Drawing the Parts Together

When we ‘know’ that the world is interconnected, that no one part can be detached from another, and yet our language and culture keeps telling us otherwise, what are the ways that we can create models of interbeing, reminders of the underlying reality?

Multiple Exposure Image using Drawing – 20/01/21

My artwork has tended to combine different materials and processes together to reveal the interconnectedness beneath the surface. Collage, layered sound and video, woven structures, multiple exposure photographs, all ways of taking the parts and bringing them back together again perceptually.

Multiple Exposure Image using Drawing – 20/01/21

Recently I’ve enjoyed using drawing as a simple way to connect elements of my life together that might otherwise seem separate. Bodies and rivers for example.

This morning (at breakfast time – this seems the best time for an uninterrupted period of making during lockdown, before the home schooling begins) I took some of these drawings on to the next stage, using multiple exposure photographs to layer them with the fleshy, hairy real-ness of my own body. There’s something ‘right’ and satisfying for me, when I can draw the parts together in a piece of artwork, and create something that speaks of the interconnected reality that sits beneath it all.

Multiple Exposure Image using Drawing – 20/01/21

Water Bodies – Inside and Out

I was at the hospital yesterday, after a trip to A&E on Sunday. It turns out I have a neat little row of four kidney stones stuck in my ureter. If this seems like a little too much information, bear with me, it is relevant.

Before leaving for hospital I was looking at the anatomy of kidneys and printing off scans/photos and artwork relating to them and their internal structure to add to my Queer River sketchbook. As binaries and boundaries separating gay from straight, land from water, and human from ‘Nature’ are there to be crossed and blurred by this research, so is the line that marks the separation between the inside and the outside of the (my) human body, and between each individual body and the wider planetary body on which we live.

Sketchbook Page at Breakast (inc images of artwork by Hey Paul Studio & Trisha Thompson Adams)

Later, while waiting in the Urology waiting room at the hospital, I received a text from my friend Bella telling me that it was the feast day for St Aelred of Rievaulx, patron saint of kidney stones. This all seemed very synchronous, so as the clinic was understandably busy, it being in the middle of a pandemic, and I had a bit of a wait, I did some more research on my phone.

Apparently St Aelred was a Cistercian monk, and Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in the 12th Century, with Rievaulx meaning something like ‘River Valley’. Some historians have described him as ‘homosexual’, others say that such a distinction was not relevant to concepts of sexuality of the time, and still more say that his writings on ‘spiritual friendship’ have been misinterpreted as homosexual desire. Whichever is true, he’s been adopted by several gay-friendly churches, particulary in the US, as their patron saint.

“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love…. the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”

St Aelred of Rievaulx

Kidney stones, rivers, spirituality and a Queer monk… for a trip to the hospital, my morning was proving pretty rich for my research.

I asked my consultant if I could take a copy of my scan, but apparently it’s not allowed. I can contact the hospital to ask for a cd-rom or similar, but I think the NHS have enough to think about at the moment, without me adding to their workload. So I don’t have image of my kidneys sadly, but am enjoying the beginning of a journey into the flowing streams, pools and rivers of the inside of my body, and am excited to explore this further with artist and researcher in the medical humanities, Catherine Lamont-Robinson.

In the meantime I’m waiting to see if the stones will unwedge themselves and emerge in the next few weeks (reminds me of the talk of dams, weirs and woody debris with Nick from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust), and if so whether I can manage to hang onto one and like my consultant suggested, have it tested to find out its mineral composition (which also reminds me of my conversation with Claire from Wessex Archaeology on chalk streams, flint, gravel and erosion).

I’m taking it easy work-wise right now, but did manage to get my DYCP grant application off to Arts Council England this morning, which if successful would enable me to develop this research into a year-long piece of dedicated research and development for me – keep everything crossed!

Beyond Rivers

As the Christmas holidays merge into lockdown here in the UK, I have started to return to making as a way of making-sense of where I am with this research. I’ve had a nagging feeling that sticking with ‘my’ River Avon is too restrictive, and another one tapping me on the shoulder to tell me that focusing on rivers themselves is too narrow. When you’ve spent time setting up a research project focused on rivers, these kinds of thoughts are unsettling.

