Interview with body positivity artist, Antonia Jolley!
Joining us in conversation today is body positivity artist, Antonia Jolley, who is spreading the self-love message and celebrating bodies of all shapes and sizes via her critically acclaimed ‘Every Body’ project. We’re discussing how the concept came about, why Antonia considers this her strongest work to date, how the paintings serve as a 'self-love army', and a great deal more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Antonia! It’s been nearly a year since you graduated from De Montfort University in Leicester with a first class degree in Fine Art – and it was during your time here that you first turned your attention to nude artwork. How much did you enjoy the degree overall, and at what point did you decide to make body positivity your primary focus?
Antonia: Hey! I know, I can’t believe that it has nearly been a whole year already. I absolutely loved my degree! Fine Art was definitely the right choice for me, and De Montfort University really was the best university. The facilities were incredible, there were resources to explore any art style I wanted, and the tutors were really helpful but weren’t shy on constructive criticism.
For this reason, I found myself getting on with some tutors more than others, but that’s only natural! Art is subjective so there will be people that like your work and people that don’t. Although, some of the more negative feedback from some tutors is probably the reason I am pushing so hard with my art today and is the reason I am so driven.
My work, right from A Levels, has always been linked to body positivity, mental health and the impact that social media has on us. This continued throughout university, but despite dabbling in nude art in my first year, I didn’t actually start painting nudes until October 2020, several months after I graduated. After graduating, I felt a little lost and didn’t know where to channel my art.
During lockdown, I become increasingly aware of the amount of time I was spending on social media and the negative impact that it was having on my mental health and body image, as the photos we see on there are usually photoshopped and edited. I wanted to try and change the dynamic on social media and instead fill it with real bodies – dad bods, saggy breastfeeding boobs, stretch marks, scars, piercings, tattoos, freckles/moles etc. So, this is when I started painting nudes!
Britain Uncovered: You’ve stated that you’re on a mission to make people feel confident and empowered, and in the same month you started painting nudes you launched your ‘Every Body’ project – and a subsequent call-out for models on social media led to over 300 submissions! What are the overall aims of this project, and is challenging the idea of the conventional beauty standard an important element?
Antonia: To put it simply, the aim is to try and make as many people as possible feel more confident in their bodies.
Right from the beginning of my project I stated that my work was to empower, educate and appreciate rather than sexualise, and I have continued to let this be my reasoning. I believe that everyone should be empowered and confident within their bodies, regardless of gender, race, age, size, weight etc.
Equally, I believe that education is important, because growing up I only saw very skinny models on adverts, social media and billboards. I do believe that this is slowly changing and that inclusivity is increasing, but I think that my current project could have really helped me when I was going through my teenage years. And finally, the project is about appreciation – every body should be appreciated, loved, honoured and treated with respect.
I state that my paintings and models aren’t sexualised, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t sexy or that the models shouldn’t ever feel sexy within themselves, because I want everyone to feel incredible! I am trying to normalise viewing ‘normal’ bodies.
Because nipples (which are incredible parts of the body that are created so that we can feed our offspring) have been sexualised, you can’t view them on social media. This means that many people are insecure about their boobs because the only other topless bodies they’ve seen growing up were in pornography. I feel that giving examples of all body types in a non-sexualised way is incredibly important.
Britain Uncovered: In addition to the photos of people’s bodies, you also asked your volunteers to share details of some of their body image struggles over the years – and this extra information alongside your finished work really adds depth and helps viewers appreciate and understand more about the individual featured. How do these unique stories influence the way you go about painting the individuals, and were there any particular stories that really stood out and/or made a big impact on you? How relatable are they, on the whole?
Antonia: The paintings alone have incredible power, but I found that when displaying the model’s story alongside their painting, there was an even profounder effect. There seems to be a community forming on my social media where people comment on the paintings, praising the model on their body and commenting on how inspirational their story is.
I think it also shows people that they aren’t the only one with insecurities, and you can be self-conscious no matter what you look like or how society views you in regards to being close to the ‘beauty standard’ or not. I have looked at some of the models and wished that I had their boobs or their waist, and they have written how they wish they had smaller boobs or a different figure – and it struck me that there isn’t a ‘perfect’ or ‘standard’ that we’re all aiming to hit. I would love my ‘Every Body’ project to allow people to recognise that, because there are people that would LOVE to have your body!
