed with work and actually staying sane. I’m quite ashamed of how badly I dealt with everything, but then again, I don’t want to make myself feel bad when I know some sacrifices had to be made for my own well-being.

I think because of the nature of my posts and also my perfectionism, I just found it really hard to write. I would finish my work for that week, essays and translations etc, and I would just lack energy to write something else. Perhaps it’s a slightly pathetic excuse, I’m not sure, but it’s something I’m definitely trying to work on.

One thing I’ve done to help, however, is link the account to an extra-curricular by joining the Student Union Women’s Committee! This means I can start weaving Vive La ReVULVAlution into my weekly routine.

Martha: What have you learnt from running it, personally and from the responses of others?

Lucienne: Ah! So much! I’ve mainly learnt just how rubbish our education system is at providing information on women’s health! For example, I remember doing a post about vaginal discharge, and the number of boys who subsequently told me that they had no idea it existed staggered me.

Martha: What are you proudest of?

Lucienne: This might sound cliché, but genuinely any post which has impacted another person, which has spoken to them, and somewhat comforted them. I have had so many people messaging, thanking me for speaking out about something which they had always felt insecure about, and that always warms my heart.

Also, a friend of mine started her own activism account, having been influenced by mine, and it’s really successful (much more successful than mine aha) so that’s something I’m really proud of!

Martha: A lot of your content is based around testimonies from other young women, how important do you think anecdotal advice is? 

Lucienne: I think it’s so important, because it’s tangible. When you hear manufactured, formulaic advice from a doctor or teacher, it can sometimes feel detached. But when it’s someone you know, or someone who’s the same age as you, or the same gender, it makes for a much more relaxed environment. For me, anecdotal advice is completely genuine, and it has no agenda, it is merely someone’s personal experience.

Martha: What needs to change amongst the student community in terms of conversations and practices surrounding sexual health? What about on a societal level?

Lucienne: I think, generally, just more conversations need to happen! It links to your next question too, because on a societal level, I believe we first and foremost need to break the taboo around sex, and the way we do this is to speak about it as much as possible. Sex must no longer be spoken about through whispers, or giggles, it needs to be spoken about in larger public settings.

Martha: What advice would you give to anyone trying to engage in sexual health activism on social media?

Lucienne: Again, it sounds cliché, but genuinely just speak your truth. I think something which my followers really value is how honest I am with them, and I think with a topic which is so hushed away, you need to be as loud and as open as possible.

Martha: And finally, what’s next for the account?

Lucienne: I have quite a few posts planned, looking at abortions, the morning after pill, the “contract” of sex! I should be getting them out in the next few weeks. Also, I’m bringing the campaign to Cambridge through the WomCam committee, and I hope to set up a few events and webinars (COVID-permitting!)

You can follow @vive.la.revulvalution here.

In Conversation with Blanca Schofield Legorburo, the Artist behind Eve Taking A Nude (@evetakinganude)

by Sophie Coldicott

Eve Taking A Nude (@evetakinganude) is an Instagram based art project by third-year MML student Blanca Schofield Legorburo. Although Eve Taking A Nude was started in just May of this year, the account has gained over 1,700 followers in little over two months, and has recently expanded to sell prints and sustainable tote bags. As the name suggests, the project specialises in nudes – however, what is so unique about Eve Taking A Nude is that it relies on self-submission for its subjects. We chatted to Blanca about her art and what the response to the project has been like.

“I am so flattered and humbled by the trust that I’ve been given”, Blanca says. “I’ve received photos from many women I don’t know from different continents and it’s so lovely to be included in their process of embracing their beauty.” 

“The relationship is friendly, but not too intense: they tell me why they want to get involved, I give them permission to send me photos and then I paint them and they tell me a bit about their story for the caption and I delete the photos! Sometimes we stay in touch to talk about flowers they’ve seen or friends who’ve been inspired by the page. It’s all very calm and trusting. I feel very lucky to have been able to talk to and paint all these amazing people!”

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After a lifelong love of art, Blanca started painting frequently again on her year abroad. “I’ve always loved art, but at Cambridge I didn’t have the time or confidence to paint and I focused on collage when I did engage with art. I think it’s very easy at school and at university to stop all your hobbies because you’re not a grade 8 or technically brilliant, especially when we have so many other things to do and ‘achieve’.”

 “I bought a little set of watercolours before moving to Paris and during the nights when I was on my own in my room I would try and listen to podcasts and paint scenes that had struck me. These were usually everyday experiences, such as a colourful kitchen or living room or my hand drawing or pigeons walking along a pond in the park.”

