Q&A: The Art(ist) of Masculinity

I talk to Sam Leighton-Dore, an Australian visual artist and writer, about his fun, relatable, and thought-provoking body of work.

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In December, I published the 2020 Mannaul Report, a compilation of my favorite creative projects and people from 2020 that offered us some new way of thinking about masculinity. Many months before I even began that curation process, I knew, without a doubt, that Sam Leighton-Dore would be at the top of my list.

Sam is a visual artist and writer based on the Gold Coast of Australia. His art is wide-ranging — ceramics, illustration, mural, etc.; however, all his work teaches us something about the culture of being a man with a kind of hilarious whimsy that is absent from most stuffy critiques.

I’m honored to have had the opportunity to talk to him about his body of work. But, before we go any further, I strongly recommend that you follow him on Instagram. His posts are a cornucopia of color and delight. And, I assure you, they will offer you a little boost of positivity when they come swimming down your feed.

Without further ado, my interview with Sam Leighton-Dore.

A post shared by Samuel Leighton-Dore (@samleightondore)

Q: The book you published last year (How To Be A Big Strong Man) acts as sort of a centerpiece for your work in that many of your ideas about masculinity are embedded within. Can you tell me more about how/when you started playing with the construct of masculinity and how that project came to life?

A: In many ways, traditional masculinity has been a central antagonist in my life since I was a kid - it just took me a while to understand. When I first started school as a 5-year-old, I was bullied for having more 'effeminate' mannerisms and being highly sensitive, for crying openly, and those formative experiences of being 'othered' set into motion a long chain of reactionary behaviour. It's taken a lot of therapy and self-work to realise that I wasn't bullied for being defective - that I'm not defective. I was bullied because I didn't fit the boyhood blueprint, and the boys who bullied me suffered from the same conditioning - just in different ways. Starting to make creative work about masculinity, culminating in my book, was the externalisation of my journey to understanding the harm of toxic masculinity and the broader social context in which I was isolated and shamed. It was my way of shining light on a dark subject matter - with humour and heart. 

A post shared by Samuel Leighton-Dore (@samleightondore)

Q: You are a big proponent of men going to therapy. It's no secret that men at large still believe there's a stigma attached to it (it makes them look weak). Did you ever feel that way? If so, how did you overcome it, and how has therapy impacted your life?

A: I think because I was already such an outcast growing up, the stigma of going to therapy felt like a drop in the ocean. Socially, I didn't have much to lose, so I wasn't too worried about asking for help. School counsellors were always protective figures for me - their offices were safe spaces for me to unclench my jaw and be myself. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression super young, so part of that was seeing psychologists and psychiatrists and attending group therapy courses for young people. In the same way other people might grow up with a strong backdrop of community sports, I grew up with a backdrop of therapy. It was always there in some capacity and still is today. Quite simply, I think that everyone should be in therapy. Finding the right therapist, and being able to afford it, is another matter. 

A post shared by Samuel Leighton-Dore (@samleightondore)

Q: It seems like the "Sad Man" (sometimes called the "Crying Man") has become an iconic character that appears across all mediums of your work. Can you tell me more about the backstory behind the development of that character and what he represents to you today?

A: Sadness has been the gravitational centre to my creative work since I was a kid. Developing my 'Sad Man' motif as an adult has been my way of both honoring and subverting my experience with mental illness - turning something which might have once been seen as shameful into my literal logo. Also, because my aesthetic is quite simple and naive, I'm able to depict these really sad characters and ideas in ways that don't feel too intense or burdened. The 'Sad Man' character represents my journey to befriending the darkest parts of myself and making them less scary. 

A post shared by Samuel Leighton-Dore (@samleightondore)

Q: You often play with the construct of the physical award. This resonates with me big-time because I spent years chasing medals. Your work suggests that we should be rewarding other unseen qualities (e.g., vulnerability), but it also speaks to the nature of competition. When do you think competition is healthy versus what it's not?

A: It mightn't seem like it, but I've got a real competitive streak. It's something I grapple with a bit because my first experience being accepted as a young person was when I realised I was a fast runner and started making it to district and regional carnivals. My 'mental health medals' are my way of subverting my own need for recognition and reward, while also imagining a society in which we were celebrated for internal growth and vulnerability rather than external growth and physical strength. I'm still competitive, and I think being competitive is fine, but I try to actively celebrate the successes of others as a way of balancing that instinct out a bit. 

A post shared by Samuel Leighton-Dore (@samleightondore)

Q: You made some awesome alternate covers for two leading men's magazines, including one I write for. And while these publications are now beginning to entertain principles of a new masculinity, there's still a long way to go. What advice would you offer editors at these publications to help bring them up to date?

A: Hire me! But seriously, I think the most interesting interviews with men are those which touch on mental health. Because every man comes up against it at one point or another - stylish, successful, impressive men get depressed and struggle with addiction and spirituality and purpose. We're all feeling our way through the dark, so the more light we can shine on the innate struggles of being human, the clearer the path towards healing is for everyone. I think editors would be doing well to balance out their content by incorporating ideas and stories around mental wellbeing, psychological flexibility, mindfulness... things that challenge rather than reinforce our concepts of manhood. 

Q: Last year, you started experimenting with Instagram filters; What other ideas/mediums/concepts are you thinking about experimenting with when it comes to your art?

A: I'm currently working on a large-scale ceramic artwork which incorporates AR to connect members of the audience with strangers in a way which celebrates vulnerability. It's called Cloud-Drive. Basically, I've made hundreds of ceramic clouds which will be mounted on a wall, and when you view the clouds through the Cloud-Drive app, anonymous messages from the public drop down below. People have been submitting their thoughts and feelings via the website. It's shaping up to be pretty special.

Q: Please tell us about any other upcoming projects you'd like us to know about! 

A: I'm currently developing a slate of adult and family TV shows - a couple have been optioned for production, which is exciting. I want to bring my particular brand of heart and humour to TVs around the world. That's the dream. Last year I started my little company Sad Man Studios - so I'm doing a lot of work with a number of animators and writers. I'm also working on a couple of book ideas. There are always a few too many pots on the stove, but that keeps me moving, I love it. 

Don’t forget to follow Sam on Instagram!

Department of Links

  • 🥩 How Red Meat Became the Red Pill for the Alt-Right | The Nation

    • You may recall my article “Real Men Eat (Fake) Meat” from back in November. Well, this tirelessly researched and beautifully executed piece by Eamon Whalen tackles the same topics (and many more) in far greater depth. I highly recommend you check it out.

  • 😡 Chinese plan to boost ‘masculinity’ with PE classes sparks debate | Reuters

    • Apparently, the Chinese education ministry thinks that boys have become too wimpy and timid. So, it has concocted the idea to has said that it aims to boost their masculinity by forcing them to endure more gym class. WTF.

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