This morning I went on a walk with the artist Jonathan Mansfield. We began our walk at the All Saints Church car park in Enford. According to the book of the Pewsey Avon Trail, Enford means the ‘ford of the ducks’.
On the drive to Enford, Jonathan expained to me that his whole painting process starts in the car on the way there:
‘I’ve started. I’m choosing music to get me ready. I’m noticing the colours of the leaves, the lines in the field, the big bright sun. I can feel the sunshine in my hand. It (the track we are listening to) is the first one of the album and the one I like most – I like what this music does to me, I’ve got goosebumps.’
The track was ‘O vis aeternitatis‘ written and composed by Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegarde was a pretty amazing woman, and an inspiration for me in my time at art college, so here’s a little information on her before we carry on:
‘Hildegard of Bingen (also known as Hildegarde von Bingen, l. 1098-1179 CE) was a Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, and polymath proficient in philosophy, musical composition, herbology, medieval literature, cosmology, medicine, biology, theology, and natural history. She refused to be defined by the patriarchal hierarchy of the church and, although she abided by its strictures, pushed the established boundaries for women almost past their limits.’
Ancient History Encyclopaedia
Arriving at the church car park, Jonathan explained his feeling of connection to the music and what it does for him:
‘The song connects you to the past. It’s not necessarily about religion… when I look out of the window now I’m imagining that tree, but 600 years ago – trying to imagine living in that world.’
Stepping out of the car, we began our walk into the village of Enford and had our first glimpse of the River Avon. Jonathan described how he starts to settle into a place after being in the car:
‘This is where the mindful walking starts – just close your eyes and listen for a moment.’
As we closed our eyes and stood still in the low, warm, Autumn sunshine I could hear a flock of Rooks calling across the valley to the front of us, and road noise coming from behind. On openng our eyes Jon pointed out a Jay’s bouncing flight across the field, whilst a Red Kite flew high above us.
We carried on walking over a bridge and through the village, noticing references to the river although for much of the time it was hidden behind houses.
Walking along the road towards Coombe, the next village along the valley to the South, I remembered how in my previous walk with Nick we had discussed how limited access to the River is in Wiltshire, controlled by Fishing Clubs and private house owners. The Water Team work with both in their restoration wor,k which is brilliant, but it’s still frustrating that access is so limited for people like us.
At Coombe, we finally managed to access the river and found a space on the riverbank to sit and draw/paint. Jonathan gathered some water from the river to use in his painting and offered me paper, paints and various drawing materials.
It was a strange feeling to be giving control of my experience up, by being led in terms of the materials we were using and our starting point. It’s exactly what I wanted and what I had asked Jon to do, and it still felt strange after so many years of walking and making in ways that I have developed myself.
But an integral part of this research for me is learning from others, allowing their knowledge and practices to wash over me. To see how they fit with my own, and each others. As the walks continue I see myself noticing patterns of similarity and difference between the different perspectives that each individual brings to the same River Avon.
Jonathan poured water onto 3 new sheets of paper and began to make marks in response to the colours, shapes and movements around him. I followed his lead and did the same with one large and one smaller sheet of bright whte, empty paper. As he did, he talked about his interest in rivers as a gateway to another dimension, and wondered aloud how this river would have been seen by our distant ancestors.
Would they have travelled far to collect its water? Would they been swimming here? What significance would water have had for them as a way of seeing themselves reflected in a time before glass and mirrors?
I tried to work intuitively, to let the pace wash over me, but felt a little constrained by the edges of the paper. The feeling that I got from the river was one of continuous movement, a constant momentum of pushing, pressing and flowing. Always moving, never ending. I took my smaller piece of paper and tore it down the middle, joing them end to end, and reached down into the water to scrape some soft silt from the bottom, smearing it with wet fingers on top of the paint.
Jonathan would work on one piece and then the other, adding and changing. ‘I always work on three pieces at the same time, and then keep one…’
We heard the piping call of a Kingfisher and a Mute Swan went gliding by on the flowing water, so much a part of the river, leaving me feeling like an outsider, stuck on dry land, peering over into the water. One day I want to be in the river and under the water too.
Jonathan’s focus seemed to me to be on using his arts practice as a way of experiencing connection with the river both in the moment and with what might have been the experience of others in that same place in the past The connection he seeks is both a bodily and a spiritual one. He talked about the theory that water has a memory, and mentioned that science may not agree but that doesn’t matter to him, the possibility is enough.
‘In the Bible they tell you that people were brought down to the River Jordan to be baptised, but the trouble with the Bible is that a lot of its stories are based on a lot older stories, Jewish or Egyptian. Egyptians worshipped the River Nile as the life blood of their whole country. people (in different cultures) threw objects into rivers, into lakes, into ‘that other world’. That’s what interests me most (about rivers), this magical, mystical, elemental water that has all of this rich mystical history to it.’
As time went on, I tore my larger painting into strips too, and attached them together to echo the flow and shape of the river. Jon’s engagement with his painting seemed to have changed somehow, his level of concentration and his attitude towards it. In my work within learning we might say that he had reached a state of ‘flow’:
‘I’ve done the connection, the being here, the listening, the noticing. I’m at the point now where the painting has taken over, the painting has become ‘the thing’…. you have to work through the blockages (to get there).’
Before we packed up and started our walk back to the car, we talked about what Queer River is, and what my intention was in setting it up, and Jon told he about an experience of his from when he was a teenager:
‘One of my memories (of rivers) is swimming in the River Kennet in Marlborough with a friend of mine. We were in our pants, some people saw us and they started calling us Gay. We were two boys, we were in our pants, and so we were ‘Gay’…. I think it just makes you insular when the world laughs at you, tells you you’re a fake, or a weirdo, or somehow sick. Why would you tell someone that?’
As usual after one of these walks, I feel like I have so much to process, and yet don’t want to unpick the experience too much, at least not yet. I saw similarities in Jon’s interests, in terms of the river’s history and associated cultural practices, and the conversations that I had with Claire from Wessex Archaeology, and I also noticed the differences in their approach to exploring these, one very science based in the western sense of the word, the other coming from a place of imagination and intuition. I also noticed structures built into the river just as Nick had shown me on my last walk. As time goes by other connections will be made, and I’m letting these bubble up when the time is right.