“When I moved to St Petersburg in February I started painting my bath times. I would have a bath every night because it was so cold and I often felt under the weather and baths are so calming. One evening I painted my body in the bath and it came out so calm and honest. So I promised myself that I would start taking nudes for myself and painting them. I put this off until after the COVID panic, but when I was in London living with my sister in quarantine I was painting a lot and then one day I painted a nude with some flowers above it that I had seen on a walk and I jokingly wrote, ‘lol, it’s Eve taking a nude.’ Then I thought…this makes sense! And the next day I painted some friends and made the Instagram account.”

eve article

The name “Eve Taking A Nude” is evocative of the project’s exploration of the complex relationship between many women and their bodies, and its aim in displacing ideas rooted in biblical Original Sin.

“Eve traditionally is thought of as the seductress of shame, a manipulative temptress who forced Adam into misbehaviour and led us into an eternity of body and nudity shame. This narrative has been challenged by many feminists and artists over the years, but I think it is still so pervasive! This idea of blaming women and believing men is so subconsciously inherent in our societies. Victim-blaming, toning down women’s voices and appearances, sexualising women and then shaming them…”

Where the traditional nude depicts women as disembodied objects for visual appreciation, Eve Taking A Nude reclaims that image as a source of feminine celebration, rendering women’s bodies in Blanca’s trademark sunset hues whilst surrounded by flowers she has come across on her quarantine walks. I guess you could say that I wanted to show that every street has its own beauty and there isn’t just one Garden of Eden that we were thrust out of because of some evil Eve!”

106335981_750124105738006_5219509432085971686_n Integral to each piece on Eve Taking A Nude is the story behind it; each painting is accompanied by words from the model about why they wanted to get involved with the project. One model writes “Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding take a massive toll on a woman’s body. I’ve always struggled with body confidence but since having my baby have learnt to embrace it. What others may perceive as flaws are the product of an amazing process I wouldn’t change for anything!” Another writes “In the picture I took, I wasn’t wearing any makeup, my legs were hairy, I have a bit more body fat, and I didn’t even notice. How lovely it is to just be able to ‘be’.”

In retaining the voices of her models so centrally in her artwork, the voicelessness of women in the traditional nude is subverted; more than an object of naked appreciation, Eve is restored her voice, identity and power, displacing “that all-time annoyance: the male gaze!!!”

At its core, this is the message of Eve Taking A Nude – reclaiming women’s bodies and its image for themselves, in all of their diversity.

“So many people love taking nudes for themselves! If we take time to look in the mirror and really see ourselves then our appearance can slowly become less pressurised.”

We don’t do everything for sexual partners and for men! We are looking good for ourselves! There is no one perfect body!”

You can find Eve Taking A Nude on Instagram, or on their website

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If you have an idea you would like to write for the blog, message us on facebook or instagram or email cambridgegirltalk@gmail.com! We would love to hear from you!

More Light: An Interview with Artist Issie Weir

Issie Weir was one of our featured artists at the Girl Talk Exhibition last term. I chatted to her about her paintings and finding time to create.

Hi Issie, thanks for agreeing to chat to me. Can you tell me a bit about the two paintings you had in our exhibition?

I exhibited “Flora” and “Ludo.” Both models are friends I study History of Art with.  I painted “Ludo” first, as from meeting Ludo on the first day of our course I had a really strong vision of how I would like to paint him. I wanted the portrait to be painted in a traditional style with strong chiaroscuro lighting and a black silk dress.  But in discussing the portrait with him the theme of the painting started to develop around the format of a traditional society portrait and how that could be challenged and played around with through androgyny, to almost play a trick on the viewer and require them to spend a little longer looking a little closer, something which we tend not to do when looking at the traditional society portrait hanging in the gallery. 

With “Flora” the aim was a little different.  I had been to the botanical gardens during the Easter term when the orange sunlight was pouring through the glass roof of the conservatory and the colours were so incredibly bright and bold. I wanted to capture that, and Izzy was the perfect person to be captured in it as she has a similar vibrancy.  So we spent the next day in the botanical gardens, quite literally among the plants, embracing them at times, I imagine it was all quite amusing to passersby.  In painting Izzy, I wanted to try to portray a person, character, and emotional depth through light. Light is so fundamental to paintings and while in general it is praised and noted, its specific types and characteristics seem to go unnoticed, or are perhaps too personal to the artist or sitter to have an effect on the viewer.  I wanted to see how I could use its different and specific types and characteristics to express warmth or detachment, or to evoke a certain memory or feeling.  In “Flora” I wanted to capture that beautiful warm and yet bright light which was as much an aspect of her personality as the surroundings. I am looking at this interplay of light and subject matter more at the moment in a short film I’m making and am excited to see where it will lead me. 

