This paper presents the experience of creating art informed by research, imagery and life story narratives, and, was motivated by the desire to generate awareness and transformation in society. The project and the topic of depicting a specific immigrant experience in the United States was motivated by personal experience. My experiences with the artwork and the process of finding material to create the work were intertwined with my own affective experiences from the past of being connected to the visa so I had to make sense of my experience and how that was similar or different from the experiences of others. There also was the struggle to connect narrative to visual imagery and feeling responsible for accurate representation of numerous participant storylines. Finally, there were lessons learned from the responses to the artwork at a group exhibition
In my approach I found several paradigms coming together in the effort to create art: Artmaking\Research/Transformation\Imagery/StoryTelling. Attempting to be a new A/R\T/I\ST, I struggled to reconcile the various elements of the effort. In particular, I struggled with my individual inclinations as an artist with representing the stories, imagery and research from the group. My struggle while conducting the background research and in creating the artwork was in reconciling my vision of the art with the stories that were shared with me. I felt compelled to represent the stories as best I could. I felt the need to honor and respect the participant narratives and yet create a piece of art that captured some essential elements of the journey. I attempted an intellectual and artistic resolution by using some of the imagery suggested by the participants in their narratives. However the bridge from narrative to art was not always very smooth. I still struggled with the final images and wondered if further iterations of reflection, artmaking and planning might have resulted in different visual. I also struggled with the ethical aspects of the art. Was my representation illustrative of the themes? Should narratives translate to art? Was the end goal to enable and encourage transformation and equity in society through informed awareness? Must my artwork represent all the participants? Research based art and challenges of mixed methods approaches are an ongoing unresolved issue. Each methodological approach brings its own data and analytic approaches and these don’t always align well with data from other approaches. The opportunities this combination of methods provided depth through the collection of life story narratives as well as a broadened dissemination venues through the arts based inquiry.
The responses from the visitors to the exhibition revealed several new dimensions to the arts based research. The responses were focused more on the spoken words of the artists at the panel discussion and less on the artwork. The artwork was visually engaging and several visitors reported that they enjoyed the show and descriptions. However none of the visitors critiqued the artwork. In fact the response to the artwork was almost deferential with few if any respondents openly critiquing any of the aesthetic elements of the artwork. The art itself continues to evoke a strong response. The imagery was valued and nobody critiqued the visual elements. In fact the reaction to the art was almost deferential, possibly restrained and respectful. The criticisms were directed at the narrative and the storytelling. I am not sure why this was. Could it be that the narrative is shared and therefore I was not entitled to tell the story? Could it be that my narrative of the experience was not shared by the viewers? However the artwork was entirely my own creation. Even though it had elements of the narratives in the form of the quotes, my artwork was not considered open to criticism. My explanation and narrative was however questioned. What implications might this have for arts based research. Would this have been different if I had indeed been true to the imagery suggested by the respondents? Would the narrative have been more acceptable if I hadn’t approached the artmaking as a solitary activity. Should I have shared the imagery with the participants, akin to member checking in qualitative methods?
There also was a difference between the responses of the Indian American men who were at the exhibits who felt that their experience was not entirely captured in the narratives because they perceived it as being overly negative. This gender divide was interesting because majority of the H1B visa holders in the audience were men and majority of the H4 visa holders and artists were women. This mirrors some of the gendered dimensions of the visa as described by Kelkar (2011-2012) that might be affecting the narrative and perceptions of who is allowed to be the storyteller and artistic representative for the community. Indeed the experiences of the H4 visa holders were negative and disempowering and it is likely that their own experiences shaped their perceptions of the entire experience. Moreover, Indian Americans seek to position themselves positively in American society and this resistance to relating to the negative images might be connected to that. Others who did not know much about the visa spoke about how the exhibition helped them learn about the challenges and issues faced by H1B visa holders.
The responses at the panel discussion at the opening of the exhibition were analogous to a conference presentation for a traditional research paper. However the time that the work accessible to its target audience and the format are aspects of audience response re usually not available to other forms of research. The artwork was in a gallery for a month and will be online for two years. Text based journal articles do not have that level of visibility unless they are accessed by a specific researcher.
Bringing together multiple data sources with arts based approaches requires identifying bridges and connections between methods. If it is art that is to be the end product I would focus more on imagery in the data collection rather than narrative text alone. Future research could explore better means to bridge the gap. For example, if the final research product is visual arts based, then the data collection and analysis should incorporate collection of imagery either through visual examples or through narrative metaphors. Similarly if the final artwork is poetry, music, dance or drama, it would be helpful to incorporate elements of those art media into the narrative interview protocol. If I had to do a project like this again, I think I would approach it differently. Instead of creating imagery from narratives, I would seek to generate imagery of poetry in the data and use that for the analysis and artwork.