Oly Bliss; Masculinity Through Thread

Oly Bliss; Masculinity Through Thread

Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m Oly, a contemporary textile artist based in Worcester, UK. I studied at Hereford College of Art and Design and took a degree in Fine Art with Painting at Manchester Metropolitan University. In 2011 I earned a Masters degree in Arts Management, Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester. To make my personal practice viable I have a part time job at the Hive Library and the rest of the time I have freelance work with different projects. I live with my loving partner Craig and we have been together for 16 years. We have just adopted two cats Arty and Otto. I am also a member of seam Collective a collective of textile-based artists.


What are the main themes you explore within your art?

The themes which I explore morph and change depending on the project, but I am mainly interested in exploring themes such as gender, sexuality and power and heritage.

My most recent series #Softlads combines the traditional approach of tapestry in portraiture and craft with the contemporary twist of machine embroidery and modern imagery to examine how and why people promote images of their bodies on social media.

I work with The Word Association; we delivered a series of workshops with SHOUT festival in Birmingham and The Henry Sandon Hall in Worcester to explore the themes of the work and have the people create their own written responses to the work which was collected and recorded in an anthology.

Tapestry of a male, titled "artist, activist"

"Artist/Activist"


Where did you interest in textiles first come from?

The most important show I saw was "Boys who Sew" by Janis K Jefferies in partnership with the Crafts Council in 2004. They had a range of male artists working in thread and I stayed in that space for ages absorbing all the different approaches to express masculinity through thread. I grew up in the 90s in a small town called Newent. I had very little exposure to other forms of masculine expression. My parents made sure I went to galleries and museums but in the 1990s and 2000s there was very little publicly visible work discussing alternative forms of masculine expression. I started to play and experiment more with what masculinity meant to me during my Foundation year at Hereford Art College and then my practice really shifted when I went to University.

When I visited the Whitworth Gallery during my first year, I discovered Alice Kettle’s triptych, The Three Caryatids, and saw the incredible amount of thread that she used in her work. The beauty of those layers converted me from working in oils to wanting to work in thread. My tutor convinced me to use my student loan to purchase a sewing machine (instead of spending the money on booze!) from then on, I became committed to a textile-based practice.

I had no formal training other than the support of my dorm mate who was on a textile-based course. She showed me how to set up my sewing machine and the rest was trial and error.


When I first saw your art, I didn’t realise it was textile! It is so intricate! How does that process work for you, what steps do you go through, and how long can a piece take?

My first piece took me 69 days at roughly five hours per day. I learned a lot during that first piece "Hardcore Vibes". I particularly learnt a lot from my mistakes as I had not attempted to make something on that scale before.

I provide a full breakdown of the learning and the processes I go through on my own blog www.olybliss.com. Each piece from the #Softlads series has a full reflection on the steps I take to make the piece and the learning I gained at each stage.

Textile art "Hardcore vibes"

"Hardcore Vibes"

 

The main steps of the process are selecting the images of different guys on Instagram and trying to pinpoint what it is about the image that I am drawn too. Then, I map out the potential themes connected to what it is about their tattoos or pose that interests me and start researching those connections.

Once I have an image chosen, I sketch out their features onto acetate and then use my mother’s old school projector to project my drawing and trace on to cotton! I then use Photoshop Mix to check the proportions of my work and make corrections to the drawing. When you blow an image up based on a free hand sketch the likeness can get skewed! But, I like drawing the initial sketch freehand so I can capture the movement of the lines and marks I’ve made as a drawing. Photoshop Mix is a free app that allows you to layer images with transparency. So, I can see how the original images compare to the enlarged drawing on cotton.

Then, I sew onto the work, but the process of this is quite detailed! When you work with a sewing machine the waft and weft of the fabric is pushed outwardly a little each time the needles puncture the fabric. When you work on a scale as big as my pieces you must counter that impact otherwise the features lose their likeness. I like the challenge of that process, and I still feel I am on a journey with my technique.

 

Can you talk about the notions of masculinity and how they have influenced your work?

My understanding of gender and masculinity is in flux; I understand both as a social construct. As a person who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I recognise my understanding of masculinity is different to the generations before and after me.  The more I talk about these constructs the more I understand everyone has a general perception of them, but how they define them and the language that they use to describe these terms often varies. I find the subject of identity fascinating because it is so fluid and full of contradictions. I find that some people who are often white, heterosexual and cis-gendered can struggle the most with reflecting on these concepts. Some people have even appeared to me as threatened when there is a discussion to try to open them to an alternative view.

I have also had experience of my work being rejected on the basis that the work needed to reference some current critical dialogues around gender and sexuality. That was very frustrating for me as I want the work to start a dialogue to help shift perspectives about how gender and masculinity can be described and explore what it can be. It felt like my reading and research and work within the queer community was being dismissed... It stung to have a gatekeeper reject my work based on that principle.

I accept there is a general challenge as an artist when approaching spaces and making applications to showcase work. It feels like a missed opportunity to be silenced in this way, and not have the opportunity to use a show to see where there were differences in opinions. The Word Association were great at helping the public explore the work on their own terms and really empowered people to discuss their opinions in a safe environment.