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“Ludo”

What is it that draws you to this style of painting?

It was interesting with these two as they were both rather dramatically different styles, one more “finished,” refined and naturalistic and the other slightly geometric and abstract. Both originated from the same classical method which I tend to follow.  I’ve always been drawn towards the more classical and “traditional” style of art, I find the illusion quite fascinating, particularly the realism of textures and drama in certain light effects which could only be produced with the depth and translucency that oils can achieve.  I just wanted to be able to replicate the artists that could do this, and so that’s been the style that I’ve tried to hone my technique towards and those more traditional and often renaissance artists tend to be the artists that I go to for inspiration. 

In “Ludo” I’ve used a limited and cold palette in keeping with a traditional academic technique to create dramatic chiaroscuro lighting but one with an air of cold detachment and elegance.  On more technical note I chose this type of lighting and subject matter to give me a chance to have a go at painting silk.  The style follows a more traditional technique, which begins with a raw umber underpainting and is built up through a limited palette mixed into shadows, midtones and highlights, so this one is less experimental in style but perhaps more so in subject matter.  However, in general my style is still very much in a development stage and so I am trying to experiment and not get tied to any one style quite yet. 

“Flora” actually just began as an underpainting on top of which I would refine the details so she would eventually have a similar finish to “Ludo.” However when I stood back and looked at it I really liked it as it was, the colors had just worked in creating the warmth I was going for, and I liked the contrast between the soft colors and the slightly more geometric lines. The result was something a little different to what I had intended, and it became a catalyst for trying out more colorful and funky underpaintings in later works to see how this would affect the vibrancy and lend a nuance to the light. So, in that way it opened a door to experiment again with oil paints, looking to find new limits. 

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“Flora”

How do you make time to paint in your schedule? Does inspiration come to you at once or do you set aside time on purpose?

So for the larger paintings I tend to store up ideas until the holidays when I’ll just go on a spree of binge painting.  During term I keep a sketch book on me all the time, just a little pocket one, it’s just for jotting down ideas, life drawing and sketching people or compositions for paintings I might work up later.  Inspiration really comes in fits and spurts at fairly random times.  I find trying to force inspiration at a particular time just doesn’t work, a bit like when someone asks you your favorite film and then you can’t think of a single film let alone your favorite. 

But on the other hand, if you have the inkling of an idea or a theme then setting aside time or just letting it mull over in the back of your mind can be quite good for developing ideas. Sometimes I know it sounds stupid but I genuinely have had dreams about some of these ideas and then have had to jot them down at about 3 in the morning, it’s a sort of ongoing thing. 

I have been working on a project with a friend this term to do with muses which has been fun and a nice thing to run alongside the general hecticness of Cambridge. 

Have you been finding time to create during lockdown? Does art help you get through times of stress?

Yeah lockdown has actually been really quite helpful for general painting productivity.  I’ve just been trying to get back into the swing of painting, it always takes a bit of time after a while away from it, I’ve been working on a series of “quarantine portraits” of everyone in my family as its quite rare at the moment that they are all home.  I haven’t started anything big yet just because of lack of large boards at the moment.  It has also been quite nice to have the time to experiment with different media without getting distracted or putting it off until I have time, so I’ve been working on a short film about light which has been fun, just in terms of teaching myself how to film and edit.  Other creative moments have included a cardboard puppet head the other day for no particularly good reason than I had a cardboard box that needed using and the time.

Art definitely helps me when I’m stressed.  I think it’s partly just the manual aspect of it, having something to do with my hands which also occupies my mind is just very calming.  It’s also an excuse to just have time in my own world. 

Find more pieces like these on Issie’s Instagram @belle_arts

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Finding inspiration and creativity in the natural world: an interview with artist Elizabeth Robson

Elizabeth Robson is an artist who paints a lot with oil paints. We exhibited a few of her pieces at our exhibition last term. I chatted to her this week about her work.

Hi Lizzy! Can you tell us a bit about the animals you paint and how you got started?

I was horse-crazy growing up so I spent my childhood drawing and painting horses – which eventually morphed into painting pet portraits for friends, first as gifts and then as commissions. I really enjoy portraits and it’s an honour to capture something of the essence of somebody’s special pet.