With some stories, such as those involving cancer and other diseases, or mothers who have fallen out of love with their post-partum bodies, I do feel more pressure to execute the painting well. I’m a realist painter, so I never slim down models, blur wrinkles or minimise scars, but I do feel extra pressure to perfect those with deeply impacting stories. Equally … tattoos! Tattoo artists have such a skill and to have to copy such gorgeous and intricate designs on my paintings is often a challenge, but a nice change!
The best feeling ever is when people who haven’t volunteered are still able to relate to the models, whether that is through physical similarities or through their statement.
Not all stories are negative though, and I don’t want my project to just be focusing on people’s insecurities. There are many models that love their bodies, and that is so uplifting to paint!
Britain Uncovered: ‘Every Body’ is currently viewable on your website, and later in the year you’re planning on showcasing at least 100 of these paintings at your very own exhibition; and you recently launched a GoFundMe page to help make this a reality. How important is it to celebrate this project with a physical event such as this, and what can attendees expect on the night?
Antonia: As soon as I started the project, I knew that I wanted to exhibit a body of work but had no idea of the number of paintings I’d have to show, with over 300 models and hopefully around 100 paintings in the exhibition. It wasn’t until I started painting them and seeing them come together on my Instagram and my website that I saw the power and strength in numbers when they’re together. It’s like a self-love army! At this point I really saw the importance of having an exhibition dedicated to these nudes and to empower as many people as possible.
I would love the night to be halfway between an exhibition and a celebration. I am aware that a large percentage of my models and audience isn’t from an art background, so the thought of a conventional, ‘well-behaved’ silent, white walled gallery might not fit best. I would love a place where people can come and view the art, have a drink and a boogie, and get involved as I try to make the exhibition as interactive as possible. My only criteria is that it is a feel good night, that everyone goes away feeling more confident, more empowered and generally happier!
Britain Uncovered: What would you say you have learned about yourself during the course of the ‘Every Body’ project, either on a personal or an artistic level, and has the project changed your overall mentality or artistic approach going forward? And how gratifying is it to hear people’s feedback about the pieces you’ve created of them?
Antonia: The main thing that I have learnt is that I perform best when I am doing what makes me happy. There were times during my degree where I wasn’t motivated in my art practice because the tutors had steered it in a different direction to what I had wanted. Now that I have full control and I am creating pieces that I love for a cause that I believe in, I feel so much more motivated and happier with the outcome.
And it isn’t just me that’s noticed this – those closest to me see that I’m thriving with this project, and other artists have stated how they believe this is my strongest work to date. Other people can try and help guide you in life, but unless you’re doing something that you’re fully behind, you’ll never be achieving your full potential. Do something you love and wow, you’ll fly!
Getting positive model feedback is the greatest motivation. To know that I have made people view themselves differently and for them to think more positively about themselves is an incredible feeling. “I’M SO SEXY … Thank you … it’s honestly made me wanna do stuff like this all the time. Did not think I’d ever feel this comfortable about my body,” was the response from one of my models and it has stuck with me ever since.
Britain Uncovered: Several of your works are also included in an online exhibition called Celebrating Women 2021 – a project developed by Tits, Pits and Naughty Bits – and you’re certainly in some good company alongside many other great artists who are featured. How did you get involved in this project, and why did you feel your works numbered 100, 117 and 165 were the best choices for this particular exhibition?
Antonia: Tits, Pits and Naughty Bits is run by Martha Kingslayer and Emma Peers, two of my fellow De Montfort University Fine Art graduates. They messaged me regarding submitting some work for their Celebrating Women 2021 exhibition and I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity!
I knew that for this exhibition I would need to select three paintings of strong women that work well together. Every Body is about diversity and accepting every body type, and therefore I wanted to have varied skin tones, tattoos, bare skin, piercings, some with clothes and some without. Numbers 100, 117, and 165 seemed to stand together well as confident women and I knew that they were the right paintings for this exhibition.
