Collecting to Connect

On Twitter recently Kate Smith (@KateEYT) posted a photo of some collections that she had helped her son, who is autistic, put together. I was touched by the way that she valued and supported his way of experiencing the world, and it reminded me of my own childhood collections, and the way that collecting developed into an important part of my practice as an artist. It got me thinking about collecting as an artist, and as an autistic person, and seems an interesting thread to pursue as part of my Neuroqueer Ecologies research.

Screen capture of Kate’s tweet

So why do I collect? In the past I’ve shared images of collections that I’ve made, and had people comment that I might be encouraging others to cause damage to ecosystems, for example by gathering a few shells from the beach. I can understand why protected landscapes such as nature reserves ask people not to take pebbles or plant cuttings away with them, and the positive intention of the often used phrase ‘Take ony memories, leave only footprints’, to encourage people to leave a place as they found it. I am also aware that different people learn in different ways, and need different kinds of sensory experiences.

At the same time I know that my collecting serves an important purpose for me, and Kate’s son. I’m glad that the collecting of bird eggs is illegal, and that the Victorian practice of killing every rare bird in sight to stuff and put it in a museum is largely over. And I think we need to distinguish between a kind of collecting that strips a place of rare plants or birds eggs, and the gathering of a few small elements to draw or to learn, that can support our understanding of and connection with it.

If I’m working with a group, I’m very clear that we don’t pick anything that’s growing, unless for example there’s a load of it and we can gather one or two flowers without negatively impacting on an ecosystem. Similarly if I collect shells on a beach, I’m making sure that there’s nothing alive inside them, and that I’m taking a few select objects rather than a big bag full.

For me, collecting gives me a chance to look more closely, to take an object away so that I can spend more time with it. At home I can look at its details, feel its textures, and then share it with others. Small scale collecting documents an experience and keeps it with me in a lasting way, giving me more time with that place through the pieces that I’ve gathered together. My collections often end up travelling around with me, to my Noticing Nature sessions with older people for example, who may not be able to get out and about as easily, and who often won’t have handled a buzzard feather or a deer skull.

It’s often said that autistic people are limited in their attention, that we get ‘stuck’ on a subject or a way of engaging with the world. Dinah Murray came up with the idea of Monotropism to describe the singular attention that autistic people can apply to a subject. As with everything about autistic people, this is generally seen as a lack, a disordered inability to spread attention over a wider arrange of things.

I see my fascination with the natural world, and the time that I spend exploring its details as an incredible gift. I wouldn’t be me without it, and think that the world needs more of us to stop and focus on the details as well as the bigger picture. Especially when that bigger picture often seems based on an outdated idea from the past rather than an observed reality of where we are right now.

When I make Walking Bundles, Walking Pages, or document a walk using a jar, a bag, some photographs or drawings, I gather together the physical elements of a place, at the same time as I gather together and process sensory information. The artwork evolves in my hand and my awareness of the make-up of my environment evolves within me.

It’s no wonder that I have spent years working with museums and heritage organisations, galleries and environmental charities, using collections to help people learn about where they live and work, and the details that often go unnoticed.

Work in progress at Andover Museum – Residency with CAS Andover

So the research question that I’m holding lightly as I do this work now is, what if we valued what neurodivergent perspectives can offer the rest of the world (especially in relationship to ecology and the earth crisis)? What if we recognised for instance that the majority of people are so caught up in the busyness of moden life that they can miss the important details, the insects that are dsappearing from around us, vital to the ecosystems on which we all depend, the everyday beauty of the world that can lift our spirits, and help us to carry on in difficult times?

Collecting helps me to learn that the world is a network of interlinked parts. It keeps me feeling connected and grounded. I don’t miss the bigger picture, I just don’t make assumptions about it, but prefer to construct that bigger picture from the details that I discover.

Thank you to Leigh Chalmers, Heritage Inclusion Manager from Wessex Archaeology, for sharing Kate’s tweet with me and sparking all sorts of thoughts/ideas.

Published by James Aldridge

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

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