Being an A-R-T-I-S-T: Challenges and Opportunities of Connecting

Art, Research, Transformation, Imagery & StoryTelling



Girija Kaimal, EdD, MA

Department of Creative Arts Therapies

Drexel University



Arts based research enables me to bring together my identities as an artist, a researcher, an educator, life story teller, and, immigrant from India to the United States. In this paper, I present my experiences with creating an artistic representation of immigrant narratives focusing specifically on a controversial visa to the United States called the H1B. The artwork was created in response to a call from the Smithsonian Asian and Pacific American Center’s first community exhibition on Indian American heritage.  I used a mixed methods approach bringing together narrative methods with arts based approaches, namely, researching, storytelling and artmaking. Integrating the methods was a challenge as I struggled to find alignment between artistic representation and narrative storytelling. A potential bridge was the active evocation of imagery in the narratives that then helped build a bridge to the elements of the final artwork. The artwork was shared in a group exhibition in a gallery and will be part of a future online site in the hope of sparking broader social awareness and transformative thinking. The responses to the artwork and narratives at the exhibition added a new level of dialogue and exchange that was beyond the scope of each methodological approach alone. The experience posed several questions on the intersection of arts-based research with other paradigms. Challenges identified included the bridging data and analytic strategies in different methods. Identified opportunities include having an expanded audience, transformative means of access, generating awareness about previously unknown issues and extended engagement. 



This paper presents the process and reflections related to an artmaking project on Indian American History. The focus was on a specific aspect of the experience of being in the United States on a professional work visa called the H1B visa (pronounced H-one-B or H-one for short). The project began in response to a call for artwork from the Smithsonian Asian and Pacific American Center’s exhibition on Indian American heritage. The exhibition which began in 2014 is the first to organize and showcase the history of an Asian American community (  The purpose of the call for art was to showcase and highlight the unique issues of the H1B visa in a visual medium. The call for art ( indicated that the Indian American Heritage Project was looking for artists to create works that used the visual of the H1-B visa as a motif or inspiration to comment upon the experience of the temporary and tenuous immigration status for Indian immigrants in the United States.  The call was open ended and encouraged applicants to address themes such as migration, transnational identity, diaspora, economy, outsourcing and the role and reach of technology.

Historical context: South Asian immigration to the United states has been occurring for centuries however major waves of immigrants came to the United States after 1965 with the passage of Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act. This law allowed the immigration of high skilled professionals (doctors, engineers, scientists etc.) to make up for the shortage of workers in the professions in the United States (Kelkar, 2011-2012).

The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa to the United States that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. A large proportion of H1B visas are allotted to technical and highly skilled workers from India (Sivakumar, 2004). The H1B visas typically allow high-skilled and/ or highly educated experts to come to America for jobs where workers are in short supply. The specific duties associated with the visa are considered to be so specialized and complex that the knowledge required to perform the work is usually associated with the attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree ( The visas are usually granted for 1 to 6 six years. The visas are considered temporary high skilled worker non-immigrant visas although it is also acceptable to apply for immigrant status while on this visa. The visas were established in the1990s when a shortage of skilled workers was identified by the U.S. Congress as a need for the nascent computer industry. The visas tend to mainly be in the sciences and technology but H1B visas can be issued for other professional fields as well.

Immigrants make important economic contributions to the U.S. economy. For example, half of the Silicon Valley startups had an immigrant founder or co-founder (West 2010). There are however several unresolved issues in U.S. immigration policy and much of the focus has been on the problems of undocumented immigrants (West 2010). There have also been several controversies surrounding this H1B visas. Information technology companies regularly complain about worker shortages and difficulty filling available positions (Dews, 2014). The caps on the H1B visas often change with Congressional forces and the demands placed by business owners and the need for high-tech workers. Many technology workers were brought to the U.S. in the late 90s to address issues expected with Y2K. According to records from the Brookings institution (West, 2014), the visa caps usually vary from 195,000 (in 1999) to 65,000 (plus 20,000 for graduates from American Universities) in 2010.  For example, in 2013 it took less than a week for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to hit the cap of 65,000 for H-1B visas. In 2012, the agency received 124,000 applications and in most years, these visas get snapped up in a matter of days or weeks.

