Memoir V: Masculinity

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all of these memoirs is to educate. Some of the content in this memoir is of an explicit nature.

“Am I a good man?” is the question I always ask myself every single day.

But, what does it mean to be a good man? If you ask any man this question you will probably get a range of answers. From, “You have to be strong and tuff”, to “You have to do what’s right”, and “You can’t cry”.

During my childhood, I would always hear the phrase, “Man up!”. It was a response against doing something that was considered feminine. Along with “Stop crying!” and “Stop being a wuss!”.

I know how to tie my shoe, I know how to ride a bike and some days I know how to do calculus. But sometimes I wake up, and I am unsure if I know what it means to be a good man.

One of my earliest memories of my masculinity being challenged was when I was 11, and my father needed help with his car. I thought it would be a simple task, so I thought. My father’s exact words were, “You don’t have to do anything complicated, I just need you to push my car”. My task was giving the car some momentum. So my father parked his car up a hill, and I began to push the car down the hill.  As I did this, the car made a massive roar. With the sound being so noisy, I was startled, and I ran in the opposite direction.

What happened next was interesting, my father scolded me, then laughed at me afterwards, and said, “What are you a girl? I’m just revving the car’s engine”.  At that exact moment I felt I wasn’t “man” enough, I felt embarrassed and ridiculed.

Another example was my uncle when I was 17, we were on a road trip and my uncle asked me, “So what type of drink do you like?”. I responded with, “Anything works for me, I don’t mind whine or brandy. Not really a fan of beer.”. My uncle immediately started to laugh and responded with, “C’mon Really? Women drink wine and men drink beers.”.

When it comes to masculinity and femininity, sociology tells us that the two are social constructs. If we look at the common characteristics associated with the two. We see what is generally associated with masculinity to be the extreme opposite for femininity.

I think the traditional beliefs we have of masculinity stem from evolution. 10,000 years ago, we lived in a far more dangerous world.

However now, our world is different, times have changed, new laws have been introduced and there has been social progress to an extent, so our idea of masculinity has changed to a degree.

But it still begs the question. Should men be courageous, honourable and chivalrous? In my humble opinion yes. As well as that, should men be open with their emotions? Absolutely!

It is because of the world we live in today; we should be open to having these discussions about masculinity.

An artist whose work delves into masculinity is the talented individual Marcus Nelson.

Marcus along with his girlfriend, Brooke are the directors of the London based art collective, Boys Don’t Cry. The collective brings together male artists who discuss men’s mental health.

When it comes to the inspiration behind the collective, Marcus wanted to give a voice to male artists who were struggling with their mental health, he wanted to create a safe space for those artists. “I didn’t feel as if people had a voice. I struggled a lot with my mental health growing up. (…). What always kept me sane was making art.”.

Originally the collective was supposed to last for one show. The collective’s first show was in support for the mental health charity, CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). After the show was completed, the collective received a massive response which exceeded their expectations, with support coming from all over the UK.

With each show, attention to the collective grew along with their roster. Today, the collective hosts 30 artists. “It’s a support network, the work is secondary to the artist. (…). My closest friends are from the collective.”. It is through the collective Marcus has also met his good friend, Corbin. Corbin is also an artist, based in London. His work focuses on men’s mental health with the use of flags and other memorabilia that are synonymous with England’s football culture. “Corbin is such a good friend of mine. It is nice to have a friend you can have that professional and creative dialogue with”.

Besides the discussion of men’s mental health, the collective exists to bring together artists from around the UK. “The art world right now is very difficult for artists. Right now, you are seeing so many art collectives. People are realising you are stronger in a group”.

When it comes to Marcus’ journey into art, he describes it as the following, “I was always creative growing up. Always. But my whole life I had this weird tension between acting and art”.

Marcus’ passion for acting came from his mother who was an actress. During his time in secondary school, Marcus excelled in both, Art and Drama. Art was a cathartic release for him and with regards to Drama, he loved performing on the stage due to the attention he received. “I wanted to have that attention and love; I was not 100% in with art”.

However, this admiration for art that I know Marcus for would come from his art teacher, Mrs George.