I discovered oil paints during GCSE art, and immediately fell in love with their buttery texture and slow drying time, leaving ample opportunity for luscious blending. When I’m painting for myself rather than as a commission, my work tends to have a slight fantasy feel. I enjoy trying to capture movement and light, as well as all the little details.

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What inspires you to make art?

I’m always inspired by nature, especially animals, and love to paint beautiful things in wonderful colours. Seeing other people’s art also inspires me to experiment with new techniques and things I haven’t tried before. I often paint from photographs, where something about the light or shape or movement will have caught my eye and made me think ‘I must paint that!’

However in the last year I’ve tried to go with the flow more and see what comes out of my brush… It’s really exciting just throwing paint at the page not knowing where it’s going or what the finished piece will look like.

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Life is pretty bizarre right now. Do you find getting creative helps you out during tough times?

Yeah, it’s a strange time – I’m revising like mad for finals at the moment but took a day off on Easter Sunday to get the paints out, and it was so relaxing. There’s now three backgrounds on my desk next to my work, and my brain is buzzing with ideas of what subjects to add to them… creativity is not only escapism for me, it reminds me of the beauty there is in the world. I’ve also been really uplifted by the artists I follow on Instagram, how they are coping at the moment and the beautiful things they are still creating.

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What advice would you give to someone who wants to do something creative during lockdown but can’t seem to get started?

Tricky one – it depends what’s holding you back! If it’s lack of time, give yourself permission to prioritise your mental health and creative side, and set aside some time to create. If it’s insecurity, pick up your pen or brush and don’t let yourself put it down for a full 10 minutes – just create something, anything, and enjoy the process rather than judging the result! If it’s creative block, find something beautiful to copy, or a tutorial on the internet. Put on a playlist and a light a candle, or go out into the garden with a sketch pad, and make space for your inner artist. Enjoy it!

You can find more of Lizzy’s work on instagram @elizabeth_robson_art

Introducing The Minerva Festival: Celebrating Women and Non-Binary Composers

This week, we spoke to The Minerva Festival about the amazing work they are doing to help lift up the work of women and non binary composers.

The festival turns two this year! Could you tell us a bit about why it was set up in 2018?

The festival was set up by our 2018-19 chairs, Laura and Claire because they noticed that opportunities to hear music by women and non-binary people in Cambridge are rare and can often be quite tokenistic: most, if not all, of the music in the classical canon is by men and so it is unfortunately relatively common to attend concerts where all of the music is by male composers. Most of the music studied in the Music tripos is also typically by male composers and the number of female students who take the composition options is quite low. The festival (known in 2018-19 as the Cambridge Female Composers Festival) was set up, then, to try and remedy this by providing spaces to encourage the performance and study of music by women and non-binary people. 

What barriers are still in place for women and non binary people in composing in 2020?

While many women and non-binary composers are active in composition at the moment, the fact that composition faculties are dominated by men, all the ‘great works’ a musician may ever play or study were written by men, and only male composers are deserving of a place in the concert hall, history books, and podiums gives the illusion that there is no historical precedent for what we do, and that we are alone. Even though women are now allowed to study composition, the socially and institutionally-ingrained idea of the male composer-genius are hard to defeat, and no doubt influence the way compositional endeavours by female and non-binary composers are received. Hence, while in 2020, equality seems apparent on the surface, we still have a long way to go to achieve true parity between genders. 

How have you gone about finding music written by women and non binary people from history when they have been so overlooked?

There are some helpful online resources, such as the ‘1200 Years of Women Composers’ playlist on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7mgjMnYI9ERG1598WKpFUR?si=jFnjU8jqQ8uA3QcFDwc2cA). Twitter has also proved a useful tool for asking others for music suggestions which we may not have come across! Some people have also drawn upon their past performance experiences, although unfortunately it isn’t rare for people to have never performed music by a woman or non-binary person. It can be quite difficult to find music as, particularly in the past, women have had limited access to publishing opportunities; however, there is still a lot out there that is relatively easy to find. 

Susan Rutherford has also recently taught an optional course called “Women in Music” in Part 1B of the Music Tripos, which has been immensely helpful in embedding female composers in their respective social and historical contexts, and introducing their works to undergraduates in an educational context. The inclusion of this course has definitely been a major step for the music faculty; however, one will still have to do much scavenging until female and non-binary composers are integrated into the compulsory history courses in schools and universities around the globe. 

What made you want to get involved?

