Creative Writing students help to create conversations around masculinity with artist Oliver Bliss   

In celebration of International Men's Day, this Academic Blog investigates the Soft Lads creative writing workshops, attended by our Creative Writing students, which innovatively explore notions of masculinity and gender in response to artwork by Oliver Bliss.

Artist Oliver Bliss has been working on a fascinating and timely project producing complex, intricate embroidered tapestries which interrogate ideas of masculinity and social media gaze. The project was based around providing free creative writing workshops with Holly Winter-Hughes of The Word Association CIC, to generate writing exploring gender, identity and self-worth through the experience of viewing the tapestry art series which Bliss has titled #SoftLads.

For the past two years, Bliss has been creating the series of tapestries focusing on portraits of tattooed males to explore male identity. Part of the continuing project is creating dialogue through the public experience of the work to create a poem or piece of writing in response to the themes explored. Contributor’s pieces will be curated into a new anthology, which will be out in 2022, followed by a launch and evening of readings.


“I enjoy subverting binary narratives to explore gender, sexuality and identity in a queer context. I wanted this series of portraits to reflect something different about masculinity within each one. Each of the portraits have been based on profiles on Instagram as a means of capturing a selection of men who have face and or body tattoos. I'm interested in creating a series which reflect a rage of men from this smaller subculture.”

Oliver Bliss on the Soft Lads Project

University of Worcester Creative Writing students attended the workshops to bring their experience of writing in response to artwork from their course. Ekphrasis poems (from the Greek ‘description’) are vivid narratives inspired by a work of art where the poet uses text to amplify and expand the original objects meaning, and these type of poems are ones that have been practiced by the students through their poetry modules.

Lecturer Ruth Stacey was excited for her students to be part of the project, not only because her own research considers the relationship between text and image, but also to provide the students with the enriching experience of working with the actual artist, not just a flat image. “Oliver’s artwork is a gift for creative writers because of the complexity of his collaged images and the arresting, direct gazes of the men at the centre of the portraits. The works provoke reaction and generate different narratives around each specific detail. The resulting poems and prose fragments are rich with vivid imagery and story. Being able to ask questions through the different stages of the workshops, and provide their own thoughts to become part of the project allowed an organic process with dynamic results.”

Third year student Amber Horne said, “I believe that this series by Bliss gently interrogates the complexity of masculinity and its conceptions within society. During the workshops, we are asked to not only question our own perception of these heavily tattooed men but to question the complexity of our differing opinions. We explore fear, sexuality, gender, and even gentleness, through these pieces of work. Intricately made and compassionately composed, these tapestries are nothing short of heart-stopping.”

Reflecting on the participation of University of Worcester students Oliver Bliss said, "It's been a real privilege to work with the students at the University. Their enthusiasm, honesty and imagination has been really exciting to be a part of. The work that they have produced from the tapestries is exceptional and will make a rich anthology. 

They have individually provided a unique perspective. Some of the work raises questions and other evokes strong emotions. It's great that they have wanted to take part and share their voice. I am excited that some have come forward to perform for Shout! Festival and the Anthology launch next year.

It's a collaborative partnership which we are both gaining rewards from. I hope that they have gain greater confidence and that the process opens new opportunities for them in future."

Here is a fragment of a poem that Amber is working on after attending the workshops:

Lecturer Ruth Stacy and a Student stand in front of an artwork
Lecturer Ruth Stacey and student Amber Horne with Oliver Bliss’ artwork titled ‘Hard Core Vibes’


Sat at a sewing machine, you find men in thread and fabric, 

see skin and teeth and tattoos in the pull, snap, and softening 

of cotton and polyester. Something material in the way they  

are stitched together at the ligaments. Around their eyes 

you embellish their lives with careful intimacy. Hearts grow 

and skulls split and sea creatures climb from their weaved  

veins because there is something natural in the way they’re  

fashioned. Something organic in their flat, meshed, intricacy.  

Fellow third year creative writing student Will Hulme found the workshops inspired many poems. Here are two examples:

The Peacock’s Watering Hole

Do not be deceived, my smile is not my best feature.

I’m not here for music games, dancing and booze,

or laughing at strangers, mocking any poor creature.

Instead, let’s get out, vibe, split, or . You choose.

Rooftops and verandas, or low by the lake.

Of course it’s too late, don’t be mistaken.

The overload takes it out like a punch to the gut.

But I find the waters give more than they take.


Far deeper than we could hope,

no one really ever spends time by it,

I’ve always thought.

A mid shot of an artwork featuring a man drawn in coloured pencils
‘Pilgrim’ by Oliver Bliss


That man is not an island.

The earth has settled and shifted for as long as he knows.

With stumpy trees that reluctantly grow

in soil spread deep and caked and toiled

over mines and caves where trains tunnel and coil

underneath the Eyebags, past Noserings’ Quarter, 

over lakes of lips. Calling at the chest, terminating at laughter.


Now the trees grow taller,

in red and white earth.

Where the cities spread wider and the people cheer louder.

Through dates and wars and shifting borders.

Standing strong in flats and estates, past gates and fervellas.


Even they do not know the land in full.

Who conquered him before, what riches he stole.

What queens and kings have sat on his throne.

And although he homes crowds he is terribly alone.

For although not an island, he is surrounded by-

When winds tore the towns.

And quakes shook the ground.

The survivors fled, or withered without a sound.


But that is now history, and whilst he does not forget.

He chases the future, without a cloud of regret.



Third Year Student - Hannah Edgar


My skin is frayed, a dynamic tapestry, its   

Lips rest punctured with cool metal:  

Two rings that accent the red cushions underneath, mirroring your  

Blushing cheeks. They deem us  

Pilgrims, woven into our flesh the memories of voyage and transition.  

Ready to capture our next journey you    

Stand impatiently, threading the needle you keep close by. 


two tapastrys of tattooed men by Oly Bliss


Full reflections of each of the individual pieces Oliver has created are available on his blog

The blog goes into detail about the process of creating the work and symbols within each piece.



Oliver Bliss (He/Him) Artist-

Contact for further information regards the Art Works and Exhibition  

Available Tuesday and Wednesdays, or after 4:30pm on remaining weekdays.

07841924192 Twitter @olybliss Instagram @olybliss


Our Creative Writing Degree offers an opportunity to explore copywriting, editing, poetry, life writing and media writing, whilst being taught by award winning writers and guest speakers from industry. Our Academic Blog covers the Ekphrasis technique used to create the poems in these workshops, with an exercise you can try at home.

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