So, first of all I gave myself permission to deviate from my original plan to stick with the Salisbury Avon, and to include the other Avon too (there’s several other Avons but in this case I mean the Bristol one). And secondly I turned to my Queer River sketchbook, to consider why I chose rivers and what they can teach me about connection and relationship in general. Here’s a page from that sketchbook:

Sketchbook Page

‘Queer River isn’t just about Rivers, the methodology and the learning are transferable – it will flow where it needs to. Multiple perspectives – beyond binaries, intersection/intersectionality on multiple levels, coalescing around my experiences – FLOW.’

And then on the next page – ‘I need to start making… making to release myself from the limits of QR and reintroduce play and wonder’.

So after a couple of weeks of rest and Christmas films, walks and chocolate, I started making and drawing again. It was still the school holidays so I squeezed the drawing in alongside breakfast this time. This is one of the drawings that emerged:

Breakfast Drawing

My son, who was eating his Cheerios at the time was interested in what my drawing was ‘of’ or ‘about’. Our conversation went something like this:

Joseph – Is it a tree?

Me – It looks a bit like a tree doesn’t it, but I was thinking about rivers.

Joseph – So the leaves are floating down the river?

Me – I was thinking about them being boats, but they could be leaves, And I was thinking about bodies, which is why I chose a colour that reminded me of people’s bodies.

Joseph – Are they sore? They look sore.

Me – I think they are soft and warm. Like the insides of bodies.

As well as reminding me of Gregory Bateson’s writing on The Pattern that Connects, this conversation helped to bring into the open for me something that is at the heart of Queer River, that it isn’t about connecting with rivers, but exploring the connection that already exists. Not inter-connection but intra-action. And that it can’t just be about rivers, whatever that word means, and the more I say or write it the stranger a word it seems to get, but about anything that arises during the walks with others, and anything that a river reminds me of. That’s the beauty of setting up your own project – it can flow and change with you as you go on your journey.

Playing with Bodies and Boats

So in case I’ve confused everyone, Queer River will still be directly informed by walks and exchanges that take place along rivers, will still look at river restoration, river cultures etc, will be closely linked to where I live in Wiltshire, and the two Avons that flow out from here, AND the research will flow out into other areas as it needs to, wherever that may be. For me that’s what Queerness is all about, the ability to both be embedded within something, and to see beyond it. To be in both and not restricted by either.

At this time of lockdowns, a fluidity of practice is very useful, and although this morning I’ve escaped to the computer for a while I’ll soon be drawn back to family life for the start of home-schooling. But for now I’m dipping into Nature’s Queer Performativity by Karen Barad:

‘What if Queerness were understood to reside not in the breech of nature/culture but in the very nature of spacetimemattering.’

In other words ( this is my take on Barad’s writing as it connects with my research) what if the Queer perspective was the real one (or at least the closer fit to the underlying reality), that by being casting out, in straddling boundaries and divides, in not belonging anywhere in particular you end up belonging everywhere, experiencing the reality of intra-action, of everything as entangled, with the visible, nameable parts (River for instance) emerging from and receding into the mesh of life:

‘Phenomena are entanglements of spacetimemattering, not in the colloquial sense of a connection or intertwining of individual entities, but rather in the technical sense of quantum ‘entanglements.

I’ll be back soon with updates on my ‘Walking with…’ series, once the situation with Covid is clearer. In the meantime, as Art.Earth Artist of the Month for January 2021 (see my interview here), I will be talking about my Queer River Research as part of their regular First Friday events, on Friday February 5th from 1-2.30pm. You can find more information on previous First Friday events here.

Walking with… Artist and Researcher Catherine Lamont-Robinson

Dr Catherine Lamont-Robinson is an Artist/Educator and a researcher in the Medical Humanities (see here for a taste of her work in the Catch Your Breath and Stories of Dementia projects). Catherine is also a good friend of mine who I have worked with a lot over the years on various participatory arts projects. Based in Salisbury, Catherine met me this morning for a rainy walk along the Avon. I had originally thought we could walk along the stretch that makes its way out of Salisbury to the South, but with heavy rain forecast we decided on a town centre location within reach of shelter and take away coffee!

