Drawing on Water Exhibition – July/August 2023 at Pound Arts Centre, Wiltshire

James Aldridge - Art, Ecology and Learning

A bit of advanced notice that from 20th July to 26th August, my solo exhibition, Drawing on Water will be available to visit at The Pound Arts Centre in Corsham, Wiltshire.

The Exhibition

The exhibition will bring together work that I’ve been making as a result of the Queer River project, in particular pieces that draw on embodied ways of knowing my two local rivers, the Wiltshire Avons.

Please see the information below the poster for associated events.

This exhibition brings together work in a variety of media, created by James through his Queer River research project (visitwww.queerriver.com). Drawings, photographs and films reflect on the process of coming to know rivers and other wetlands, through collaborative, creative and embodied practices, to understand what they need from us, and what we can gain in return.

Associated Events

The exhibition preview of Drawing on Water will take…

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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.


Where the Avon Meets the Sea

Last week I drove down to Christchurch with my friend and colleague Leigh Chalmers from Wessex Archaeology, with whom I’ve been working on the Ripple Effect project in Salisbury. I’ve been planning on going and seeing where my river (the Salisbury or Hampshire Avon) meets the sea for ages, both to inform my Queer River work, and to start planning a visit for the Ripple Effect group later this year.

We spent some time by the rivers in Christchurch itself (where the Avon joins the Stour), visiting the Redhouse Museum near the harbour and filming some of the Mute Swans, and then moved on to Hengistbury Head and the visitor centre there, walking up to look around us and take in the bigger picture of the two rivers becoming one, flowing out past a spit of land and into the English Channel.

From Hengistbury Head we could see back down the estuary to Christchurch, across to The Needles on the Isle of Wight to the south east, and westwards along the coast to Bournemouth and Poole.

On a recent visit to the New Forest Heritage Centre Archive with the PaC (Practicing Artists Commoning) Artists’ Group, I’d spent some time looking at old maps of the local rivers and their relationship with the sea. One map that grabbed my attention was a sketch of how the rivers Avon, Stour and Solent might have looked back when the Isle of Wight was still a part of the mainland.

My time with Wessex Archaeology has helped inform my understanding of the processes that have shaped the River Avon over millions of years; its relationship with local people, the land and the sea. Research with PaC has helped fill in the gaps in my knowledge as the Avon moves down through Hampshire along the Western edge of the New Forest. My research into chalkstreams as part of Living by the Ash Tree Waters has sparked a fascination with the way that chalk, flint and other rocks were formed, and the interplay between geology and river systems.

The Heritage Centre helped provide us with so many different threads that we could take up and share with the Ripple Effect group, from the trade routes that linked the Iron Age port at Hengistbury with the Mediterranean, to the migratory bird and butterfly species that visit the area each year, the plants used in glass-making along with local sand, and the ironstones that led to quarrying in Victorian times and threatened the foundations of the Head.

I sometimes get a little self conscious about Queer River. I wonder if through working on a succession of river focused projects I’ll start to be seen as a bit of a one trick pony, but the subject of rivers is so vast, even when following the story of just one river, and the possibiities for journeys through place and time so rich, that I keep on exploring and learning.

On our walk around the Head, we stopped to play with small paper boats that I had made as part of the Well City Salisbury Earthworks 2 project, turning slowly in the breeze on dark woodland pools. Whilst at the beach I gathered a few finds (stone, metal and plastic) to add to a new boat that I’ve been building at home, woven from plants that grow in my garden (itself only half a mile or so from the beginnngs of the Avon).

I’ll be having an exhibition this Summer at Pound Arts Centre in Corsham, Wiltshire, drawing on my work with rivers, which will combine artwork made to document my Queer River journeys, with drawings and films made since, and other new pieces made specifically for the exhibition. I imagine that my woven boat and others like it wil be included in some way. I’ll add more details here as they’re confirmed.

Breathing in the Mist: Recent River Drawings

The drawing in progress in the featured image is one I made to reflect on the misty day that Gemma Gore and I experienced on our walk at Blashford Lakes, where the air was filled with fine water droplets, reflecting the light and filling the space above the water.

Breathing in the Mist (drawing in progress)

I’ve included some other recent drawings here too. One draws on the connections between my family (me, my husband and our son), the second continues to look at watery human-animal hybrids by combining eel and human bodies (see Mermen, Otters and Bears), and a third looks ahead to an exhibition I’ll be having in the Summer, in which I plan to include some sculptural pieces.

