Reinterpreting our Landscapes: The Art of Wild Swimming

I believe that in order to represent a landscape in an original way, one must look from a new perspective. For me, wild endurance swimming is a means to achieve this. It is an attempt to understand water as both a subject and a material for artwork.

In under 2 weeks my brothers and I will swim across the Corryvreckan, the 3rd largest whirlpool in the world. 2 weeks later we  begin the 90-mile swim of the River Eden, from source to mouth. These 2 swims are the inspirations behind my forthcoming series of artworks, and have both evolved from a wild swimming project that VARC supported and made possible.

Wild swimming encompasses all kinds of outdoor swimming, and is, by nature, a subtly subversive activity. We live in a world where more and more things are signposted, labeled, and officially interpreted. Diving into the water of a river, a lake or the sea is a way to reconnect with something that is wild and ancient. It becomes a way to personally reinterpret a landscape on your own terms, and to break free of the official version of things.

There are proven health benefits of wild swimming in cold water. It strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, burns fat, boosts the metabolism, releases endorphins, combats cellulite and improves fertility rates. Wild swimming has been known to alleviate the symptoms of depression, and Charles Darwin was a famous advocate of this. After suffering numerous bouts of ill health, during which he was unable to work and write, he took to outdoor swimming and cold-water treatments at Malvern Spa. He was reportedly so impressed by the effects, that he subsequently imported large volumes of water from their natural spring to his own home to fill his bath.

The positive physical and psychological effects of water on the human body can also be found in many different forms. In Damascus, Syria, 2009, I visited one of the earliest mental institutions in the world. The ancient building is structured around rooms situated in a square that border a central courtyard open to the sky. There is a large, simple fountain in the middle. A stream runs from the fountain in a stone channel carved into the ground, and flows through the floor of each individual room. The sound of the moving water was used as treatment for patients suffering from varying types of mental illness. According to records, treatment was often successful.

My own experience with the healing properties of water and wild swimming began in 2012. I swam the entire 7.5 mile length of Lake Ullswater in Cumbria. This took 6 hours, starting at Glenridding and ending at Pooley Bridge. I did this because I wanted to create a series of artwork that represented the Lake and the surrounding landscape, but in a deeper, more original and involved sense. As Roger Deakin said, ‘I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new.’

The journey through the water became both the structure and the inspiration for each artwork. I developed an abstract visual language of imagery and motifs based on ripples, reflections, shorelines, rock formations, fell tops, and the repetitive physical act of swimming and breathing. Natural flowing water was used to create the shapes and patterns that compose the artworks, and many of the canvases were also submerged in the lake itself in order to create these effects, helping to determine the outcome of the artwork.