As we walked along the river we talked about Catherine’s work in Arts and Health, working creatively to collaborate with medical students, patient groups and people affected by stroke, cancer and other conditions. Our conversation flowed as we walked, from the river beside us, to embodied experience, to how the Queer River research seeks to enable the coexistence of different perspectives on a single subject, blurring the boundary between disciplines.

This time `I had brought along some resources (cards, luggage tags, collectings bags etc) for us to share as we walked. But with the rain, we mainly focused on walking and talking, with some quick drawing and notetaking. Catherine shared her favourite places along the river and we each pointed out the details that we noticed.

My attention was called to structures that diverted and channelled the water as it passed through the city centre, the pure white Little Egrets fishing amongst the plantlife of the river margins, and yellowing leaves scattered across pavements. At times I stopped to collected leaves and other objects that caught my eye, and added them to a small bamboo boat that I had brought along with me.

Catherine shared some writing with me from Spiritual Compass by Satish Kumar and we discussed the research of Peter Reason, who is currently exploring pansychism and rivers and with whom I’m hoping to walk with in the New Year.

‘All the big problems of the world today are routed in the philosophy of separateness and dualism’

Satish Kumar

Thoughts on edges, boundaries and the abiity to live and work across them kept emerging, as we noticed branches reaching down to pierce the surface of the water, and discussed films that focus on the edgelands of estuaries and marshes, or spiritual traditions that draw from interspecies relationships (e.g. Jainism).

Catherine also raised the subject of pilgrimage in connection with Satish and Peter’s writing, which for some reason I hadn’t connected with Queer River, but am now keen to explore as an element of the project. We talked about the two-spirit tradition of some First Nation peoples in the US, and of water ceremonies carried out by figures such as Sharon Day, a Water Walker and friend of my collaborator the US based artist Kathy Mead Skerrit.

‘Two-Spirit, an umbrella term for non-binary definitions of gender and sexuality from Native American traditions, takes inspiration from terminology in the Ojibwe language for men who filled women’s roles in society, or women who took on men’s roles. Many of North America’s indigenous traditions include more than just male and female understandings of gender, but hundreds of years of forced assimilation stamped out many tribes’ customs and oral traditions.’

Two-Spirit: Meet the Native Americans Embracing Their LGBT+ tribe Members

The Nibi (Water) Walks are Indigenous-led, extended ceremonies to pray for the water. Every step is taken in prayer and gratitude for water, our life giving force. We walk for the water, and as we heal the water we heal all of life. We are not a protest. We are a prayer for the water.

Nibi Walk – Every Step is a Prayer

As with my walk with Jonathan, my time with Catherine, although we already know each other well, was a chance to dig deeper into each others’ practices. I realised through talking with her and asking her about her approach to working within a health context, that what she is doing within her work goes well beyond what I would have usually thought of as ‘Arts and Health’.

Catherine’s work often takes place within a medical context, working with people that we might describe as either patients or doctors. But her practice is about enabling people to use creative ways to access and share their full selves, beyond those labels/divisions. As she said today ‘I’m expected to think broadly (with medical students) about entering others’ worlds’.

These creative collaborations are about supporting connections to be made between doctor and patient, or parent and child. By listening to people’s stories, and providing them with artful ways to share them, she helps them, in her words, to ‘remove blocks to (ways of) seeing and being with others.’

This is my take on what Catherine does, I’m sure she would put it differently, but from my perspective it’s not all that different to what I do, and that’s probably why we get on so well. My work is about the interrelationship of human and non-human life, between people and places, and the ‘removal of blocks’ to interspecies understanding, resulting in the the realisation (as Kathy Skerrit would put it) of our indivisibility. With that comes benefits for health and wellbeing, and a realisation that human health depends on the health of the whole ecosystem.

I’m looking forward to more walking and talking with Catherine along the Salisbury Avon. One thing we both want to explore in more depth is Blue Health – the study of the health benefits of spending time by or in water. But for now I’ve lots of links to follow up.