As before (see earlier posts Chalkstream Drawings and Drawing on Water) these drawings use botanical inks that I made in 2022, from plants that grow near my local stretch of the Salisbury Avon.

Walking with… Artist Gemma Gore

Yesterday I met with Visual Artist Gemma Gore from Southampton. Gemma and I visited the Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve, managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, near Ringwood, south of Salisbury and on the edge of the New Forest. The lakes are a legacy of sand and gravel extraction, which continues nearby, and the River Avon runs alongside them.

My view across Ivy Lake

Gemma and I are both members of PaC, a peer group for artists that meets once a month in the New Forest, so we’ve met and walked together before. I really wanted Gemma to be a part of Queer River so that we could explore the connections between our practices and watery places/bodies in more depth, including Gemma’s collaboration From Doggerland with Netherlands based artist Jo Willoughby, together with our thoughts on neurodivergent/autistic artists’ perspectives.

Gemma in a hide at Ivy Lake

‘Gemma’s practice tunes into the body’s pluralistic, sensuous ways of knowing to question the osmotic / inter-dependent nature of connection between multi-scalar bodies. What are the configurations and poetics of care? Informed by the dichotomy of how it looks / how it feels, and the murkiness in between, Gemma considers the capacities for intimacies, asking how can we continue to live together within the context of crisis on earth? Grounded in positions of disability, motherhood, queer-ecology and radical vulnerability. Gemma’s work both emerges within and creates acts of unknowingness, gesturing towards remembering ancestors.’


I’ve written a little on here before about neurodivergence, and the relationship between Queer and Autistic perspectives – see Neuroqueer and Art, Ecology & Autism – but it’s something I want to explore more, and was really pleased to have the chance to start to discuss it with Gemma on our walk. I’m sure it’s something that she and I will return to again in the future.

Before we visited Blashford Lakes I did a little digging online in terms of the ecology and culture of the local area. I’m really interested in post-industrial sites, and in the impacts of extractivist practices on ecosystems. I’ve worked at other wildlife sites before which were previously quarries – for example a residency for Outdoor Culture about 12 years ago at College Lake near Tring – where chalk was previously dug to create cement for the M1 and Heathrow Airport. Whilst there I researched the history of the site, and the migratory bird species that visit, including swallows and hobbies, and made artwork for a bird hide in response.

I’ve been thinking recently about deep time and rivers, through the Ripple Effect project I’ve been learning about how the River Avon might have been in Paleolithic times, and in my chalkstream research I’ve been reading up on chalk and flint formation. Put together with a fascination for flint tools and other archaeological finds, and an increasing interest in the geology of Wiltshire/Hampshire, a visit to a site with a history of flint gravel extraction by the side of the Avon was a perfect fit for the next Queer River walk.

Rather than try and capture the whole of my conversation with Gemma here, I’ve used a little description with some images and quotes to hint at our thinking. I have always found wetlands such a rich place to respond to, and felt very at home in the wet woodland, reed beds and pond edges of Blashford.

After parking my car in the car park we followed the gravel paths around the site, pausing at bird hides to eat chocolate hobnobs and share sources of inspiration, from talks by Astrida Neimanis, to the What is a River? illustrated book by Monika Vaicenavičiene. On our way we caught glimpses of a kingfisher through willow branches, looked at a blackboard list of recent bird sightings, and discussed the practicalities of living and working as an autistic artist.

Lastly we ended up in a large glass fronted hide which overlooks the biggest lake at Blashford, Ibsley Water. Inside we paused to write and draw with soil paint made by Gemma and some of my botanical inks, and then Gemma read from a piece of hers called A Cave (2011), from an earlier body of work focusing on underground/geology.

We could only see a little way across the lake because of the fog, and were joined by a few people who came and went in frustration, at not being able to spot birds through the white hazy water droplets. I enjoyed the thought that we were breathing in the water, and the effects that were created by the fog in terms of sound and vision, as Widgeon and Coots called out from the whiteness, and reflections rippled with the breeze.

So what has my time with Gemma given me? As I say, I’m not going to try and sum up all that we discussed in a neatly packaged conclusion, but it is helpful for me to write down some emerging thoughts.