There is also a perception however, that this reported shortage of highly skilled labor is an artificial creation. Those who advocate against immigration argue that H1Bs are taking away jobs that might otherwise be given to local citizens and that they are suppressing wages in the industry (Sivakumar, 2004). This has resulted in backlash and stereotyping against H1B visa holders (Sivakumar, 2004). In addition, H1B workers have few social and professional safety nets. H1B visa holders pay sales taxes, property taxes, social security, Medicare and income taxes, but do not enjoy unemployment benefits or legal protections enjoyed by citizens and permanent residents (West, 2010). If a foreign worker in H-1B status quits or is dismissed from the sponsoring employer, the worker must either apply for and be granted a change of status to another non-immigrant status, find another employer (subject to application for adjustment of status and/or change of visa), or leave the U.S.( H-1B visa holders can bring immediate family members (spouse and children under 21) to the U.S. under the H4 Visa category as dependents. An H4 Visa holder may remain in the US as long as the H-1B visa holder retains legal status. An H4 visa holder is allowed to attend school, get a driver's license, and open a bank account but is not eligible to work or get a Social Security number (SSN) which significantly affects personal rights and opportunities in the country (Kelkar, 2011-2012).

Personal Context and applications of arts-based research:  I felt compelled to respond to the call for art because it was intensely personal and something that I had been trying to express and capture but mostly in an indirect way through unrelated artwork. Over twelve years ago, my husband had been on this visa and I was on the H4 visa (dependent spouse of H1B visa holder) for a few years  at that time. The call itself was a validation of the challenging and limited awareness of the experiences of having been on this visa. I also wanted to better understand what this visa meant to others and how my own experiences might be similar or different. As an artist and a researcher I called on both these selves to create the concept and the art.

Arts based practices are particularly useful for research projects that aim to describe, explore or discover human experiences through the arts (McNiff, 1998; Leavy 2009).) Arts based creations validate new spaces and places for locating social science research (Pelias 2004) and build on the history of artistic representation to make meaning of the human experience (Knowles & Cole, 2008, pp xi). In addition the arts summon associations and expression beyond descriptive language alone and can help bring to awareness the previously unexpressed and unsaid (Eisner, 2002). Greene (1993) further argues for artistic inquiry and engagement as a means to achieve the democratic ideals of equity and inclusion, offering us the option to think of human beings in terms of open possibility, in terms of freedom and the power to choose. She refers to this aspect of the imagination as “social imagination.” Arts based research focuses on accessibility (Leavy, 2009) and reducing the isolation and separation of research from the layperson who might not have scientific training to access the work. Accessibility can refer to the format of the journal (e.g., open access or not), the discipline-specific jargon or the format of dissemination (text versus other forms of expression, e.g., art).

Pinar (2004) and Sinner, Leggo, Gouzouasis, and Grauer (2006) proposed a hybrid practice-based methodology and call it a/r/tography. This approach brings together three different roles, namely that of art, research and teaching. Carter and Irwin (2014) further explored the dynamic in a practicum student and mentors relationship and depicted a harmonious learning process in the arts-based exchange between a mentor and mentee. 

In my role as a researcher(R), storyteller (ST), artist (A) and as an individual committed to the transformative (T) paradigm (Mertens, 2010) this hybrid practice posed new contradictions and struggles. My paradigmatic struggle was the integration of approaches that to me often felt opposed. Artistic practice to me has been a private venture: an expression of ‘self’ without expectation of representation or integration of the ‘other.’ As an art therapist when I work with patients or clients the focus is on the ‘other’ namely the patient or the client and their artwork. And as a mixed methods and qualitative researcher once again my focus is on the study participants and their responses. When I analyze text I use one of many qualitative approaches to create a framework through identified themes and patterns in the data. These are then represented in a new text that restores the participants’ experiences. My presence is mostly described in the texts I have written in the role of the researcher or evaluator of a program. Even though I create the text, I don’t often take individual ownership of it in a way I have to with my art. The following sections will describe my process and the challenges I experienced in implementing a mixed methods approach that included data collection and research through narrative storytelling and arts based synthesis, imagery (I) and representation. I will also discuss potential bridges across methods and the unique opportunities these efforts might provide.