Published: 26 July 2016

Naked ambition

Ten years ago graduate Shirley Prahms (nee Rutherford) and her husband Karlis saw a programme about the photographer Spencer Tunick, best known for organizing large-scale nude shoots of people around the world.

So impressed were they by his work, they vowed that if ever they got the chance to appear in one of his ‘human installations’ they would jump at it.

Fast forward to 9 July 2016 and Shirley and Karlis’ dream came true. They were part of a 3,200-strong crowd taking part in Tunick’s Sea of Hull photoshoot in which people painted themselves in shades of blue and green to represent the city’s maritime history.

For Shirley and Karlis it was a fluke they saw the event advertised – on a trip to friends in Leeds from their Scottish home, they saw flyers promoting the project.

“I was, and Karlis still is, a life model for art classes so the thought of being naked didn’t frighten us at all,” said Shirley. “However, I don’t think I would have ever dared to do it as a student!”

For Karlis the trip to Hull was an also an emotional journey – as a small boy he arrived via the port in 1947 as a refugee from Latvia when the city was still devastated by the repeated bomb attacks during the Second World War. To see the changes over 70 years were eye-opening.

The volunteers gathered at 2am for the artwork, commissioned by the Ferens Art Gallery to celebrate Hull’s UK City of Culture next year.

The call came at 4.30am to shed their clothes and paint themselves. “I was busy covering myself and others in the paint, when I looked up and saw this sea of blue – I have never experienced anything like it; it was phenomenal,” said Shirley. “When I looked around the park where we first gathered there were 3,000 little heaps of clothes dotted all over the place.

“It has been the most liberating things I have done, co-operating with 3,000 people on an international art project. It was an amazing leveller – it didn’t matter whether you were big or small, thin or fat, young or old. It was very enlightening and that’s what Spencer makes happen.”

Shirley graduated in Human Biology in 1975 and would love to get in touch with former classmates. If you knew Shirley and would like to get back in contact, email the alumni team at and we will pass your details on.

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