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Fife Bodyworks: Does society need to be less critical about women’s bodies?

From Caesarean sections to breast cancer tattoos, an innovative Dunfermline exhibition called Bodyworks is exploring the feelings women have about marks on their bodies

Figures: Fabric sculpture by Lesley Ratomska. Image: Lesley Ratomska
Figures: Fabric sculpture by Lesley Ratomska. Image: Lesley Ratomska

Scars come in many guises – of the body and of the mind.

Behind them can lie stories of battles won, battles lost, and battles still being fought.

Who can forget the famous scar comparison scene in Jaws when Quint and Hooper sit across from one another, slightly inebriated.

It starts when Quint tells Hooper to feel a permanent lump on his head that he received from a brawl on St Patrick’s Day in Boston.

Hooper then shows a scar on his arm from a Moray Eel bite.

Quint raises the stakes by showing one from an arm-wrestling competition and Hooper shows another from a Bull Shark scrape.

They laugh as they try to outdo each other.

However, the mood gets serious when Chief Brody asks Quint about a scar on his arm.

Quint reveals it was a tattoo of the USS Indianapolis that he’d had removed.

The  real-life ship was torpedoed by the Japanese Navy in 1945 while delivering nuclear weapon components.

The sinking resulted in the greatest loss of life at sea from a single ship in the history of the US Navy. And one of the reasons for such high losses? Shark attacks…

What inspired the Fife Bodyworks exhibition focussing on women’s bodies?

Thankfully, no Great Whites can be found around the coast of Fife – well, not yet anyway!

However, women’s attitudes to body marks are being explored in an innovative new exhibition, Bodyworks, which opens on October 7 at The Community Gallery, Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries.

Bodyworks artists: Back row: Caroline McGonigal, Carol Mason; front row: Linda Menzies, Lesley Ratomska and Isabell Buenz. Image: Lesley Ratomska

It’s being led by a group of artists and writers from Fife, Central region and Edinburgh.

The creative initiative aims to open up conversations with women’s groups through writing and collage sessions, as to how they view the marks on their bodies, both natural and acquired.

Artists Lesley Ratomska (Dunfermline), Carol Mason (Dunblane), Isabell Buenz (Edinburgh), Caroline McGonigal (Dalgety Bay) and writer Linda Menzies (Dunfermline), used this information to inform their personal creative responses.

The works on display include paintings, fabric sculptures, manipulated mannequins, constructed textiles, artists’ books and poems.

Work in progress for artists’ book Double X by Isabell Buenz. Image: Lesley Ratomska

The artists and writer have engaged with a number of groups over the past few months in Fife and Edinburgh – CRUSE Bereavement Services, Fife Women’s Tent, YMCA Edinburgh and The Bethany Christian Trust.

How a friend with cancer inspired the Fife Bodyworks exhibition concept

Artist and exhibition curator Lesley Ratomska explained how the idea came about.

“I was visiting a friend who’s an artist who had breast cancer,” she said.

“She told me that she had been tattooed.

“She had four little dots on her breast where the radiotherapy was happening.

“These four little dots were a permanent reminder of her cancer journey.

Figures: Fabric sculpture by Lesley Ratomska. Image: Lesley Ratomska

“She said ‘I can’t do anything about this. These marks are now part of me and I’ve got them for the rest of my life’.

“I was kind of quite taken aback by this that she was tattooed and had these un-removable marks.

“But that then started me thinking about the marks on my own body – the signs of ageing with wrinkles or liver spots or from Caesarean sections that I’d had for my children.

“Because I’m interested in my own personal artistic work in mark making and repeat patterns, it started this chain of thought with me”.

How keen were other women to talk about their body marks?

Lesley explained how she wanted to discover how other women perceived the marks on their bodies, everything from birthmarks and scars to deliberate changes like tattoos and piercings, and how these marks impacted on their self-image and confidence.

She spoke to other women and was amazed how quickly they all spoke quite readily about the marks on their own bodies and how they felt.

Three Marys by Carol Mason photographed in Carol’s studio. Image: Lesley Ratomska

“People had happy stories,” said Lesley, who got into art and design with a message after retiring from a career in communications.

“But they also had some sad stories as well as to how the marks had occurred or how they felt about ageing or how they felt about the pressures on particularly young women to keep looking youthful and not show the marks of ageing.

