Boys Don’t Cry is an art collective centring discussions around male mental health, founded by partner duo Marcus and Brooke and comprising of around 30 multidisciplinary artists from across the UK. I sat down with Marcus to discuss the collective, how he relates to mental health within his own practice and the impact of the pandemic on the community he co-founded. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, one in a series of talks with different creatives, as we discuss the role of mental health within our creative disciplines.
Orlanda: I’m interested in your choice to isolate the collective for male mental health specifically. My route into learning about mental health came from losing my dad to suicide when I was younger and experiencing the stigmatisation around bipolar and suicide as I processed that loss, even before experiencing my own mental illness first hand later on. Why do you feel it's important to hold specific space for male mental health? And within that is there a discussion around the intersectionality that can still exist within that group: race, class, ableism being some examples?
Marcus: I’m sorry for your loss. And yes, I agree there is definitely still stigmatisation around these issues, however I do think there has been some good work done in the last few years to normalise mental health issues generally; I’m seeing more and more charities raising awareness and much more focus in the media. The main reason why we decided to focus specifically on male artists to work with is exactly because the rate of suicides was, and is still, so tragically high in the male demographic. Throughout my life I have struggled with my own mental health, but one of the things that always carried me through was having art as a creative outlet; it allowed me to express my feelings and create a positive identity for myself. Of course many artists we work with suffer with their mental health, but we have also found that having men speaking to men is such an effective way of breaking down traditional masculine constructs that society has put in place - such as the age old expression, ‘boys don’t cry’. Since starting the collective Brooke and I have always tried to create as much of a diverse conversation around masculinity as we can, and as a result the artists we work with come from many different backgrounds and areas of the UK, from London, to Dublin, to Glasgow.
Orlanda: Amazing to have such a varied collective and to be able to include people from all over the UK too. Has that been easier to do during lockdown?
Image Growing Pains (Diptych), acrylic and pastel on canvas, each canvas 160 x 120cm, 2021
Marcus: We have actually had to stop working with new artists for the time being, mainly because we don't want to risk being spread too thin and not be able to give each person the professional and personal support they need. When we first started out we would often go to degree shows and exhibitions to find people to work with, but most of the new artists in the collective have approached us directly through instagram, I guess that’s one of the positives of social media.
Orlanda: I hear that - sustainable growth - it's important to set boundaries as someone holding the space and contributing as an artist within it too, it’s just good mental health isn’t it. I feel like we have definitely been speaking about mental health more since the pandemic, but that’s been offset by a rise in the coverage of racial brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the conversations around race closer to home here in the UK (the government having just gaslit the entire country in it’s recent race report being just one example). You spoke about the diversity within the collective, have you addressed the mental health effects of this as a group?
Marcus: That was a very difficult time for all of us as it was during the first lockdown here in the UK and Brooke and I were looking after our vulnerable family members, as were much of the collective. I had some really positive and educational conversations with those who were affected by George Floyd’s murder, but since then both Brooke and I have made a real effort to create digital social events and meet ups so we can all stay better connected with each other and discuss how we have been affected by any current events.
Orlanda: Setting up that regular check in can seem like a small thing but really does have quite profound consequences. It is hard to create that camaraderie and community online though, I know I’ve got a lot more frustrated at being on my phone lately, being limited to communicating only through Zooms or FaceTime. A lot of my closest friends, and family too, live in different parts of the country or in totally different continents and I find it really hard to keep in regular contact. I feel less present when I'm constantly on the phone or Zooms - definitely craving IRL hangouts. On the flip though I know some folks who prefer it, as their time is a lot more structured and their own to control. How have you found it?
Marcus: I agree completely. Personally I find it quite weird. There is just something missing when you talk over these digital platforms; I find it bums me out more and more because I really crave that real life contact. With regards to the collective, it’s been difficult because I think there is naturally a sense of disconnection when you talk to people over Zoom. When we have done these digital meet-ups they are great at keeping everyone connected on a surface level, but it’s hard to really chat to people about anything they are struggling with because when one person talks everyone else has to stop talking and listen; the whole thing becomes a bit of a stage with an audience so I can understand why some people find it quite anxiety inducing.