To be alive is to be in perpetual metamorphosis. The borders of ourseves are porous – shaped and recomposed by elements of our environment. River water was once sea spray; next year it could flow in your neighbour’s blood. The water in your brain once fell as rain in ancient landscapes, and surged in long-gone oceans. From this perspective, the body is itself a flowing stream…

Gavin Francis, Shapeshifters

Below/Above

This week I bought myself a waterproof phone case and a small GoPro type camera, to start experimenting with filming at and below the river’s surface. The camera isn’t quite up and running yet (I’m waiting for the memory card to arrive) but I have been dangling my phone into the river off of bridges today, like crabbing off of a harbour wall on a seaside holiday,

It was exciting to lower the phone down into the water and steer it around water plants, moving from the silvered, reflective surface to the silty bottom, before lifting it out again and seeing what the phone and river had got up to. It reminded me of the feeling of using a camera trap for my film The Ash Looks Back, not knowing what I had recorded until a week had passed and I returned to collect the camera fom the tree where it had been set up.

I also took a couple of printed photographs along with me today, that I originally took in Salisbury during my walk with Claire Mellet as part of the Ebb and Flow project. I like the idea of bringing images from an urban stretch of the River Avon, back upstream to meet itself near where the river starts in the Vale of Pewsey, blurring the urban/rural divide (see Urban Rural Exchange).

As with my usual Walking Pages, these River Pages give me a chance to respond directly to my experience of the river, layering drawing, writing and rubbings with photographs and found materials. Noticing the shape of the river as it meanders through beds of dried iris, before hitting the metal siding and swerving under the bridge.

I’d like to see what results I get on a day when the river water is clearer, and when I can get down closer to the surface, to stop it swinging like a pendulum. That way I can have greater control over the camera and focus on really investigating the surface, that point at which the air seems to suddenly become water. I’ve also been looking into ways of attaching the GoPro to my dog so that I can get a feel for her perspective too.

Of course the whole above/below division is another divide that the Queer lens questions. Is the river only below? Is there actually a clear divide between air/sky and river/water? It is this partly this mystery of what lies beneath the water, a sense of it being a gateway or portal to another world, that has led to the development of ritual practices which focus on giving offerings to rivers and lakes, as mentioned in my last Walking with… post, featuring the artist Jonathan Mansfield. I’ll be returning to ths in more depth another time.

Next week, once the lockdown lifts, I will be returning to Salisbury to walk along the the stretch of the Avon on the Southern side of the city, with Artist/Educator and Medical Humanities Researcher Dr Catherine Lamont Robinson, during which we will be discussing (among other things) rivers and health.

Art, Borders and Beavers

I’ve been intersted in the reintroduction of locally/nationally extinct species for a long time, visiting Cranes in Somerset and the Great Bustards just a few miles away from me on Salisbury Plain. I’ve also recently completed a short film for Wessex Museums, supporting young people to respond to the stuffed Bustards at Salisbury Museum, as part of their Wildlife in the Red exhibition, which I’ll be able to share more widely in the New Year. When it comes to Beavers I don’t know an enormous amount, so am doing what I can to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, especially now that I’ve begun this research project.

Hand Reared Great Bustards (now living wild)

Over the last week I’ve made the most of two online events from the Beaver Trust, the premiere of their new film, Beavers Without Borders, filmed and produced by Nina Constable, and last night’s panel discussion on the future of the Beaver in the UK, which has been recorded and will be available to watch online in the next few days. So I thought I’d take a little time today to write about Beavers and their relevance to my research. as an artist working with rivers.

In 2018 I wrote a blog post about the relationship between my sense of identity as someone who grew up ‘gay’ and how my arts practice offers me a way of seeing ‘Beyond Binaries’:

‘It’s all about relationship and not about boundaries and barriers… Both the barriers we see and the ones that we don’t notice, but which still influence our perception. My collaged 2D pieces that I have been making for years… (blur) the boundaries to make the whole accessible, offering up a way of seeing that I glimpse through my practice and my Queer-ness.’

I Don’t Know – from The Ash Looks Back series by James Aldridge

Both my physical making and my work within communities is about relationship, exploring who we are and our role within ecological and social systems through artful, embodied and situated (place-based) approaches. In ‘Finding the Source’ I described how ‘The penny dropped and I smiled as I realised… that the source of my river wasn’t where the blue line ended, it was the hill that funneled the rainwater down, it was the clouds in the sky that fed the hill, and the flowers and butterflies that drank from that water.’

