February’s Featured Artist Interview is with James Aldridge, an artist consultant who provides training and creative eduction for and within schools, museums and other education settings. A CAS Associate Artist since 2017, James is passionate about environmental awareness, and cultivating creative responses to physical and social environments. Read on to find out more about how his work has evolved, and the ways in which relationships have been important for growing his practice. He was also asked what advice he’d like to pass on to other practicing artists, so you’ll find out why “being yourself” is regarded as of utmost importance.
“Being an artist to me is a way of living. My son says it’s not my job, because he sees me doing it all the time, and not just as a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 thing. To me it’s all about being curious, exploring, researching, scraping away the surface of life and coming to know yourself and the world as deeply and as fully as you can.”
– James Aldridge
How has your practice evolved over time, and what has been the main driver of that?
I wanted to build the skills and experience needed to be able to work with anyone, so that I could take my work to the next level, in terms of embedding it within society.
When I did my degree in the mid 90s I was keen to get out of the studio and make the ‘real world’ a part of my work. I wanted to draw from the materials that I found around me and to explore and shape them with my body. I wanted to strip my art back to the essentials and to learn from the processes of people that had come before me, whether traditional British crafts or the ritual objects of aboriginal societies.
When I left art college I started working in Museum and Gallery education, first as a volunteer at Kettles Yard in Cambridge, then running workshops at Wysing Arts and a range of others, plus schools, day-centres etc. I wanted to build the skills and experience needed to be able to work with anyone, so that I could take my work to the next level, in terms of embedding it within society.
Looking back now, my work hasn’t changed so much as deepened.
I know myself better, and I can see how my understanding and experience has developed, and so I can share that with others, and support them on their own journey. When you’re building your career as an artist it doesn’t feel like a straight line, doesn’t feel conscious, but you can look back and see how the decisions you made and the opportunities that you went for have all come together to build and inform your practice, and lead to where you are now.
The driver of that?
Curiosity I think – who am I?
Where do I belong?
And what value does my work have for the world?
What have you learned from your career as an artist that you would most like to pass on to other practicing artists?
There is no point in pretending to be anyone other than who you are.
Your art can provide a wonderful way to come to know yourself and explore your relationship with other people, places, communities and the more than human world, but only if that’s your real, authentic self.
It’s so tempting, especially as a younger artist, to do something your heart isn’t in, or to change your work to fit in with an opportunity, because a tutor or someone else in an influential position suggests to you that it’s the right thing to do.
Ultimately for me art is about being vulnerable, and that can be both wonderful and risky. You are saying ‘this is the real me’, you are opening yourself up and exposing yourself to change, but that change needs to be about becoming more fully you, not wearing a mask to fit in.
If others don’t like or respect your work then move on. It’s not always easy, but if you can build a like-minded and supportive community around you, then you can better deal with any feelings of rejection.
What has been one of your biggest personal challenges as an artist and how did you overcome it?
When we adopted our son I took 18 months off work and then went back part-time after that, and I found it very hard.
Although I’ve always valued the idea of art-making being an everyday thing, I suddenly couldn’t go to my studio alone, couldn’t go for a walk alone, and it felt like I was losing a big part of my identity, as well as gaining a new one as a parent. And then I started to make art from where I found myself. I took photographs of the toys that were ‘invading’ our house, of the shadows and shapes of the playground, and I bought a sketchbook for the kitchen and made drawings with leftovers.
Ultimately it’s benefitted my practice, and my understanding of the needs of parents in projects that I run, of the challenges of living a full and creative life when you’ve got someone else’s needs to consider as well as your own. It made me look even more closely at what I saw around me each day and to start to capture that.
What achievements as an artist have been the most rewarding or significant?
To me each residency, each collaboration is a milestone, and significant in themselves. I enjoy the challenge of responding to and learning from new places and people. Because my work is all about that relationship between people and place, I travel around quite a lot and enjoy the variety that brings.
Supporting the learning of others is important too. I make and explore by myself, share that insight with others and support them to do the same where they live, and now more and more I’m sharing my process with other artists and educators through continuing professional development, consultancy etc.
When I got to the stage in my career when people were ready to value my experience and the insight that brings, and willing to pay me, then I felt like I was getting somewhere. Obviously money isn’t everything, but as an artist you are investing in your practice all the time, so when your intellectual and emotional needs are satisfied, and you can earn a living too, that feels incredibly significant.
