I am a visual artist and this autumn I became a PhD student.  In this blog I share my initial experiences and gently encourage you to consider whether formal Research (with a big ‘R’) could take a bigger part in your life and practice. I’ll be covering the similarities between artist practice and research practice, the ‘elephant in the room’ that is funding, how I developed my research question and its potential benefits.

Research practice and artist practice are practically family

Research practice and artist practice are practically family. There are certain crossovers and shared characteristics such as, similar thinking processes, research determining the methodologies and, of course, practice-led PhDs where the artwork embodies the thesis.

There is a creativity in the thinking processes of research which may not be at first apparent. The thinking processes involved in making art have been likened to those involved in research, ‘higher level thinking demands connections, associations, linkages of conscious and unconscious elements, memory and emotion, past, present and future merging in the processes of making meaning’. (Sullivan 2009 cited in Kara 2015).

When making, I want to ensure that the materials and processes I use enhance the message of the work. Kara says that when choosing or creating your research method(s), that they must ‘flow from your research question, not the other way around’ (Kara 2015). Interestingly this implies there could be as many variations of methodologies as there are research questions!

And lastly, the artwork as thesis, and the reassurance that artists as researchers are not an anomaly, ‘there is increasing acceptance of the idea that artists can conduct research in the process of producing art, and that the resulting artwork can be a valid research output in itself by embodying and communicating the knowledge produced in its creation’ (Biggs 2009, cited in Kara 2015)

The ‘Elephant in the Room’ – funding

Let’s not leave the elephant in the room until the end. How can I afford to do this?

I have been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWWDTP). They give me a ‘stipend’ (in other words, a wage) and pay the fees. The SWWDTP is one of several in the country. These partnerships consist of a network of regional universities. Applicants to the programme apply for interdisciplinary research that will make the very best use of the resources at two universities in the consortium. The programme aims to fund a new generation of outward-looking and public-engaging researchers. The antithesis of the ivory tower. I can’t tell you what to apply for, but I would like to use this chance to introduce my research.

Research as ‘me’search

Research as ‘me’search acknowledges that we are often centrally located in our research, that our motivations are personal, even if the research itself is situated within a wider socio-political landscape.

One of the hardest things can be knowing what question you want to ask. My area came from my current focus, or so I thought. Looking back over the past 20 years of working variously as project coordinator, printmaking tutor and practising artist, I can see that both my passions as well as the current challenging times have come together to motivate my current research.

Let me briefly outline my research.

As an artist I want to be relevant to my communities and this has resulted in a career of outreach art projects and socio-political artwork. I am interested in ethics and in process. I want to know more about how artists work with people, and specifically, how we respond to, and work best with, people affected by trauma.

In my research I will be co-producing portraiture with women impacted by abuse and examining their experiences of the process. Traditionally the ‘sitter’ in portraiture has been passive – passive to the artist and to the viewer. How can I alter this so that the ‘sitter’ is assertive, both in the making and viewing? I am partnering with Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services and together we will be ensuring that this is a safe process, where our duty of care is paramount. Through my research I plan to outline what ‘trauma-informed’ working practice looks like and I will be keen to see where my research can benefit the participatory visual arts sector.

There is a shift happening in public health and frontline services to become ‘trauma-informed’. This means understanding people’s behaviour as a result of trauma they have suffered. I have come across little dialogue about trauma-informed practice in the visual arts sector specifically (it doesn’t mean it’s not happening at a local or regional level, but if it is, it’s not reverberating outwards) so I want to initiate more discussion about our duty of care to people affected by trauma and what best practice looks like. The ArtWorks Alliance blog last year from the Bartol Foundation raises some interesting thoughts.

Anticipating the benefits 

Doubtless this intense period of reading, thinking, writing and making will have many benefits. I can’t pinpoint them yet but the experience of becoming an expert in my own field of research will, I hope, lead to alternative employment opportunities. Doing a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean launching into academia, lecturing and the like, it might be starting a new business, or continuing with a more meaningful artist practice.

Wider benefits to my sector will include building a conversation about what it means to work in a trauma-informed way, to talk about the ethics of process, and to find out what’s already happening in best practice. All this leads to a further professionalisation of the sector underpinning our validity in wider society. In turn this brings funding for the opportunity for further participatory arts practice, which ultimately benefits the people in our communities.

Catherine Cartwright

AHRC funding via Doctoral Training Partnerships

Kara, H. (2015) Creative Research methods in the Social Sciences. A Practical Guide, Bristol, Policy Press.