#SoftLads 29 Jan- 27 Feb by Oliver Bliss

Oliver Bliss

My name is Oly Bliss and I am excited to join the seam collective! 

I feel lucky to join a group of committed artists who are interested in pushing the boundaries of what textiles can achieve. This is an exciting time for me as I have an exhibition coming up in Worcester titled, #SoftLads. The launch is 29 January 2022 in the Foyer space at Henry Sandon Hall, a part of The Royal Porcelain Works in Worcester 12-3pm – do come along! 

Pilgrim 2020 116cm x 126cm

After two years in development, I have created a series of large pictorial tapestries. 

Historically, tapestries have helped to depict social scenes, events, and notable figures. The style of dress, the items around these figures would provide clues and symbols to a particular time and status. People depicted with tapestry perpetuate their gender and status through styles of clothing, and symbols of power and wealth to reflect who they are.  

#SoftLads explores facial and body tattoo portraits of men on Instagram celebrating how they curate themselves online. The work explores how and why these men use social media as a means of expressing their masculine identity and self.  

Reference accounts from Instagram which were selected to create tapestries @the_yvesdroper, @alex_hace, @ecolinatrader, @bionicguy, @eariverosa,

The idea came from a conversation about being interested in art. I was talking to someone about my interests, and he made a statement about me being ’soft’ he asked me ‘Are you a Soft Lad then?’. The initial question made me pause, I understood what he meant by the statement, I just had not been asked this question directly before. I replied ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’. Trying on the label for myself, I was left questioning what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. Through some conversations I asked friends what it was they thought of someone who was ‘hard’. 

Xochipilli 2021 97cm x 147cm

Tattoo was an element of this stereotype which was often associated with the idea of being ‘hard’ or ‘tough’. I decided I wanted to explore a series of portraits that highlighted these notations of masculinity through my own ‘soft’ lens. 

Before I started dedicating myself to my own creative practice, I had a ten-year career working with Arts Council England. It was a wonderful place to work, I had learnt a lot from the arts scene in the North and met some truly inspiring people. I had, however, shelved part of myself. I had been facilitating and advising a range of artistic projects which have achieved incredible results. I loved my time, but I had become envious that I was no longer being creative myself. My partner and I moved from Manchester two years ago so that he could pursue a job opportunity. It enabled him to progress in his career and this gave me time to consider what I wanted to do myself. This led to me exploring renewing my practice over the last two years.  Over that time, I built up relationships with different cultural organisations including Worcester University which has led to this project #SoftLads.  

The project has been financially supported through funding from The Bransford Trust, Arts Council England and Worcester City Council. This funding enabled me to work directly with Royal Porcelain Works, The Hive Library in Worcester, Shout! Festival and The Hive in Shrewsbury. The funding has also enabled me to collaborate with a creative partner, The Word Association

During October and November, the public were invited to take part in workshops that explored the themes within the tapestries to produce their own creative-writing responses. The workshops were run by Holly Winter-Hughes director of The Word Association. The Word Association specialise in facilitating writing workshops that result in publishing poetic and literary works created by their participants. They are committed to empowering under-represented and marginalised groups of people to explore their own feelings, concerns, and life experiences through the development of their writing skills. I was a participant in one of their courses which focused on working with people across Worcestershire who identified themselves within the LGBTQ+ community. Holly has been a real champion about the #SoftLads project and said: 

“Oliver’s tapestries are mesmerising; he pours his soul into them and weaves the story of each character seamlessly into his work. I am really excited about getting the opportunity to show these pieces to fresh audiences, challenging them to use the ideas explored as a springboard for a new poem or piece of creative writing. I cannot wait to see how people react to the work and the creativity it inspires. The combination of the fascinating and important themes explored in the work, and the majesty of the works themselves offers the perfect starting point for our writing workshops. For people looking to truly connect with the work, our workshops offer you the chance to get up close to the tapestries, meet the artist and really delve into the themes, including masculinity and gender variation, hero worship, body image, activism, sexuality, and identity. I am really looking forward to working with new people, reaching new communities, and getting silenced voices heard.” 

During these workshops people took part in different writing prompts. Through these prompts some chose to write prose and others created ekphrastic poems (poems inspired by art). These have been collected and will become published into a new anthology. This will be released at the launch event on the 29 January. As part of the project, we were able to bring in the talents of a British Sign Language Interpreter, Noel. He has translated several of the works in progress into signed poems. This has made a terrific addition to the exhibition as their words are transformed by the signs and expression of the interpreter. 

You can see more examples of the tapestries and signed poems on my Instagram @olybliss or my website www.olybliss.com, you can also learn more about The Word Association through their website www.the-word-association.com 

You can find Noel through his YouTube channel Noel BSL

Do come and see #SoftLads at The Foyer, Henry Sandon Hall, Severn St, Worcester WR1 2NE, from 29 January until 27 February 2022. You are welcome to come to the #SoftLads anthology launch event on Saturday 29 January 1-3pm and there will be a taster workshop on the 26th February 12-3pm please email o.bliss@ymail.com to attend.  If you can’t attend these session you are welcome to visit The Foyer Space 10-4pm to see the exhibition.

Royal Porcelain Works Launch

#SoftLads will continue to tour to the Hive in Shrewsbury in July 2022. 

Oliver Bliss