Hannah: The main reason for me was my growing frustration with the limited opportunities available to study music by women and non-binary people during the first and second years of my degree. Although studying this music would have been possible in coursework, they were literally non-existent when it came to lectures and supervision work. There was also a bit of a myth that went around that women didn’t really compose or that, when they did, it simply wasn’t very good… These frustrations inspired me to join the committee in 2018 as one of the recital representatives, so I could help show that this wasn’t the case and that it isn’t just men who deserve a place on the syllabus! 

Leia: Since starting my degree at Cambridge (and indeed moving to the UK!) I have been extremely aware of the peripheral position I occupy in the Western Classical tradition, being both a woman and a person of colour. Although I knew of women of colour who were actively involved in Classical Music, we were not reflected in history and did not merit admiration as composers. So when I heard about the Cambridge Female Composers Festival as a fresher, I was very excited at the prospect of being represented, and that there was a group of people trying to correct these historical injustices in the most meaningful way: by sharing music. I attended as many of the concerts as I could, and remember being really moved by the closing concert. I joined the committee in 2019 hoping to continue the great work! 

How has the festival been going so far?

The festival has been running since the end of January, and so far it has been going really well! We have held a number of successful events, including a jazz night, several evensongs and a coding workshop. We are also very grateful to everyone who has chosen to donate to the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre (who we are supporting at each event), as our collecting tins are already getting full!

What are you hoping for the future of the festival?

We hope that Minerva will continue to run for as long as it seems to be making a difference! It will be a slightly bittersweet moment when we end as, hopefully, that will mean there is enough diversity in music being performed here that we don’t need to run a festival! In the meantime, though, we hope to continue running a successful recital and concert series and inspiring others to continue engaging with this music outside of the festival.

Is there anything in particular you’d recommend coming up?

Hannah: I am looking forward to our series of talks, beginning with Sarah MacDonald’s illustrated lecture on women and liturgical music on 21 February in Great St Mary’s.

Leia: I’m really looking forward to the closing concert on 8 March in St. Giles church – where we’ll be able to hear the choral work by the composition competition winner, alongside a whole Symphony by Alice Smith and the amazing Entr’acte for strings by Caroline Shaw. I’m a bit nervous, but I hope to do justice to the Shaw as a conductor! 

 

For more information about the festival, visit https://www.minervafestival.org

Spotlight artist: Isobel Richards

In case our readers don’t have/follow us on Instagram, could you please give a little introduction of who you are and what you’re up to at the minute?

Hi, I’m Issy and I’m a postgraduate student studying for a PGCE at Cambridge. I love being creative and try to draw as frequently as possible in my spare time. I’ve been embroidering sporadically for about a year- I started embroidering on shirts originally (an avocado was the first thing I embroidered) and well, it grew from there! Following the series of comments that embroidery is an ‘old lady’s hobby’, I’ve been trying to ‘get with the times’ and have recently started experimenting with digital mediums and sharing my work on social media.

How would you describe your art?

I would describe my art as quite abstract and simplistic- it’s just a series of lines really!

What drives you to create? What or who inspires you? 

Aside from other feminist artists and line drawings that I like, I’m also heavily inspired by female experience. Being surrounded by amazingly empowered, educated women; at uni and in life, I wanted to find a way to convey and solidify the beauty & power of female strength, form and experience through art. Creativity and art are also a way that I can switch off, so I’m driven by my own sanity as well!

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Do you have a few stellar Instagram accounts you would recommend?

YES- so many! In this day and age (I sound like an old lady again), Instagram is such a good platform for sharing art with the world! From an artistic perspective, there are a series of illustration accounts that I love: @arewenearlybareyet is a great one- the simple colours are beautiful, @gemmacorrell is fantastic for aspiring adults and the reality of day-to-day life. From an embroidery perspective: @ohmygollyembroidery is brilliant and very creative, and from a general life point of view, @danschawbel is stellar; very inspirational.

Do you feel your art has a trajectory and do you think it needs one?

No, I don’t really feel my art has a trajectory- I fear that having a rigid ‘trajectory’ could put a bit of a dampener on my creativity; the need to create something within a time frame would be quite stifling I think, so I just work as and when I have time or want to. At the moment I’m just trying to develop my own personal style and way of working.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given to do with your art?

The best piece of advice that I was given was by my friend Alex and it was that: “nothing else matters” when art is involved. Other people’s expectations and personal insecurities should go out the window and I should just focus on the moment and what I’m doing. A beautifully profound comment really.

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Make sure to follow Issy’s art account on Instagram @by_issy_