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Self-discovery and Community Empowerment of Self-identifying Artist, Researcher and Teacher

Info: 7600 words (30 pages) Dissertation
Published: 13th Dec 2019

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Tagged: ArtsEducation


What counts in art’s intensity is the artist’s dedication, passion, enthusiasm, ecstasies, and sweat. There is a devotional focus to what you are doing—an intensive concentration that seems like obsession…But nothing intensifies more than being in love—the love brought to the art of your work and the love in which the work is done. (Hilman, 1995, p. 54)


This study strives to better understand the experiences of rural Arkansas women who self-identify as simultaneously being an imaginal artist/researcher/teacher. It investigates the stories from five Caucasian artists, ages 35 to 85, who enact their life’s calling through exploration of curiosity and experiential engagement with creative process for the purpose of understanding. A/r/tographers produce renderings that symbolically represent new insights witnessed within the liminal, or in-between, spaces between identities, ideas, or disciplines. Their work is often achieved in solitude and results in subjective, emotional experience which can potentially produce personal transformation. Within this process, pre-existing understandings or assumptions may be challenged, and one may become open to additional ways of understanding and experiencing life. The researcher serves as the main research instrument, and subjective connection with the participants is encouraged (Brinkmann & Kvale, 2010; Newton, 2006).

The goal of a/r/tography is to actively engage with and learn from this educational process, and then to artistically open that experience to public audiences as well as to academia. There is no preconceived expectation of what artists will discover, and their experiences are generally not shared with those outside the artist community.

Each participant in this study is associated with the small, north central town of Mountain Home, Arkansas, and is recognized for her artistic professionalism and commitment to imaginal, or spiritually inspired, inquiry. A/R/Tography, a hybrid form of arts-based educational research, is specifically designed to study the experiences and interests of the artist/researcher/teacher population.

The user-friendly approach to scholarship within a/r/tography includes invitation to the lay population who takes part in, or has interest in, the topics under study. Likewise, there is potential for the expansion of interest through reader participation and public displays. Community dialogues can also result in opening new lines of interest and communication (Leavy, 2009, p. 14). For the investigator, such forms of practice-based research have the potential to increase researcher comprehension and inspire additional user-friendly standards of professionalism.

Six weeks of field work with this population included individual and in-depth interviews with each artist in her workspace, review of pre-existing artefacts and the stories surrounding them, and artists’ creation of new works to be shared in group at Arkansas State University Mountain Home during a concluding retreat.

Background of the Issue

A/r/tographers are knowledge-seekers who self-identify as simultaneously being artist, researcher, and teacher, and they are avidly engaged in art-making as a way to explore meaning. The liminal, or threshold, spaces between their blended identities create space for the creation of new perspectives in which preconceived notions can be challenged and explored. Because liminal spaces do not lie within the boundaries of any single discipline, definition, or idea, a/r/tography is a transdisciplinary endeavor. Single disciplines have been unable to capture the complexities of such experiences.

Although we cannot fully comprehend the personal experiences of other people, we can learn more about their experiences by exploring the first-person descriptions of their perceptual practice and how they engage within living inquiry. This refers to the subjective reasoning and experiences which inspire their research process. Within the liminal experience, these artists often encounter symbolic, or imaginal, energies which seem to exist of their own accord rather than as creations of their own imagination (Hermans & Hermans-Jansen, 1995, p. 104). Each participant in this study confirmed the propensity to keep private the inner process and details which informs her work. For most, there was a belief that sharing the experience threatened to decrease the intimacy of the art-making experience and the fear that others might not comprehend the explanations of their experiences. This reluctance can be magnified when artists are also public figures such as teachers-researchers within their community. The artists in this study live inside a religiously and politically conservative area of rural Arkansas in which knowledge and inspiration gathered from an unseen realm might be misconstrued or made taboo. A safe place needs to be established to explore imaginal artistry in a way that honors the multiple roles of a/r/tographers and to give voice to a unique population of which little is known.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to better understand the experiences of rural Arkansas women who self-identify as simultaneously being an imaginal artist/researcher/teacher. The central concepts to this study are exploring autobiographical stories of how participants came to realize their identity as a/r/tographers, analyzing pre-existing artefacts and documents that substantiate their experiences, and the creation of new knowledge through the production of visual arts that is shared with fellow participants (co-researchers) and other interested, active parties. Each of these was to be shared with fellow participants and made available to interested lay readers who can then contribute an additional dimension of experience through their active reading of the study.

Because knowledge cannot be separated from situations in which it is used, the outcome may result in the revelation of new and unanticipated forms of understanding (Barrett & Bolt, 2007, p. 4). Artists tend to instinctively understand that creativity occurs within the imaginal realm once there is engagement between “the possible, the plausible, and the probable” (Sullivan, 2010, p. 121).

In this study, connected knowing (the relationship between the knower and the object of knowing) is explored through visual and textual means. Constructed knowledge holds that our subjective experiences are more trustworthy than knowledge that has been assigned to us by other authorities (Belenky et al, 1986, pp. 112-113). Conducting the study in the naturalistic setting of the artist’s home or studio assured them a comfortable and familiar space for sharing information.

Creative people who embody intertwined identities can improve the quality of their personal and professional lives by richly engaging the creative process, exploring its elements and potentials, and using them to strengthen their personal and professional lives. Each story is unique, yet we can often identify shared themes and divergences. By relating these experiences to other similar-minded people, an additional ripple of understanding and experience can occur and may result in collaborative ideas to better serve the community at large.