I’m left thinking that my queerness and my neurodivergence can’t be separated, and they both provide me with opportunities to see and experience connections beyond human cultures and communities that I might not otherwise. I have a few new links and books to investigate (thanks Gemma) and after previously reading some of Astrida Neimanis’ work am now enjoying listening to some of her talks (thank you Astrida).

I enjoyed taking the inks, made with plants growing near my stretch of the Avon, down to meet their watery cousins further downstream, and watching Gemma using them to respond to the ripples on the water.

I find the media that Gemma uses, and the way she moves between them inspiring, and enjoyed sharing our fascinations for embodied experience, geological history and queer ecology. It’s also validating, as well as useful in a more practical way, to be able to talk about our needs as neurodivergent people, and how to ask for these to be met as self-employed artists.

And then there’s all the things that are half formed, felt and emerging, that will pop up when I’m next on a walk, or by some water, or reading something new. Things that can’t be forced, and are all the richer for allowing them to choose their own time to make themselves known.

Walking with rivers – with people, reeds, lakes and the fog – is about not being in control of what will show itself, what will offer itself up to be known, and that’s what I love about it most.

See here for a post from Gemma on our walk together.

For more information on/examples of art as a response to extractivist practices, see Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss

Taking a Spoon for a Walk

Today I took a wooden spoon for a walk, from my home in the Vale of Pewsey, down to the River Avon. The spoon had been used the day before in Salisbury, also by the River Avon, to make tea and coffee for Ripple Effect project participants, and I was keen that it should have a new life, forming the base of a new Walking Bundle.

In the Ripple Effect sessions with Wessex Archaeology, we’ve been talking about how the things that we use and then lose or throw away can become archaeological artefacts, and sometimes end up in museums, such as the Drainage Collection at Salisbury Museum (photos below), which we visited recently.

In my Queer River research I’m becoming increasingly interested in Geology and Prehistory, how the land has changed over time, and how this informs the way that we live with rivers.

Yesterday with the Ripple Effect group we met with two archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology, who talked about Paleolithic and Mesolithic archaeology, and how the Salisbury Avon might have been in the past. As part of the session we handled beautiful flint hand axes, which reminded me of my work at Stonehenge with English Heritage, and more recent research into the relationship between prehistoric sites (especially Neolithic) and rivers. We also talked about what we might learn from our ancestors, in order to live well with the river and be good ancestors ourselves.

So although my work on the Ripple Effect and Queer River, and my previous work on Living by the Ash Tree Waters (working with communities and chalkstreams in the Andover area) are all separate projects, they feed into and inform each other, and support my understanding of the relationship between rock (especially for me, chalk and flint), rivers and people.

Today’s walk with that coffee stained wooden spoon, was a chance for me to let all this sink in, and to revisit my own local stretch of the Avon, upstream from Salisbury, to walk, gather and bind together fragments of this riverscape with the recycled Salisbury spoon.

Next Friday I’m going to be taking my first Queer River walk, since September, when I walked along the Kennet and Avon Canal with Andy Marks. This time I’ll be walking and talking with Artist Gemma Gore, at a nature reserve that sits alongside the Avon, near Ringwood in Hampshire. Formed from flooded gravel pits, Blashford Lakes should offer us a chance to think some more about these themes, and the role of post-industrial wetland landscapes, as well as for me to learn more about the watery nature of Gemma’s own arts practice.

A post on my time with Gemma coming soon…

Water Body, River Body, Swimming, Sewage, Sea

Water Body
River Body
Water Body
River Body

This post and the drawings/photos in it reflect on my recent experience of digestive issues and hospital treatment, alongside increasing media coverage of the release of sewage into our rivers and seas, and my own river/sea swimming.

See this earlier post Water Bodies – Inside and Out for more artwork exploring bodily flows and river/human health, particularly focusing on kidneys.

Drawing on Water

I’m developing my drawings with inks made from plants found near the River Avon, to include drawing on the body. Part of the inspiration for this are sailor tattoos, together with Scrimshaw. (engraved images on bone/ivory, including whale teeth) I was also hoping to link in with canal folk art too, but I’ve not found anything I really connect with as yet.

I’ve been reading a bit about the significance behind different maritime tattoos, here’s a little taste from a site on American Sailor Tattoos:

Swallow: Each rendition originally symbolized 5,000 nautical miles underway

Pig and rooster: This combination—pig on top of the left foot, rooster on top of the right—was thought to prevent drowning. The superstition likely hearkens back to the age of sail, when livestock was carried onboard ship. If a ship was lost, pigs and roosters—in or on their crates—floated free.