Marcus attended Winchester College, due to receiving a scholarship. For Marcus, Winchester College was a different environment compared to his life at home, “Everyone had these perfect lives.”. This very notion coupled with his life at home gave Marcus a chip on his shoulder. But it was Mrs George who would break that chip and take the young Marcus under her wing.

When it comes to Mrs George, Marcus describes her as, “Feisty” and “Strong”. “She was like a mum to me. (…). She was just the right amount of crazy I needed.”.

However, during his time at Winchester College, Mrs George developed cancer. Although it was a tumultuous period for him, Marcus saw this period as the moment they became extremely close. While Mrs George would receive chemotherapy, she would allow Marcus to photograph her, she would even allow Marcus to create art based on her.

In fact, the only person who could see Mrs George without her head wrap was Marcus.

Once Mrs George finished chemotherapy, she entered remission. (A person who enters remission, shows no signs and symptoms of cancer. Although cancer cells may still be in the person’s body). The two kept in touch until her death. In 2018, on the night of a Boys Don’t Cry show, Mrs George passed away.

Marcus remembers the night as stressful due to him needing to fundraise, curate and use new technology but at the same time a massive success. “Everyone loved the art, but there was this moment where I was like this is weird. This is going so well. Almost like she was looking over it.”.

Moreover, after finishing Winchester College, Marcus was in a strange place, he had no clue of what he wanted to pursue. The idea of drama school was in his head, but he was not so adamant on being an actor. “I did National Youth Theatre, but I hated actors, the egos. Everyone is so outgoing but it is undercut with this real edge of competition”. So still unsure, Marcus took a gap year and travelled to Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Marcus’ time in Zanzibar allowed him to think of the future. While there he chose to have no contact with the outside world and did nothing creative.

When Marcus returned to the UK, his focus was now solely on art. He did a foundation year and the following year he went on to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martins.

In terms of whether he calls himself an artist Marcus states the following, “I am an artist, but I have not come out of my chrysalis yet. (…) I’ve taken a long time to get there and go through life a little bit.”.

When it comes to his art, Marcus states, “I describe my work as ugly, cartoonish and awkward”. With regards to its content matter, Marcus also states the following, “I talk about being a man, but I feel with my work the only thing I can talk about with my own authority is myself. (…) I don’t think I have the right to talk about anything else, for me, my work is all about dissecting my own experience about the world. Being a man is a big part of that, being a straight white man is what I am, and I can’t get away from that”.

One of the first pieces I saw from Marcus was Bruises in the Sky (painted 2018). It was through this piece; I fell in love with Marcus’ work. When I spoke to Marcus about the piece, he said the piece was about his father and their relationship. “I’m so close with my dad, he is like my best mate. But we have a fiery relationship. (…) We’re both strong characters.”. When I look at this piece, I see this fire. The different shades of pink all work together to tell this story. The white splatter of paint on the canvas along with the magenta spray paint are also nice touches as well. If we look at the male figure’s head, it is spray painted red. Red is usually a colour which is linked to conflict and aggression. If we move our focus to the entire piece, we see the head is surrounded by different shades of pink. In my opinion, the use of pink symbolizes love, and the various shades of pink symbolize the different layers of Marcus’ love. Moreover, Marcus describes this piece as “part collage and part not”, he also stated in our interview that during this period he was still finding his artistic style.

Bruises in the Sky (painted 2018) [Acrylic, Spray Paint and Oil on Canvas 200 x 200cm]IMG_5788

If we look at Marcus’ catalogue, Bruises in the Sky is the turning point of his work. As we continue through this memoir, you will notice that Marcus always incorporates the colour pink in his pieces. “One of the reasons why I love pink is symbolically, pink is traditionally, “A girl’s colour”.”. It is the effect that the colour has on his brain, that continuously compels him to use the colour. “Pink just does something to me, it hits a part of my brain that releases some serotonin, it takes me somewhere else”. Marcus does not care about the female connotations that are linked to the colour, as Marcus eloquently states, “Real men wear pink”.

If we fast forward to today, Marcus’ work delves deeply into masculinity, “I can only talk about what I am and what I am experiencing about now. And right now I am thinking about, what it means to be a man.”.

