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Textiles – I loved these. They illustrated the complex nature of what it is to be a man in today’s society. They help you to empathise with the pressures to conform.

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The project perfectly captured the need for clear expression in boys and young men.  As someone who has seen the high cost of young people and adults not being able to do this, and for some this has resulted in suicide, I was anxious for the project to break down barriers and explore aspects of masculinity which may be entrenched in this part of the world with its past emphasis on heavy, industrial jobs that required a certain way of presenting to the world.

The exploration of the topic via speech and artefacts created the conditions for the pupils to fully explore their own views on masculinity and their responses to Polly showed that they were comfortable with her input and structure.

I feel that this is a topic that could be explored in a wider setting and that secondary schools across the region would benefit from it enormously.

The Woodlands School, Associate Head Teacher

The Men's Voices Project

Audiences of our play Make Do and Mend asked ‘why do men commit domestic abuse?’ and called for men’s side of the story. Inspired by this, research and development project Men’s Voices was created, bringing together emerging and experienced practitioners from varied disciplines to deliver creative arts workshops.

These workshops were undertaken with a diverse group of marginalised men and boys, gathering testimonies, exploring experiences and bringing them together in story-sharing, performance, creative writing and visual arts to explore contemporary narratives of masculinity. We aimed to empower men (and women) to question destructive norms and explore healthier patterns in their relationships with themselves and each other, using art as a platform to reach young men and boys at an identity-forming time.

The artists who facilitated the workshops – visual artists Rupert Philbrick and Polly Turner, and poet Chris Robinson –  went on to produce their own body of work responding to the theme and group sessions. Their work, together with artwork produced by men and boys from Deerbolt Young Offenders Institute,  Barnardo’s Domestic Violence Perpetrator programme, The Woodlands School and Men’s Cree groups in Eldon Lane and Stanley, was displayed in a public art exhibition in Empty Shop’s TESTT Space in Durham City, October 2017.

Public workshops were offered during the exhibition, together with a panel discussion – ‘A crisis in masculinity?’ – as part of Durham Book Festival’s 2017 programme, hosted by New Writing North in Durham University’s Palace Green Library. Here our collaboration with Ross Raisin, author of ‘A Natural’, was showcased. We co-commissioned Ross to write the piece ‘Manufacturing Men’ that featured in the Guardian.

Leading on from this, and following grants from the Arts Council, Northern Heartlands and Awards for All a revised version of the exhibition toured rural venues across South West County Durham in 2019 including; The Witham, Locomotion and Killhope.

During the Research and Development phase of the project, where we ran workshops for groups of male and female teenagers, we observed that the girls had low aspirations and were almost planning to become financially dependent on a male partner. They also demonstrated rigid attitudes towards gender norms, ridiculing boys who were sensitive or in touch with their emotions. We identified that we needed to challenge this damaging perspective and will be running new workshops with groups. We will also be adding another dimension to the project, whereby we’ll be expanding this question of masculinity out to consider gender norms more broadly, producing art work with groups of girls and young people who are lgbt+ as well as boys and renaming the final exhibition content 'Stepping Out of The Box'.

The idea is to reflect the notion that both 'masculinity' and 'femininity' are boxes that can hold boys and girls back in terms of health, well-being, aspirations, employment and feeling comfortable in their own skin.

Check out the exhibition catalogue and CD in our shop.