An Urban Rural Exchange

Urban Rural Exchange  is the name of a collaborative research project that I’ve recently begun with artist Karen Wood, based at Spitalfields Studios in East London.

Karen and I are both associate artists with Chapel Arts Studios in Andover, and ‘met’ online through the Block Chain residency where we were each paired with another artist, and gradually began to respond to each other’s work on Instagram.

Photograph of James, layered with an electrical tape drawing by Karen

Karen’s work, like mine, draws on the walks she takes around where she lives and works. Her arts practice includes the making of electrical tape drawings, paintings, prints, photographs and the writing of poems. Karen’s artwork draws from the architecture, road markings and other urban features.

Greatorex Street – Photograph Karen Wood
Urban Embodiment – Electrical Tape Drawing by Karen Wood

When I am out and about where I live in rural Wiltshire I make Walking Pages and Walking Bundles, and other work that records my experiences. People often ask if I do what I do in urban settings too. My response tends to be that I make my work wherever I am, but that living in a rural area, much of it draws on the materials and features that rural landscape.

Detail from Heavenly Body by James Aldridge
Durrington Still
Walking Back to Marden – film still by James Aldridge

When Karen and I decided to start working together, and to have an exhibition of that work at Spitalfields Studios in November 2019, we were exploring what to call the collaboration, and its associated Instagram feed.

Our work looks very different because of the places we live and the materials we use, but it also shares a lot, in that it is about noticing and responding to our surroundings. The main thing that sets us apart is the urban/rural split. Through Instagram (mine and Karen’s) we had started to explore that separation and I had started to layer some of our images together, playing with our different ways of seeing the world, and maybe ‘healing’ that split, because in my mind the divide doesn’t really exist.

Commercial Rd Walking Pages – by James

On the @UrbanRuralExchange Instagram feed, we post individual work, shared walks, collaborative pieces, and we ask each other questions too:

“Is a park urban or rural? Does it depend on whether the park is in a city? A town? A village? What about the sky above it? Do you get urban and rural sky?”

The Oxford Dictionary says the following:

Urban – In, relating to, or characteristic of a town or city.

Rural – In, relating to, or characteristic of the countryside rather than the town.


Our Commercial Rd Walking Pages side by side

As I wrote in Beyond The Binary, I’m always keen to use my work to bridge the gap between two halves of the same whole. I prioritise embodied, situated experiences that enable us to feel connected and see the connection that lies between/underneath all that is. I’ve always resisted being pigeon-holed. I love the space that living in a rural area gives me, but I’ve never liked the word ‘countryside’. It seems to be especially artificial in that its a word used to describe something that isn’t urban, in the same way that ‘nature’ is used to describe something that isn’t human.

Commercial Road Walking Bundle  by James

For me our collaboration is about taking these identities, that we, our work and our home environments have been given, and exploring them. Blurring the boundaries between them and by doing so deconstructing the labels.

I don’t know yet if that’s the same for Karen, as we are on the start of our journey together. But I know that I don’t make ‘rural’ work, I make work that explores my embodied experience of different places, which raises up everyday materials and experiences to say ‘Look at this, its special, magical, beautiful, and its all connected”.

Karen taking photographs along Commercial Rd

Our first walk last week, from Spitalfields Studios along the Commercial Road,  was great fun apart from anything else. Being an artist can be isolating at times, and now I’ve slowed down my socially engaged work a little, such collaboration feeds my need to walk and make with others.

It’s exciting and uplifting to be exploring alongside another artist, who finds bright red shop shutters, discarded blue packaging or a glowing yellow ginkgo leaf worth noticing or celebrating in some way.

Experiments with a Walking Bundle and found bodies

Next time, Karen is coming to my studio in (rural) Wiltshire, and we’ll be walking up through the woods to the top of Huish Hill. You can almost see the village where my studio is off in the distance.

James sitting on Huish Hill


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