Shellback turtle: Indicates that a Sailor has crossed the equator. “Crossing the line” is also indicated by a variety of other themes, such as fancifully rendered geo-coordinates, King Neptune, mermaids, etc.

Full-rigged ship: In commemoration of rounding Cape Horn (antiquated).

‘I love this little tattooing set as well (below left), not too disimilar from my jars of inks and boxes of scratchy dipping pens/pages used on recent Queer River and Ripple Effect walks.

Tattoo kit formerly belonging to Frank Osberry (Asberry) Rogers. Note wooden needles, ink, and “flash art” (motif samples). Rogers was born 22 January 1885, enlisted in Navy on 4 May 1901, and served until 21 January 1906 aboard USS Pensacola (receiving ship), USS Alert (steam launch), USS Independence (receiving ship), and USS Marblehead (Cruiser No. 11). After his service, Rogers worked as a boilermaker and steeplejack in Pueblo, Colorado. He died 16 January 1940. While in the Navy, he ran a side business tattooing fellow sailors, purportedly specializing in dragons and hearts. From the collection of Puget Sound Navy Museum; photo courtesy of Megan Churchwell.’

Naval History and Heritage Command

Here’s a couple of timelapse videos of my experiments on my own arms, the first using paper boat motifs, that have appeared in my Queer River work for some time, and the second with a drawing of a Roach, a freshwater fish which lives in the River Avon.

After walking with Andy Marks for our first (digital) walk, whales found their way into my drawings, alongside the eels of the River Avon. I also started to explore the place of gay men and queer encounters within the Whaling industry, but didn’t get very far, although this article on the queerness of Moby Dick by Philip Hoare popped up when researching this post.

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, who served in the US Navy in the 1840s, also wrote the following about sailor tattoos and tattooists:

Others [of my shipmates] excelled in tattooing, or pricking, as it is called in a man-of-war. Of these prickers, two had long been celebrated, in their way, as consummate masters of the art. Each had a small box full of tools and coloring matter; and they charged so high for their services, that at the end of the cruise they were supposed to have cleared upward of four hundred dollars. They would prick you to order a palm-tree, an anchor, a crucifix, a lady, a lion, an eagle, or any thing else you might want.

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War

The homoerotic nature of the image of half-naked sailors tattooing each other (towards the top of the post) isn’t lost on me as a queer man, nor is the place of the Mermaid in nautical tattoos (I’ve written about Mermen and other watery shapeshifters here – Mermen, Otters and Bears).

The sea monsters and half-understood marine animals included in the maps and drawings of early european explorers and naturalists really interest me too, and will all be feeding into my artwork somehow.

Hidden Histories: Walking the Kennet and Avon Canal with Andy Marks

A couple of weeks ago walked with Andy Marks, for the first time in real life after our digital Queer River walk. Andy was visiting Wiltshire from his base in Edinburgh, and this time we decided to move away from my local river (The Salisbury Avon), and walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal instead, at Devizes.

I’ve never felt the urge before to walk along a canal as part of Queer River, I’ve prioritised rivers and other wetlands, less obviously connected to industry and human transportation. But our previous walk had sparked an interest in the hidden or less known histories of waterways (including whaling and the Water of Leith), and once I started researching our local canal, my interest was piqued.

The Kennet and Avon Canal

The Kennet and Avon Canal is a waterway in southern England with an overall length of 87 miles (140 km),[1] made up of two lengths of navigable river linked by a canal. The name is used to refer to the entire length of the navigation rather than solely to the central canal section. From Bristol to Bath the waterway follows the natural course of the River Avon before the canal links it to the River Kennet at Newbury, and from there to Reading on the River Thames.

The Kennet and Avon Canal – Wikipedia

I’ve spent time with both the the River Kennet and the Bristol Avon as part of my Queer River research, and I walk along the stretches of the canal that are local to me, with my dog or my family. Like others I use the canal for leisure purposes, but I’ve never been that interested in its history. Industrial heritage has never really been my thing, the history of railways and canals has always felt like the preserve of the straight male enthusiast, and so seemingly not for me.