Britain Uncovered: Which brings us to the next question – what led to the decision to give these paintings numbers, rather than names?
Antonia: I needed my paintings to be confidential to respect the model’s privacy, and rather than naming them after other women’s names or finding alternative titles, I decided to go with numbers as I felt as it would be an equal, unbiased way of titling them. The number that accompanies the painting is purely based on when the model approached me – for example, No. 74 was the 74th model to volunteer.
This may change in the future as my projects grow and change, but for now I like the numbers!
Britain Uncovered: We’ve spoken to many of our previous interviewees about the negative impact that can arise from comparing ourselves to others on social media – and that this can sometimes make us feel inferior or not worthy enough. Where do you stand on this, and what role does social media have to play in helping normalise bodies of all shapes and sizes?
Antonia: Social media and the technology we have nowadays is incredible and I am so thankful for it, especially during the last year and how much I have relied on it during the Coronavirus pandemic. However, it can be very toxic and can have negative impacts on our mental health as we can fall into the trap of comparison. How many followers does that person have compared to me? What about the number of likes? Their clothes are nicer, and they seem to be going on holiday all the time!
A lot of what we see is staged or edited – it’s a highlight reel. And that is why I think it is so important to show a non-edited account on social media. For those that follow my personal social media accounts, I would never edit or manipulate any of my photographs and that is so important to me as I must practice what I preach with my art. This hasn’t always been easy as there have been days that I have been incredibly self-conscious and comparing myself to other accounts on social media – whether this is how many followers someone has, how an artist is thriving on their account or how beautiful an Instagram influencer is.
I really learnt the importance of curating my Instagram. Just like how you would curate which paintings belong in a gallery, curate the posts that you see on your feed. If you always find yourself comparing yourself to others in a negative way then it is totally okay to mute, unfollow or block people. Your mental health is so much more important than one follower.
And then follow people that make you feel amazing – body positive and inclusive models, influencers that are the same dress size as you, positive and motivational quotes, etc. You should come away from your social media feeling good about yourself, not drained. Remember that you’re the one in control of your apps/websites; they shouldn’t be in control of you.
Britain Uncovered: How empowering do you feel social nudity experiences can be, and do you think getting naked in the name of art can ultimately help people accept themselves and love the skin they’re in?
Antonia: I think it’s super important! For some people it’s the only way they will see bodies that are similar to theirs. So many people have hated the photos that they sent in for me to paint, but as soon as they saw themselves painted, they said that it was beautiful. People view themselves differently when painted, they see themselves as art. There is a beauty behind painting that tells all the truths that a photograph does, but it seems to beautify it in the eye of the viewer – either that, or no one has the balls to tell me that they think my painting of them is ugly!
Britain Uncovered: Finally, what are some of your goals for the remainder of 2021? Will the 'Every Body' project continue for the foreseeable future, or will you be turning your attention elsewhere? We were intrigued by a recent photo you posted where you were surrounded by mannequins – are you able to shed any light on this and/or details of your future goals and plans please?
Antonia: My main goal for 2021 is to just keep painting! Up until my exhibition in the second half of the year, my aim is just to paint as many torso paintings as possible.
I would love to involve the mannequins within the exhibition, and I would love to shed some light on this … if I knew what I was doing with them! My mum and dad bought me a mannequin for Christmas because we had joked about me painting one, and then they bought me a pregnant mannequin for my birthday and the obsession of collecting them began. I picked up another one from a charity shop and another four from a local art gallery that was sadly closing. I do plan on getting creative with them, but that’s as much as I can disclose right now!
At the moment, my main focus is to try and make people love themselves more with my art. I want my paintings to be a happy place where people feel free to be themselves. I may find myself moving on from naked torsos in the future, but I would love to keep this motive behind it. You never know, I might move on to elbows!
- To see more of Antonia’s work, including paintings from her Every Body project, visit the artist's official website over at antoniajolley.wixsite.com/website. You can also buy a selection of Antonia’s art via her Etsy page, and be sure to follow @antoniajolleyart over on Instagram too.
We'd also recommend checking out Antonia's GoFundMe page for details on her upcoming Every Body exhibition, which is scheduled to take place in September 2021.