Orlanda: Mmm that’s a really good point. As the collective has grown I suppose even when we open back up it will be harder to meet as a group, with everyone scattered across the UK. I guess we have flagged the issues with how this is done already, but as a group of men how have you responded to, again, another wave of conversations coming from someone’s murder after the death of Sarah Everard. Although I want to be careful here not to center men when discussing sexual violence, I think the work you are doing is an integral part of the change we so desperately need. Whilst recognising male privilege for what it is we can see that it’s not truly benefitting the male psyche, the suicide statistics tell us this much. Challenging toxic masculinity whilst focusing on mental health and processing trauma in a healthy way is beginning to break that cycle and invite more men to do the same and feel less alone.
Marcus: I agree with you, it's hard to find a balance between confronting these issues within the demographic whilst also creating an atmosphere where men can feel supported. I think, as a society, the main way we tackle both is through education and open discussion. I would like to think this is our main ethos in running the collective; through the conversations generated by each artist we aim to demonstrate a different, and perhaps more positive representation of masculinity that can challenge the status quo and ultimately help prevent tragedies like the murder of Sarah Everard from happening.
Orlanda: I couldn’t agree more. I’d also like to talk a bit about your own art as well and your experience of being an artist in this collective not just as a co-founder. How has it felt creating work with the support of the collective? Have you felt your work change?
Marcus: I have found it has taken a much more subject focused approach. My work has always been very personal in discussing past experiences and traumas in my life, but since starting Boys Don't Cry I have definitely started to discuss masculinity on a much more direct level, and the internal struggles that can come with being a man in today’s world. Being one of the artists in the collective I find is so beneficial for my practice because there is a constant dialogue with other artists looking at similar issues. It's a melting pot of ideas and I think all of our work has matured as a result.
Orlanda: Is there one painting that you really love or that stands out and has a story?
Marcus: I do have some favourites, but this changes constantly. My recent paintings have been the most exciting to do because I’ve started to expand the colour scheme and compositions much more than before. These changes have allowed me to create much more complex emotional landscapes and take the paintings into uncharted territory. I've made a few recently called “Boyhood to Manhood” that have been exploring the difficulties of entering manhood and the societal pressures that come with this. Using myself as an example, I grew up doing a lot of contact sports and boxing; I had a low sense of self esteem so I quickly became obsessed with these activities because I felt like they validated my sense of masculinity. As a result of taking too much head trauma I have now sustained lifelong eye injuries that have forced me to spend less and less time in the gym. This is just one example of the cycle of self-destructiveness that comes with the desire to prove yourself as a man, and this is an important inspiration behind my work. Of course they are all deeply personal but they discuss wider issues within the male community. Men and boys deal with these feelings on a daily basis and I think it is a big reason why there are so many issues within this demographic currently.
Images Left Boyhood to Manhood I, acrylic and pastel on canvas, 140 x 140 cm, 2021, Right Boyhood to Manhood II, acrylic and pastel on canvas, 140 x 140 cm, 2021
Orlanda: You mentioned you have struggled with your own mental health, what has that looked like through your life, if you are comfortable sharing?
Marcus: Well I’ve always struggled with anxiety, and depression, but of course I didn't really understand what these things were until a few years ago when the term 'mental health' actually became a well - known term. Without going into too much detail, these issues had forced me into many dangerous situations and led me down the wrong path several times as a teenager. I'm from a provincial town outside London where talking about how you felt was just not the thing to do as a young man - everything was about proving yourself. I just feel really grateful that I managed to leave that environment and form supportive and positive relationships since moving to London. Some of my old friends weren’t so lucky.
Orlanda: Thank you for sharing that and I’m grateful that you have been able to take that growth and healing out and extend it to so many others too. So maybe my last question then; how has being an artist in Boys Don’t Cry affected or changed your relationship to your own mental health?
Marcus: It has been a very emotional journey with lots of ups and downs, but I do feel like I’ve learnt a lot about myself. Since starting the project I’ve been to therapy for the first time in my life, and I’ve become much more understanding and compassionate for how I’m feeling. Most importantly, I’ve learnt that I’m not alone in the stuff I deal with.
To check out all the brilliant artists in the collective and to keep up to date with Boys Don’t Cry UK follow @boysdontcry_uk on Instagram and follow Marcus’ personal account @marcus___nelson.
Text: Orlanda James
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