Map of the Kennet and Avon Canal (in red), connecting the Bristol Avon to the Rivers Kennet and Thames

My research into the Clyde however, during the Queer River, Wet Land project in Glasgow, was very much about its industrial heritage, and residencies I’ve carried out at nature reserves in the past, such as College Lake near Tring, have sought to explore the interconnected threads of ecology and industry (the site was previously a large chalk quarry used in the creation of the M1 and Heathrow). So, before Andy came down to Wiltshire, I started to look into when the canal was constructed, the kind of freight that it carried, etc.

‘In the late 1780’s canal mania swept Britain, and on 16th April 1788 a meeting of interested parties at the town of Hungerford, under the chairmanship of Charles Dundas the MP for Berkshire, concluded that a junction between the Kennet and Avon rivers would be of material benefit. As a consequence the then named Western Canal Project was born…

For thirty years traffic on the canal grew and grew, with annual receipts between 1824 and 1839 for example in excess of £42,000…. However as soon as the Great Western Railway started operating from London to Bristol in 1841, the competition started affecting canal trade. Ironically much of the canal company’s profit in the late 1830’s, came from transporting those self same materials that were used to build the railway.

As a consequence of railway nationalisation in 1948, the K&A came under the management of the Railway Executive and later under the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive (DIWE)However from the early 1950’s the DIWE effected a number of closures for repairs, and this made trading more and more difficult. …in 1955 the Transport Commission went to Parliament to close the canal.’

Kennet and Avon Canal Trust

Caen Hill Locks before restoration (c1950) – The Canal and River Trust

The canal was eventually restored by enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is used by people holidaying on boats, walking, cycling and fishing. It has changed from what was effectively an industrial highway, connecting Bristol to London and avoiding a sea route by ship (which was more vulnerable to attack and piracy), to somewhere people go to exercise and relax.

Connections to Slavery

While researching info to send to Andy ahead of our walk, I started to uncover snippets of information about the relationship between the canal and the transatlantic slave trade. Bristol played a key role in the trade and processing of goods from Carribean and North American slave plantations, and the canal provided a route to transport some of these, including tobacco, to London.

‘The hub of Britain’s trade with America was to be found in the slave-plantation colonies of the West Indies and the southern mainland, whose sugar, rum, coffee, tobacco, and rice made up 80 per cent of England’s American imports by 1775… in the eighteenth century, Bristol was an important processing centre for tobacco imported from plantations… The opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810 allowed a faster route for tobacco between Bristol and London.’

Jodie Matthews, Canals and Transatlantic Slavery

After learning about UK canals’ wider relationship to slavery, I shifted my focus to Devizes in the same time period, and found out about George Watson-Taylor.

George Watson-Taylor, (1771 – 6 Jun 1841), of Saul’s River, Jamaica, was the fourth son of George Watson. From 1810 he was the husband of Anna Susana Taylor, the daughter of Jamaican planter Sir John Taylor Suffixing his name with that of his wife’s family, he would become the richest planter on Jamaica. He used the proceeds to purchase a house on Cavendish Square, Middlesex and Erlestoke Park, near Devizes, Wiltshire, becoming the Liberal MP for Devizes, an ardent campaigner for the retention of slavery, and a renowned fine art collector..’

‘Study for Patrons and Lovers of Art’ by Pieter Christoffel Wonder
(George Watson-Taylor – left)

Although I’ve found no direct links between Watson-Taylor and the canal, he was MP of Devizes in an era when the trade that the canal brought to the town would have contributed to its prosperity, alongside local industries such as textiles manufacturing and brewing . He benefiited hugely from the slave trade, and actively campaigned against its abolition. He owned an estate nearby at Erlestoke Park, where I’ve walked through the woods and along the side of a lake, that was created from a dammed stream as part of his landscaped parkland.

He was a well-known patron of the arts and a published poet, a rich and influential man with roles in government, who also hosted royalty at his Wiltshire estate. A prime example of how individuals could benefit both financially and in terms of social status, though their involvement in the slave trade, his lavish spending eventually saw him fall into debt (owing the equivalent of £38 million in today’s money). After initially leaving Wiltshire for Holland, he died in Andy’s part of the world, Edinburgh, in 1841.