If we look at the statistics in the UK. 76% of suicides are committed by men. Also, one of the biggest cause of deaths for men under 35 is suicide. With that being said, a re-examination of masculinity is needed and we need to create an environment in which men all over the UK feel comfortable talking about their feelings.

I think pieces such as a 2nd place (painted 2019), SOFT (painted 2019) and Superman with No Cape (painted 2019) tell a fantastic story of some of the struggles that men face within society.

2nd place is part of a trilogy alongside Superman with No Cape and SOFT, it explores success. In today’s world, men are faced with a vast amount of pressure to succeed. Whether it is financially, having a well-paid job or physically, having a toned body with “Chiseled Abs”. If we couple all these pressures and more, being a man can be mentally tough due to living up to society’s expectations. In this piece, Marcus wants to ask the viewer the following questions, how far would you go to succeed at something? And how much would it kill you to get to the top? In 2nd place, we see the following, a naked male with a bruised back looking at his 2nd place trophy and his boxing gloves.

By having the male naked, and bruised, the viewer sympathizes with the young boxer because he is vulnerable and injured. Marcus said that this piece was personal, “I do a lot of boxing, and sometimes after a session, I stay up all night having a think about how someone got a nice jab on me during a sparring match”.

2nd place (painted 2019) [Acrylic and Pastel on Canvas 80 x 20cm]

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The next piece is SOFT, and it focuses on sex. Today the expectations for men to be amazing at sex is greater than ever, with phrases such as “BBC” (big black c**k) and “stroke game”. “At times I’ve been insecure about my sex life. Sometimes your mind isn’t with it and that kills guys”. When we look at today’s world, sex is so accessible, from pornography to escorts, and their effects can be so damaging since it obscures our idea of what sex is and our sexual expectations.

In this piece, we see a male and female engage in sexual intercourse, and from their facial expressions, they both indicate an element of discomfort, both are unsure about what is occurring. What adds to this, is the lack of eye contact between the two.

With regards to the floating head in the piece, my interpretation of this is it could be the male’s thoughts. Because if we compare the facial expression of the male and the floating head, they are completely different. The floating head appears to be clueless and unsure, which could potentially indicate that the mere act of sex is foreign and new to him, this could be further supported by the black mark on the male’s head. We see in cartoons that the use of the large black mark with no brain represents a person with a lack of intelligence or in other words an idiot. Overall, if we analyse the male, he appears focused, he wants to reassure the female. But with all the information we have as the viewer, we see this as a lie, the male is showing a false sense of security.

Lastly, the white paint, Marcus states it represents semen. When it comes to some of Marcus’ pieces, there is an element of humour and this is deliberate. For Marcus, the use of humour removes the initial awkwardness when it comes to certain topics such as sex. Marcus draws this inspiration from the late artist Mel Calman. Calman struggled with depression and used art to form an alter ego. In his work, a sketch of a little man is always present, and a statement is always made from topics such as health, death and morality.

Moreover, SOFT also gives us an insight into Marcus’ creative process. Marcus states that his work can change over 20 times, he can create a piece and suddenly paint over it without a second thought.

SOFT (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 60 x 40cm]08986815-FE80-4614-9ABF-6D6F6F58CC2D

The last piece in this trilogy is Superman with No Cape. This piece tackles “Body Dysmorphia”. Today we see an over obsession with our bodies. In this piece, we see a muscular man who has been working out so much that we as the viewer cannot even see his eyes. Alone he stands in his Superman underwear and he flexes a pose. Marcus intentionally made the figure have skinny legs, the piece was originally going to be called, “Skinny Leg”. Marcus chose to do this so that we would laugh at the figure. But by us laughing, we would eventually feel sorry for the figure. “It’s so sad, isn’t it, he’s got his Superman pants on. He wants to be Superman but he’s so pathetic, and lonely, and sad”.

With regards to the Superman logo, Marcus pays homage to the organisation, Fathers 4 Justice. The organisation campaign to change the law to ensure equal parenting, family law reform, and equal contact for divorced parents with children. Members of the group campaign by dressing up as comic book superheroes.

