Swan People

I decided to call this post Swan Folk, after researching the relationship of people and swans in art and folklore of various kinds. Then I realised there’s already a book called Swanfolk which I think I’m going to have to read (and which I’m pretty sure someone on Twitter recommended to me a while back). So, here’s Swan People, with a taste of what I’ve been learning about and making in the last month or so.

Screenshot from short film (work in progress)

One of the reasons I’ve been researching swans is that I’ve been making a short film for my upcoming exhibition at Pound Arts in Corsham this Summer, which combines imagery of chalk, water, my own body and swans as a response to my experience of my local chalkstream, the River Avon.

My exhibition Drawing on Water will run from 20th July to 26th August and consist of video, photographs, drawings and objects that have emerged out of my Queer River Research. Not so much actual documentation of walks, although there will be an element of that, but artwork that I’ve made afterwards as I reflect on my experiences.

Screenshot from a short film (work in progress)

Why have I become so interested in swans? I’ve always felt a connection with water birds, and felt the power of birds that are all white or all black too. White swans, black corvids, tall almost human-like cranes and storks, walking through rushy swamps and wild places, stalking the edges and the boundaries. When I was a child and my Dad lived in Gloucestershire, I’d nag him to take us to Slimbridge, to watch wild birds from hides and gather pink feathers from the captive flocks of flamingos, whilst on holiday I’d be on the lookout for ducks or geese to feed.

When I was young I also saw a film about a boy who made friends with a pelican (Storm Boy, 1976 – I’ve not watched the 2019 remake yet), and a documentary about a Chinese man who reared orphaned Siberian Cranes and danced with them. I’ve always been drawn to stories where the line between the human and the bird blurs (or mammal in the case of Grizzly Adams, another childhood favourite).

Some of my favourite childhood photos are of me with animals that I’ve befriended (I reared orphaned pigeons, cared for various injured birds, and kept caterpillars and stick insects alongside what was effectively my own natural history museum).

So for this new film I’ve been spending time with the Mute Swans that live on the Avon, experimenting with filming them underwater, and layering footage of them with the whiteness of local chalk, and their bodies with my body.

Bjork laying an egg at the Oscars (www.foreignpolicyyi.org)

Thank you to everyone who rsponded to my request for examples of swan people. My research has unearthed photos of ballerina Anna Pavlova with her pet swan Jack, Bjork in her swan dress laying eggs on the Oscars red carpet, and stories of various (mainly female) shape shifting (therianthropic) swan people. These include the Brothers Grimm tale The 6 Swans, Irish fable The Children of Lir, the classical stories of Leda and the Swan and Cyncus (son of Poseidon who turned into a swan after death and was sometimes said to have ‘womanly’ white hair and skin), Old Norse poem Volundarkvida and some queer retellings of older stories.

My film(s) for the Drawing on the Water exhibition (#DrawingOnWater2023) are very much works in progress, and I’d encourage you to get the dates in your diary and come along in the Summer if you can, but for now here’s a clip of some of my underwater footage, along with the couple of screenshots that I’ve included in the post above.


Published by James Aldridge

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

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