Mr. Watson Taylor was surrounded by a degree of splendour, which it has been well said, might have excited the envy of royalty itself, his mind was scarcely for a moment at ease – he appeared to have an insatiable thirst for something he did not possess … He could not for a moment have thought of the money he was expending…

Devizes Gazette, 1832

Printed research to share with Andy
Queerness and Colonialism

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with Queer perspectives, it might be useful to have a read of my earlier post ‘Why Queer?‘. Looking at a canal, river or other watery environment from a Queer perspective isn’t just about my sexuality or gender orientation, it’s also about allowing different voices and histories to be seen and heard, whether that’s those of my collaborators, or others whose lives are innextricably linked with that place’s history.

I’m not black, and I’m not a historian, but that doesn’t mean that the slave trade shoudn’t be an important thread in my research, as I come to know the K&A in new ways.

To most, the word queer is inextricably tied to notions of sexuality that stray from (or oppose) heteronormativity. However, queerness in many realms of black liberation theory is rather equated with otherness. For example, disability may be considered a form of queerness as it strays from normative views of a “good” body. Since blackness has historically existed in the margins of American society, it essentially becomes synonymous with queerness from a theoretical standpoint.

Dr. Sophie Bjork-James, Assistant Prof of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University

The relationship between colonialism and queerness is a rich and complex subject. I’ve written before about climate justice and the impact of homophobic attitudes/laws in countries such as Jamaica on the lives of LGBTQ+ people. These attitudes, in the Caribbean at least, may stem partly from the sexual abuse of enslaved black men, sometimes called Buck-Breaking, the rape of male slaves by white ‘masters’.

A new perspective on the Quakers Meeting House, venue for my and my husband’s adoption preparation course.

One last key factor in choosing the focus of this research was my son’s Jamaican heritage. I want to do all I can to understand the experiences of his ancestors, including how their enslavement contributed to the wealth and cultural heritage of our local area, and how it informs our experiences of living here now, as a queer, multi-racial family.

Our Walk

On the day of our walk together, I collected Andy from where he was staying. We parked at Devizes Wharf, to start a walk that would see us following the canal towpath out from the centre of Devizes, and downhill past the the Caen Hill locks, ‘one of the longest continuous flight of locks in the country – a total of 29 locks with a rise of 237 feet over 2 miles‘ (The Canal and River Trust).

I brought with me print outs of some of the documents and webpages that I had used for my research, together with crayons to make rubbings onto them, pens/pencils to write and draw with, and small sample pots for anything that we wanted to collect. After our distanced, digital walk, I wanted for us to be able to respond to and record the physicality of the canal infastructure, incuding the cast iron, wood and brick, layered over printed passages on the canal’s colonial links.

Andy’s Reflections

Having walked together(ish) digitally along the Water of Leith and the River Avon a few weeks before, encountering James face-to-face in Devizes felt like meeting an old pen-pal in the flesh. We were both taken aback by each other’s height and remarked upon how strange and reaffirming it was to encounter one another as physical entities and not just avatars floating on a screen.

We set about walking and chatted about the histories of the buildings along the canal at Devizes. We’d both read the Canal & River Trust’s ‘Canals & Transatlantic Slavery’ report, so this was a springboard for our initial conversations. Having spoken about the challenging legacies of whaling in the context of Leith and the murkiness of tracing the material production of contemporary digital technological devices, a canal seemed like a challenge to further lean into the cultural geographies of the UK’s contemporary waterscapes and to examine some of the hidden channels that connected our river journey to the lives and histories (human and non-human) of those who constructed the canal, and those for who the canal was constructed.

James kindly brought along some arts materials and sampling bottles for us to experiment with the materiality of our shared queer river walk and to see how creative practices could reaffirm or ease the tensions we found when trying to mesh together our digital walks. The challenges of representational methods of creative practices continued to make me feel as uneasy as they had a few weeks earlier.

I really struggled with trying to translate our conversations, which were darting and spreading minute by minute, along with the breeze, the water, the boats, the smells, the sounds, the passers-by, and the sheer depth of the histories that were cemented into the stonework, and which continued to channel the waters and their supported ecologies from lock to lock. We took rubbings and other mimetic transfers of our surroundings: the rain on the paper, a Devizes bramble smudged over a text reciting histories of slavery and canal industry, and a doodle copying the movement of a cracked paving slab on top of a portrait of a renowned canal industrialist.