Besides Fathers 4 Justice, it also pays tribute to the hero himself, Superman, “Superman is a vulnerable guy too. During the night when he isn’t doing anything, Superman looks at himself in the mirror and hates himself too”. Marcus wants us to look beyond Superman’s altruistic nature and see that the strongest fictional character is also insecure too.

Superman with No Cape (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 61 x 46cm]

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Beyond our competitive nature, our relationship with sex and our relationship with our bodies, there are other aspects of our masculinity that we need to consider when developing a new form of masculinity. (But as the saying goes Rome was not built in a day). Conversations need to occur for progress to happen.

Moreover, we have already seen an array of artists who have inspired Marcus, but there are more; Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Franz West, Philip Guston and Paul McCarthy. “The way that I know I like an artist, is when I see the work, and I get jealous, and I want to make work, like straight away”.

With regards to Francis Bacon, Bacon was the reason why Marcus wanted to be an artist. “When I see Francis Bacon’s work, it makes me want to make work”. One of Marcus’ favourite pieces by Bacon is “The Black Triptychs”.

In terms of contemporary artists, one name that comes to Marcus’ mind is Mateusz Sarzynski, due to his art’s dark nature.

A dark nature also appears in Marcus’ work for instance Glass bottle (painted 2019) and Slightly Overcast with a Chance of Rain (painted 2019).

Glass Bottle is a piece that focuses on addiction. As Marcus states, “A lot of my work is about addiction. I’ve had problems with substances growing up.”. A way Marcus has overcome this is by exercise and he champions the use of exercise as a healthy output.

In this piece, we see a scrawny hand in the dark, grab a bottle which is labelled with “XXX”. In cartoons, XXX has always been synonymous with poison, this piece delves into such ideas. What we are witnessing is that moment when someone reaches into the darkness to grab something that offers a temporary fix. If we look at the hand, the use of the different shades of pink perfectly captures the nihilistic nature of the severe damage alcoholism has on an individual, this is also compounded by the black background. “It’s with any kind of addiction, it talks to you. This will f*ck you up but it will make you feel good for a couple of minutes.”

Marcus wants us to be aware of the struggles people with addiction have. In society, we see people unwilling to come forward with their addiction due to the stigma. Men and women as well do not want to be perceived as weak. But I think pieces such as this, that are so unapologetic are needed to cultivate a space that allows for these conversations to occur.

Glass Bottle (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 60 x 40cm]BF86F6F6-51FE-44A0-A224-33B8933ABF7C

In Slightly Overcast with A Chance of Rain, we see Marcus discuss the idea of conflict within a relationship. The piece, in my opinion, pays homage to Adam and Eve due to both figures being naked. We see the confrontation between two figures, a man and a woman. The two look into each other’s eyes. Their body language tells us that the two have a decision to make, do they break up? Or do they push through? This idea is further supported by the incomplete rainbow. What is also interesting is the man is wearing a balaclava and holding a gun, and I think both tools act as a symbol of toxic masculinity, that form of masculinity that can be so destructive. Marcus stated in our interview that he used this piece to highlight the support that women give to men, and how far they will go to support their other half. In the piece, the woman does not look bemused or frightened even though the man is wearing a balaclava and holding a gun.

Slightly Overcast with A Chance of Rain (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 20 x 30cm]image00004

When it comes to Marcus’ overall message, Marcus sees art as a record of modern-day and states the following, “If that means I was talking about masculinity then that’s what the time called for.”.

In terms of what to expect from Marcus this year, as of the release of this memoir, Marcus has an exhibition in Oxford. In May, he has an exhibition with Boys Don’t Cry which will take place in Central Saint Martin. Lastly, Marcus plans to have an all-girls show with Boys Don’t Cry in which their work will discuss their experience with men’s mental health.

My first encounter with Marcus was at an art exhibition in Willesden and immediately a friendship developed, I could sense that Marcus had a passion for art. Marcus stated in our interview, “I can be as anxious and wound up as I want. When I start painting, I stop thinking. I stop thinking about what’s going on in my head”. When I see his work I see that passion, and the story he wants to tell.

Marcus wants to tell his journey about being a man in modern-day society. Whether you feel comfortable or not, he does not paint for your comfort. He paints so you can empathise with the modern-day man and the struggles he faces.

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