What does your process look like?
A big connected web!
Layers of exploring, noticing, collecting, making, reading, collaborating, and of sharing my experience with other artists and educators.
And within all that are moments of realisation that speak to me and let me know that I’m heading in the right direction. It’s hard to describe what that’s like, but I think we all instinctively know when something feels ‘right’, or when different areas of our practice connect and come together. I’ve experienced that feeling when I’ve taken some of the learning from my work with early-years practitioners and shared it with people working in organisational learning. I discovered a relationship between creative learning in a school, and artful knowing within the context of leadership and doctoral research.
I learn a lot from children, the children I work with and my own son. Children show us how playful and creative we can all be. I’ve worked as an artist in residence with the action research organisation 5x5x5=creativity since 2004, in schools and pre-schools. 5x5x5=creativity’s work is informed by the Reggio approach, where children are recognised as being inherently creative, and supported by adults to lead their own learning. Mark-making mixes with construction, role-play with bodily movement, and all the time the children are responding to their physical and social environment.
Children have the opportunity to engage with and learn from the world in a way that makes sense for them, and that’s the same kind of approach that I aim to give myself, and everyone that works with me.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m exploring different ways that art objects can evolve through interaction with their environment and the person that uses/wears/carries them.
In the past I’ve developed a portable interpretation that takes this a step further for organisations such as English Heritage, for instance the Stonehenge Explorer backpacks. These backpacks emerged when I worked with English Heritage and The National Trust at Stonehenge, on a project-by-project basis. For several years we used creative ways to consult with service families, primary and secondary children, in the lead up to the opening of the visitor centre. One of the projects was the Stonehenge Explorer Backpacks, so families with younger children could explore the wider Stonehenge landscape, supported by a bag full of resources (e.g. wooden blocks for construction, replica stone tools, and visual reconstructions of the interiors of the burial mounds or barrows).
Now I want to see where I can take that kind of approach in my individual work, and in future residencies. What is possible in a protected landscape visited by millions of people is obviously very different to what I as an individual artist can develop and experiment with. I’m looking forward to taking my existing approaches, the Walking Bundles and Walking Pages, and developing new ways of documenting experiences of place.
I’m also spending more time exploring urban environments, through a new Andover-based residency, and a collaborative project with fellow CAS artist Karen Wood called Urban Rural Exchange. That’s where my curiosity and my drive to explore and understand are taking me next – to find the natural within the man-made and the beauty in that. And I’m getting more specific about what my work is about and the environmental concerns that underpin it. The world needs us to develop new ways of seeing and being with it, and I believe that artful, embodied approaches are key to that.
What has had the biggest impact on your professional practice?
It’s the relationships that I have developed and maintained with other artists and arts organisations that have had the biggest impact on my professional practice. Once you find others who share your ethics and your area of research, you have found yourself a home for your practice. When you find people who you work well with, and you can feel that quite quickly I think, then you need to really nurture that relationship.
What has worked best for you when it comes to sharing and promoting your work, and why does that suit your personality and practice?
- Ongoing relationships with individuals and organisations. We support and advocate for each other, recommend each other for opportunities, share articles or exhibitions, because we know each other so well.
- Also writing, through my blog, it helps me process and make sense of the interconnected web that I mentioned before, to tease out little nuggets of learning, and offer them up to others.
- I’ve also deliberately put myself forward for things that scare me a little bit over the years, conference presentations for example or working as a visiting lecturer in a new subject area. I don’t get so anxious about it these days, but it didn’t come naturally to me at first.
- I think combining a range of different ways is best, making the most of those that come naturally and suit your personality, whilst trying something new.
What projects and exhibitions are you working on that people can come see?
- I’ll be starting a new residency in Andover very soon, I’ll be letting everyone know about that as soon as I can. In essence it’s about using art to share local people’s experiences of the town, past and future.
- My and Karen’s collaboration continues to develop and you can keep up with that on Instagram – @urbanruralexchange. Our exhibition is happening at Spitalfields Studios in London in November 2019 – again more details to follow.
- I’m also having one of my pieces of work included in the upcoming Dark Mountain book In the Age of Fire, which will be available from April 2019.