We chatted in between my failed attempts and discussed the idea of capital, colonialism, commons and trespass. We considered what queer trespass looks like and how trespassing in spaces, like queer transgression, can feel relative to each person. We spoke about queerness and our shared feeling that our sensitivities towards the more-than-human composes a defining feature of our queer identities. We discussed queer parenting, river justice, climate justice, eco-anxiety, Black Lives Matter, and trying to reconcile the landscapes of colonialism and climate breakdown. We talked about changing identities – from online to in situ – and the commodification of community-building.

And before I knew it, we’d hugged goodbye and I was on a train from Pewsey (having accidentally nabbed James’ stationery – sorry again!). I returned home and stared at the notes that I’d made on our walk of interesting things that James had said and held on to his scavenger methodology – “I gather and later on, hopefully it’ll all make sense” and “offer up your paper to the flies”. I looked at what I’d gathered and instead of wanting to stitch them nicely into something quaintly retrospective, I wanted to continue with our playful experiment with joining our river walks and to take them to the non-human.

Andy under the road

I took some paper with the rubbings I’d collected from Devizes – some water-stained from the Devizes rain and others coloured with Devizes bramble-juice – and placed them in the three sample containers that James had shared. I walked to Leith and drew up some water for each sample, including a Leith bramble, a reed and a leaf. Like little worlds, these sample tubes bring together the material traces of different lives and histories and mesh these in watery ways – the brambles running into each other and James’ words suspended in the Leith water, resting beside a Leith reed.

In a somewhat queer way, I enjoy that the sampled materials will continue to change past recognition as the materials breakdown within the tubes. They also feel like a souvenir of a moving experiment in relating with James and with the waterscapes. However, like canals and digital technologies, I’m now considering the plastic tubes, their production, and the murky obfuscations that continue to lurk in the background of these Leith/Devizes/Andy/James samples. I take a picture to send to James.

Andy’s samples screenshot
What Next for Queer River? (back to James)

My time with Andy has been so rich, and our conversations so open, that I’ve been left with multiple questions about my practice (in a very good way). I’m also grateful to Andy for his kindness and generosity in coming to Wiltshire to walk with me.

A few days after we walked along the canal, Andy also interviewed me online for his own research. I find being interviewed about my practice a really useful process, as it helps me to stop, and to reflect in a different way.

Here’s a few questions that I’ve chosen to spend some more time with…

  • How else might I explore the relationship between the embodied experience of a watery landscape and the digital media which I use to record and share that experience with others?
  • What aspects of our contemporary communication systems are hidden to me now, just as some of the history of the canal system was – the extraction of metals for phones and computers for example – or the energy use of internet servers/clouds (I hardly know what language to use to describe them, it’s something I take so much for granted, and yet understand so little).
  • And the one that has struck me most personally, is Queer River a means of queer community building? Am I, as I heard myself telling Andy in the interview, building a community one walk at a time?

Queerness and colonialism is a subject that I’ll be returning to in future posts. I’d be grateful for recommendations of reading/viewing of relevant content by black authors/makers in the comments. Thank you.

Chalkstream Drawings, from Wiltshire to Norfolk

I was on holiday in North Norfolk last week with my family. While there I learned about the Red Chalk visible in the cliffs at Hunstanton, and the River Hun, a short chalkstream of only 6km that runs from Hunstanton to enter the sea at Holme, just along the coast.

Walking from Hunstanton, past Old Hunstanton towards Holme, I started to notice channels of fresh water cutting through the sand dunes as the Hun made its way along behind them and opened out into The Wash. Spending a few hours exploring the beach and swimming in the sea with my son and dog, I gathered together a few finds from the high tideline, including a massive old mussel shell and a holey whelk shell, to take home to Wiltshire.

Once home I decided to draw/paint them using the ink I’ve been making from plant material that I’ve collected near my own chalkstream, the Salisbury Avon (near its headwaters in the Vale of Pewsey). Having made Dock Seed, Ragwort Flower and Black Walnut ink recently, I collected acorns with my husband on our first walk back in Wiltshire, and used them to make a new dark grey ink, together with some rust from an old trough.

I enjoyed the sense of bringing the two chalkstreams together, through my noticing and my drawing, physical acts that reminded me of a map of chalkstreams in the UK shared by Tim Sykes, which shows a band of chalk spreading upwards from the South West to East Anglia and above (map included at end of post).

You can see another recent Queer River drawing made using homemade inks, in my previous post Walking with… Researcher Andy Marks.

Thanks to Tim Sykes for this map