So, the subject of the word ‘masculinity’, and the context of its use can be difficult to navigate in relation to power and who has control over perceived perspectives at play. I enjoy exploring this complexity and support that there may be alternative perspectives to how masculinity can be described... if it is helpful to describe it at all.

To me personally notions of masculinity are a smaller question to concepts of identity. In the series #Softlads I was exploring masculinity and means of self-curation and expression. The work is focused on how a person’s identity is observed and understood externally by a viewer or spectator. I was working with a thin slice of society, a sub-cultural group identified through some hashtags to act as a starting point to a bigger conversation.

 Tapestry of a tattood man

"Xochipilli"


How have your own personal experiences influenced your art?

All my work comes from personal experiences, it is impossible for the work to not be affected in some way by the experiences I have had throughout my life. Even when I am discussing themes within my work which doesn’t necessarily align to my own direct experience I am still connected to the work.

The title of the series #Softlad came from me being described by someone as a ‘Soft Lad’. That’s what inspired me to investigate what that term meant to that person and decide what it meant to me.

I have what I would describe as a more feminine soul, but I am very comfortable in my biology and genitalia when I was assigned male at birth. My understanding and self-branding of masculinity is often different to my peer group. Even in queer spaces we’re all a little different to each other and I love that. Occasionally, I like to have a little make up if I’m going out, but it’s subtle, and it can make me feel good. I can switch up the clothes I use to how I present myself and I align all these gendered props as a means of describing my own brand of maleness and masculinity.

I value empathy and compassion, competitiveness and resilience. I wish to treat others equitably and have a desire to work collaboratively. I gain pleasure from supporting and nurturing the people around me. These are all ways in which I can describe my understanding of a masculine identity that I align with. I recognised also, that the way in which I describe myself and my relationship with the ideas of masculinity may not be the case for everyone.


What do you hope people take away as a result of seeing your work / how you want them to feel, think, or act differently?

A big thing for me is discussing the role of social media in our society. What is its function? How does it serve us? and how are we serving social media?

I started with Instagram as it's a visual platform and globally connected. I’m interested in how it is like a virtual game, rating yourself through likes and comments, but it is also a great way to build genuine connections with people who are interested in similar topics.

I am interested in our history of 'what a celebrity is', along with methods of communication, and how these narratives are changed and shaped through time. I’m curious to know how history will treat our current behaviour as these platforms evolves and grow.

I hope that people will feel a connection to changes in our history and think differently about the role of communication and technology. I hope the work I‘ve produced will make people question how they view themselves and consider why they use social media at all. I hope that there is a change where we become less interested in ourselves and become more interested in using social media to connect around specific values and ideas.


Now, I understand you’ve got a few exciting events coming up – You were a finalist for the Hand and Lock prize in November – can you tell us a little about that? 

Yes this is really exciting for me I was one of six people who have been selected international prize for the category Textile Art Open.  The decision was made by a panel of independent experts for this prize.

The final artists were selected from over 500 competition entrants from 44 different countries across the globe. It felt like a real privilege to be amongst the other finalists, I’ve seen the quality of their work, it’s really intimidating as they are so different to each other and incredibly skilled.

I was very excited that Cornelia Parker will have seen my work. I was in awe of her piece "Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View". It really made me excited about installation work. When I talk about the judges to my friends though, most people get more excited to hear that Esme Young is a judge as they recognise her from the Sewing Bee. The whole panel is incredible and that really blows my mind that those people would be discussing my work at all. Regardless of who wins the competition we all win in a way as our works will be showcased at the Hand and Lock Biennial in November 2023 in the centre of London at OXO gallery so that is very exciting for me!

I've also been Long Listed for an online exhibition, Amplify, which has been curated by Zealous and they will be announcing a Short List of artists soon. This exhibition was special to me personally because it relates to mental health and wellbeing, which I think everyone is more open to discussing since our experiences in lockdown. The piece I submitted was created before lockdown, but really resonated with the themes of the exhibition. You can see the whole exhibition online and even walk around the show with a virtual avatar. Which is great because you can explore the show from any where in the world.

 

Textile work "Adaptive Evolution"

"Adaptive Evolution" 

 

You also have a joint exhibition with the seam collective coming up, too. Where/when is that, and what can people expect to see?

The Show is called A Visible THREAD which will be on at ACEarts in Somerton between 26 November – 24 December. (Details here: https://seamcollective.org/2022/11/11/a-visible-thread-launches-at-acearts/)

The show came out of a month-long residency at the Andrew Brownsword Gallery at The University of Bath. The collective have been individually working on our pieces since and this is the first time we will showcase work which resulted from that period of research and development during the residency.

I am personally very excited by the work as I have moved away from tapestry and into installing soft sculptures! It will be a big change for my practice which has been heavily influenced by my time with the other members.




Thank you so much for sharing your work. How can people find out more about you and your art?

@olybliss on instagram and twitter

www.olybliss.com

Comments on this post (1)

  • Dec 13, 2022

    Thank you Ollie for being so honest and sharing your beautiful work – and REDOLESCENT for creating this blog.

    I’m a graduating year Painting student and would love to collaborate with Ollie one day. I’m a bit busy for the next year as I have to complete my degree and put on a solo show in August but after that I’ll try and get in touch.

    Wishing Ollie good luck with all his endeavours and every success in the future.

    Best wishes,

    Paul

    — Paul Butterworth

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