Different Parts of the Same Whole

It’s school Easter Holidays here, and I’ve been balancing starting a new project (www.noticing-nature.com) and joining the occasional meeting, with helping our boy venture out of lockdown to meet friends and be more sociable again. I also dug myself a pond, which I have been extremely excited about planting and filling, and waiting for a community of pond-life to establish itself.

River relaxing by the pond

I asked our son Joseph if he’d like to join me for a river walk last week, and what he’d like to do on the walk; to collect, draw, write, make etc. He replied that he liked the river plants best and he’d like to draw those. So we created a fold out sketch book each, packed drinks and snacks, mark-making materials and a blanket, and drove to a nearby stretch of the Salisbury Avon, where you can get right down near the river and walk along its banks.

Making our Walking Pages

One of the first things Joseph noticed was the cracks in the dried out soil about which he said “It’s the crackly skin“. We talked about the soil as the skin of the earth, and how to me they also looked like the tributaries of a river or the branches of a tree. Our conversation took me back to my very first walk, with Claire from Wessex Archaeology with whom I discussed dendritic (tree like) patterns in and around rivers, the repeating patterns of branching connectivity that we saw in trees, bushes, river mud and on the surface of flints at the river’s edges.

Cracked earth

As Joseph and I continued to walk, we used dandelions to make yellow marks on pages, blended felt-tip colours to record our impressions of the meandering river, and noticed the shapes that trees made on the water through their reflections. We sat and watched ewes lick their freshly born lambs clean, changing from yellow and red to white, and Joseph began to gather sticks. He’s a big fan of sticks and the possibilities that they offer for becoming other things.

While we sat and watched the lambs and ate our snacks, I asked Joseph a few questions, about rivers and what he thought or felt about them. Here’s a little of what he told me:

“I like the meandering bits and the parts that you can get right down to and have a paddle… I like feeling the water on my feet and its just very relaxing. It makes me feel happy, especially if it’s a hot day. I like the feeling of it being next to me.

Drews Pond is my favourite memory of a river – is it a river? – because Archie (a good friend of Joseph’s) fell into it (the stream) and that was very funny. I want to do some pooh sticks now, I want to find out how far they go.”

Focusing on the reflections after playing Pooh Sticks

Alongside my adventures with Joseph, a new piece of work has started to feed into my Queer River research. I’m collaborating with Dr Steve Marshall and Dr Katherine Semler, faculty on the Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change (EDOC) at Ashridge College, to inform a workshop I’ve been asked to run for current students. In the workshop I’ll be sharing the role that art and making plays within my research, focusing on Queer River and its multi-layered, collaborative nature.

As Steve, Katherine and I have met over the weeks to share our individual research interests, and find the places where our separate inquiries connect to form a shared inquiry, it’s caused me to explore the relationship between the different elements of Queer River more deeply, so that I can better articulate them. Because Queer River is all about collaboration, connection, exchange and ‘becoming with’ others, as I share the process, draw and talk about it, and hear about Steve and Katherine’s methods and practices in return, rather than just talking about it as a separate piece of research, our dialogue becomes a part of Queer River itself.

Back on my walk with Joseph, I felt him start to lose interest in making marks on paper, drawn as he was to playing with his sticks. It makes complete sense, every walk we go on he picks up and uses sticks. Perhaps if I’d planned it differently it could have been me joining him in a riverside exploration of sticks rather than him joining me in using Walking Pages. So I tried to blend the two. As he collected sticks to float and race on the river, I collected sticks to make rubbings, and pierced the paper with them, weaving them into the fabric of my page.

Stick rubbings and weaving

I asked Joseph what he liked about sticks so much and he replied, “It’s like free lightsabers and pistols, everytime I go out I think about different things I want to use them for”. Next time, I told him, I’ll leave the paper at home and we can spend more time exploring with sticks.

In the drawings that I’ve created recently, to make sense of the different relationships and subjects within Queer River, I’ve used imagery of the flowing river itself, with boats to represent individual people, and the same dendritic patterns that Joseph noticed, to connect them.

In our first conversation as part of the Ashridge work, Katherine asked me how I chose the people I walk, talk and make with. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since. In many ways it’s an intuitive process, if I’m interested in their work and it connects in some way with rivers then it’s likely to be a good fit.

If I know and respect them and their work and know that they in turn will be interested in exchanging thoughts and ideas with me, then that’s a good fit too. As I become more aware of the connections within my work then I also become more aware of where I want to go next, and who might be an appropriate collaborator on that journey. And that’s where the title of this post comes in, together we are different elements of the same whole, our different paths interweaving and flowing together, and through dialogue with each other, we can catch a glimpse of that larger whole.

Queer River drawing using Alder Cone Ink

It matters less that I know exactly what each exchange will look like. I don’t want to overplan it, I have a methodology in place and I can trust that. I process what our exchange means for my research, by documenting it in the moment, and then reflecting on it later through writing and drawing.

As the research develops and I share it more widely, more people are getting in touch with whom it resonates, and who are carrying out their own related research, to propose walking and talking together, so sometimes it’s more about them choosing me, or choosing to become involved themselves.

One last rubbing on the way back to the car

I’ve three more walks planned for the next few weeks, as well as the Ashridge College Workshop. I’ll also be exhibiting/presenting at the Yarmouth Springs Eternal exhibition and conference at the end of May/beginning of June. In addition I’m waiting to hear about a DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) funding application, that I should get the response to from Arts Council England over the next couple of weeks, and which would make a huge difference to this project if I’m successful.

My first walk takes place next week and is a remote walk. It’s something I’ve been looking to develop for a while. I can’t always meet to walk with people in person, because of geographical limitations or Covid, so I’ve been keen to develop ways of walking with people when I’m by my river and they are by theirs. I’ll be walking with the artist Jacqueline Campbell who is based in Suffolk, and who has been using her arts practice to engage with her own local chalk stream. Jacquie, who I met through Instagram, will be walking and making along the River Lark near Bury St Edmunds, while I walk along my stretch of the Avon, and we will agree a shared focus or questions as a framework for our walk before we go.

My second walk will take place at the beginning of May, in the marshes close to the River Thames to the East of London, and I will be walking with the Botanist and Mycologist Dr Mark Spencer. I contacted Mark after hearing him talk about his work on this episode of The Life Scientific on Radio 4. His work includes a focus on invasive species, urban botany and forensic botany.

Thirdly I will be walking in the Salisbury area later in May with the Art Psychotherapist and Doctoral Researcher Eugene Hughes. Eugene got in touch via Twitter. His research asks the question ‘How does being alone with nature influence a sense of self?‘ Eugene will interview me, and we will discuss his research so far, as we walk.

As with each of the previous walks with project partners/collaborators, I will be documenting them and writing a blog post here, to reflect on and share what we discover together.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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