Essentially my whole arts practice is about being able to see beyond culturally inherited boundaries that divide human from nature, body from environment, water from land and us from other animals.

I don’t have all the answers, but I am feeling my way, asking for guidance from both the human and the more than human worlds. My work is becoming more collaborative, as I open up to connecting with and responding to other artists, writers, educators and animals’

The Distance Between Us – The Dark Mountain Project

Queer River is an extension of that, an experiment in gathering together different perspectives on a single subject. I want to allow those different perspectives to inform my understanding of what rivers need from us, now and in the future, whilst sharing my own learning with others through art and writing.

Detail from Walking Pages by James Aldridge

As mentioned in the introduction to this project, I’m drawing from the experiences of humans and non-humans to understand rivers better, and it seems key to me that one of those non-humans is the Beaver.

‘Beavers build series of dams that filter out pollutants, reduce flooding, store water in pools for times of drought, and attract a huge host of other wildlife. They also bring challenges – they will change our rivers and landscapes and this can disrupt existing land use.

….beavers are more than a single creature; they are a bringer of life. We tell the stories of farmers, fishers, nature-lovers, landowners, dog walkers and citizen scientists who live alongside beavers.’

Beaver Trust

River Avon passing through Salisbury

What I’m starting to see, is that Beavers are both valuable and challenging, because they disrupt our idea of how rivers should be, and the ways that we have tried to control them over the years. Straightened, canalised rivers may be convenient for us, maintaining that idea represented by the thin blue line on the map, satisfying our impulse to control and leaving us more land to farm or develop, but they offer comparitively little in terms of biodiversity, and pass the risk of flooding on downstream. Beavers on the other hand create diverse habitats for a range of other species by coppicing trees and damming streams or rivers. They blur the boundaries between land and water, slowing water flow to reduce flooding and alleviate drought.

In the work done by the Beavers I see real similarities with that of Nick and The Water Team at Wiltshire Wildife Trust, as they fell trees into the river to interrupt its flow, returning to the river its curves and meanders. The difference being of course that the restoration work by The Water Team is planned and agreed with local stakeholders, and involves relatively large amounts of money and machinery, whereas the Beavers respond to the landscape as they find it, without a map or plan, using their own bodies to re-engineer the river according to their needs.

River Avon near Pewsey

I’m looking forward to the day when I can see the impact of Beavers for myself, using my arts practice to document their effect on rivers and the wider landscape. As I understand it there’s no current plans to bring Beavers back to The Hampshire Avon or other rivers in Wiltshire, so I’ll be looking to visit another site farther afield. When I do I’ll let you know.

If you’re interested in the role of art in learning about and taking action on biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, you can watch a recording of a panel discussion I took part in as part of the Ash Tree Stream project, on Art in Environmental Education.

Walking with… Artist Jonathan Mansfield

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.’

Jonathan Driving Along the Edge of Salisbury Plain

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.’

Beautiful Big Old Sycamore

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.

Our First Sight of the River Avon

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.

Walking Along the Lane to Coombe

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.

Starting onto Fresh White Paper with River Water and Pencil

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…’

Working onto Three Pieces

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?’

Detail of James’s Artwork

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.

Jonathan Carrying Artwork and Dry Rushes Back to the Car

Walking with… The WWT Water Team

The second in my series of my Queer River walks and talks was with Nick Wilson, Project Officer at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Water Team.

Nick and I met up near Netheravon in Wiltshire and visited three different sites along the River Avon, steadily moving up the river towards Upavon. The 3 sites had been restored by The Water Team at different point in the past, from 3 weeks to 3 years ago, with corresponding levels of growth in vegetation and adaptation by the river. Nick described the aim of the work as being to undo the damage that had been done to the river previously, and to work with the river’s natural processes.

My conversation with Nick mainly consisted of his showing me the sites that had been restored, and of me asking him a lot of questions. The language and the techniques of river restoration fascinate me, and I can see that as this research project develops, the connections between the different ways of seeing and talking about the same river are going to develop in my mind and my artwork, into an excitingly entangled web.