“That’s where it all started from.”

Body Map poem was ‘so pertinent’ to the Bodyworks concept

Lesley spoke to her friend Linda Menzies who is a writer and a poet.

By coincidence, Linda had written the poem Body Map, which was about her journey from a young woman to where she is today.

The poem reads: ‘At 17, I ate chips with brown sauce and impunity.

No extra pounds were gained, I danced them off.

My babies brought joy, a storing up of flesh, heavier breasts,

A settling round the hips and waist, wistful regret

for untrammelled flesh and flat belly.

Two tiny scars, set neat, discreet on my stomach

Show the ending of fertility, and of marriage,

A sad coincidence: borne well, though.

A white scar, star-shaped, fading,

Marks where my wrist broke, tripping on logs.

The wood fed a fire where I sat with my lover

A trade-off, there: pain and delight.

Other breakages, illness and traumas

seen and covert, have altered my contours.

Sat Nav is clean and clear in direction and choice:

Body maps show wayward journeys

over crumbling paths and down alleyways.

All journeys end in dust.’

Getting artists onboard for the Fife Bodyworks exhibition

Lesley felt this poem was “so pertinent” to what she had been talking about.

She approached the three visual artists and asked them if they would like to work as a group towards an exhibition with the poet.

They all said yes, and all had their own thoughts about how it could work.

Work in progress for artist’s book That’s Me by Isabell Buenz. Image: Lesley Ratomska

During lockdown, Lesley had worked on an arts project with Glasgow Women’s Library.

It used a device where they discussed – as a group – education, adolescence, the work place, and shared their experiences.

They discovered by doing that there’s a lot of commonality.

Lesley wanted to use that format and wanted to hear what other women thought.

“I organised meetings with four women’s groups – two based in Dunfermline and two based in Edinburgh,” she said.

“We set up a workshop. There was a maximum of 10 women, and we started the workshops by reading out Linda’s poem Body Map, then discussing the poem and how it resonated with them.

Research visit to Modern 1, Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Image: Lesley Ratomska

“That started a conversation.

“Then we did a collage piece with them where we asked them to visualise what their reaction was to the poem.

“Again the conversation continued as you were doing that, looking at why people chose certain images to put down on their collage.

“It was the same – they wrote down words after having heard the poem, and we discussed ‘why did you use this word? What did that mean to you?’

“It was very interesting.

Concealed Stains by Caroline McGonigal. Image: Lesley Ratomska

“The women were very engaged and it really helped the artists and the writer then come up with new pieces of work and informed what is now going to be the exhibition in the community gallery.”

Text plays an important role in Fife Bodyworks exhibition

Lesley, who likes to include text in her own work, and is the wife of Dunfermline artist Stephen Ratomski, feels that in particular the written words generated for the exhibition have been very powerful and have resonated with the artists.

Comments from women taking in part in the sessions include:

“I’ve always felt hopeless in life.”

“My scars made me feel happy because I then had my kids and they brought joy to my life.”

“I live with my scars and I can’t let them rule me.”

“I like my tattoos, they remind me of special people and places.”

“I have facial scars and a broken tooth where, when drunk, I fell on a railing; a scar on my breast which saved my life…a damaged tooth from a punch…a foot scar I got at work…”

Life drawing session at The Red Room, Alloa tutored by Karen Strang. Image: Lesley Ratomska

They also did a life drawing class in order to study the female body and visited the National Galleries of Scotland to study women artists who feature women quite strongly in their work.

Does society need to be less critical about women’s bodies?

Lesley said there’s no doubt society can be “quite critical” about women’s bodies.

There are societal and cultural pressures to “be a certain size, to look a certain way”, and to be “youthful, well past their realistic age”.

The women they spoke to were from a wide age group from 18 up to 65+ and from different educational and cultural backgrounds.

Work in progress Emergency First Aid by Lesley Ratomska

But while women spoke of feeling the pressure,  they also spoke of a need to “kick back” from those pressures and not be pressurised into looking a particular way.

“Instead there was a desire to embrace how they look and be more realistic,” said Lesley.

“For example, ‘that’s how you are when you are 40, this is how you are when you are 50’ and whatever.”

Where and when to see the Bodyworks exhibition

Bodyworks is on at The Community Gallery, Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries from Saturday October 7 to Sunday December 31.

Opening hours are as per library and galleries.