My next walk willI be with Artist Jonathan Mansfield. Jonathan describes his work as follows:

My work focuses on colour, surface and pattern, and I like to represent the physical environment as energised by using lines and marks that show themselves to me during my ‘mindful walking’ and quiet meditation before I begin to paint... I grew up in Wiltshire surrounded by the undulating chalk downs, forests and wide open skies that make this county special. I have always felt it to be a mysterious place, where ancient ancestors appear to emerge from the hills, stones and trees to join me as I walk through the landscape.’

Jonathan also happens to be my husband, which is pretty handy as we are now in lockdown again, and some of the other partners/collaborators won’t be able to join me for a while.

I will come back to my experience with Nick as the project continues, but for now wanted to share some of the language and terminology that he used:

Hinge Cut – cutting a tree at the river’s edge part of the way through its trunk, so that it both lays in the water and is still attached to its roots.

Bed level raising – adding gravel to a river bed to raise it back up to were it would have been before dredging

Habitat enhancement (as opposed to Rewilding) – due to the small scale

Deflector – structure that sticks out in the river and deflects the current

Meander – returning meanders to a river by use of deflectors

We also discussed…

Rising water temperatures – due to climate breakdown

River fly sampling – measuring the health of a chalk stream by the level of/number of fly larvae living in it

Too wide, too deep, too slow – this is what the work is intended to counteract, a river that has been straightened, widened and dredged

Online and Offline ponds – ponds dug on the path of the river, or to the side but within the floodplain (see the third image).

Some of the animals we saw on our walks – Red Kites, Roe Deer, Mallards, Heron

Walking with… Wessex Archaeology

Throughout the Queer River research project I’m going to be taking a series of walks with others along the Hampshire Avon. The first of these took place a couple of weeks ago in Salisbury, as part of the Wessex Archaeology project Ebb and Flow.

This first walk was a wonderful way for me to begin Queer River, with the structure of the Ebb and Flow walk echoing the methodology that I have developed for Queer River walks. Namely that I will walk, talk and make with key people (human and non-human) along different stretches of the Hampshire Avon, as a form of exchange between my place-based practice and their own perceptions/experiences of the River.

For Ebb and Flow I walked with Geoarchaeologist Dr Claire Mellett, supported by Leigh Chalmers, Wessex Achaeology’s Heritage Inclusion Specialist, and filmed by Photographer and Videographer Tom Westhead.

I made Claire and myself a simple fold out sketchbook to map our experiences of our walk, whilst she shared with me her knowledge of how rivers and landscapes change over time. We began our walk at the Avon Valley Nature Reserve to the North East of Salisbury and walked through the city centre to the Harnham Water Meadows.

The Ebb and Flow project was developed by Leigh Chalmers as part of the Festival of Archaeology, whose theme this year is Climate and Environment. The film made by Tom to document our walk will be premiered on the Festival’s YouTube channel on Saturday 24th at 11.00am, with a live Q&A afterwards with Claire and myself.

We hope that the film will inspire people to get out and explore their own local river, and experience the benefit to their wellbeing.

I was also filmed suggesting some creative activities that viewers of the main film can try out. These short clips will be released one at a time during Half Term week.

I’m not going to go into more detail on the film and the content of my conversations with Claire, as I’d really love you to watch it and let us know what you think. But I did want to mention that it was a fascinating experience for me, in that I felt like our different perspectives on the river, coming as we do from different backgrounds and subject areas, were really complementary, especially in relationship to the subject of climate change.

If you watch the Ebb and Flow film and end up outside exploring your local river, please do share images with us on social media, using the #EbbAndFlow2020 hashtag.

Tomorrow I’m going to be visiting a stretch of the River Avon above Salisbury towards Figheldean, with Nick Wilson from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Water Team, to look together at some of the restoration work they’ve carried out there. I’ll be posting on here about that soon.

Introducing River

Before this all gets too confusing, I should say that this River is our new dog, named after we spent a holiday by/in the River Dart in Devon.

I wrote a post on my general blog in July, which shared how my dog Moshi had passed on after 16 years of being a much loved famiy pet and walking companion. I’ve missed having a canine collaborator and am looking forward to River being able to join me on my Queer River walks.

At the moment she’s only 10 weeks old, so we have 3 more weeks of her being carried rather than walking, but before long we will be exploring new stretches of the River Avon together.