Exploratory Question

My exploratory question is: How can the lens of a/r/tography illuminate the ways in which a small group of rural Arkansas artists enhance their sense of self-discovery and community empowerment through individual and collaborative imaginal experiences?

Significance of the Study

The significance of the study lies in what a/r/tographers may be able to teach us about the alternative ways of knowing they use in their imaginal explorations and art-making activities. Imaginal artists use intrinsic resources and emic (insider) processes to encounter liminal spaces. While there, they may engage symbolic, or imaginal images which are received through active imagination. These experiences occur at a subjective level, that is, at a level of personal perspective, emotion, and privacy. It constitutes an alternative way of knowing.

The experiences of a/r/tographers cannot be fully translated into words, but can find expression through creative outlets. A/R/Tography recognizes the practices and experiences of artists, researchers, and teachers as places where inquiry can create, interpret, and demonstrate new understandings. Each occasion is unique to the individual and unknown to the world around her.

Historically, reason and imagination have struggled against each other, and there has been widespread uncertainty and confusion about what counts as “knowing” (Watkins, 2000, p. 11). In the western word, art-making has traditionally not been recognized as a unique way of knowing, nor have artists’ experiences with uncommon natural occurrences been celebrated. In fact, art-making has mostly been relegated to be for entertainment purposes or used for expressing emotion. Only recently is it being recognized for its potential healing effect (McNiff, 2008, p. 51). Through the study of subjective experiences, there lies potential to expand our ways of knowing and to extend recognition of the healing potential of creative engagement.

My focus group presents an exceptional and explicit population to explore, thus adding to the pre-existing literature on a/r/tography, much of which has been conducted on Canadian soil. The implication of this study is that powerful subjective and meaningful experiences can serve more than the individual. There is potential for practices to become more open to group work where each contributes her own story of experience, then passes it forward to the next ring of participants who can then create their own perceptual understandings. By sharing these experiences with other like-minded and professionally vested participants, the transformative power of a single experience can reach out to affect others in the inner circle, causing new or unique ideas to take root, to transpire, to branch out as conversations or creative endeavors to enrich the inquiry. Within such a geographical conservative community as ours, this concept has not been explored.

Definitions of Terms

The following are key terms that lend to better comprehension of the study. Any additional and unusual terms will be explained in the text.

Active imagination is a term used by Carl Jung (1935) to describe the gap between the conscious and unconscious minds that can be accessed in ways, such as dreams, inspired writing, visualization, and engagement with the arts. From this space, we intuitively recognize truth through our engagement with image and metaphor (Allen, 1995, p. 82).

A/R/Tography is a hybrid form of arts-based educational research which uses qualitative methods in unique combination to explore the entwined identities of people who describe themselves as artist/researcher/teacher. It is a research of ‘connected knowing’ explored through the artistic practice of each participant through visual and textual means, and it examines conceptual topics that may be “impossible to access through traditional research practices” (Leavy, 2009, p. 4).

Imaginal refers to the place of mental imagery conceived of by right-hemisphere thinkers who consciously engage in experiential phenomena. It is the intentional, perceptual communication with a permanent and creative source which results in both expression and understanding (Allen, 2005, p. 89). Unlike the term ‘imagination,’ (which refers to the manufacturing of fantasy), the imaginal is a symbolic product that is perceived as ‘autonomous’—having its own separate, communicative identity. Imaginal experiences can only take place within liminal space.

Imaginal artist, as coined in this study, designates the intuitive artist who, during peak performance, spontaneously experiences symbolic imagery which influences the creative process.

Liminal space is that uncharted, ‘in-between’ or ‘third space’ that exists between two states of being (Gutiérrez, Baquedano‐López, & Tejeda, 1999). It can be conceived of as the space in which boundaries have dissolved and transformation changes may take place through the process of separation and reincorporation (Turner, 1997). Liminal space is discovered and explored as a living place which allows an unprecedented

perspective which carries with it “potential for authentic interaction and a shift in what counts as knowledge” (Timm-bottos & Reilly, 2015). Artists purposefully pursue liminal experience to find transformative value in their art.

Organic approach is a research strategy which allows and makes room for new information or questions to be included inside the discovery process. It is an evolving process which is in a perpetual state of becoming as it holds open the door of future possibilities. The organic approach is particularly useful when working towards new states of awareness that utilize subjective stories and liminal, or spiritual, experiences.

Perceptual practice refers to regular, intentional time spent to increase one’s sensitivity and perceptual awareness. It involves sensation and emotion, and can bring about a “privileged way of knowing” (Church, 2013, p. 159). A worldwide phenomenon in cultural art practices, it is amongst the oldest approaches to healing involving the creative spirit (McNiff, 1998a, pp. 4-5). Art-making expands perceptual ability into manifestation.

Transdisciplinarity is a holistic approach to research that utilizes more than one disciplinary silo to address real-world issues (Leavy, 2011). Through incorporating unregulated access to practice, reflection, and collaboration, new knowledge that could not be uncovered using a single discipline may be discovered.


This chapter addresses the methodology used for this study. Choice of method was selected based on the research problem. In order to better understand the living experiences of another, a qualitative approach was required, and within the many available variants I discovered one methodology that presented as the most effective approach for my purposes. The purpose of this study is to better understand the experiences of rural Arkansas women who self-identify as simultaneously being an imaginal artist, a researcher, and a teacher. My research question is: How can the lens of a/r/tography illuminate the ways in which a small group of rural Arkansas artists enhance their sense of self-discovery and community empowerment through individual and collaborative imaginal experiences?

Methodology and Data Collection

In the early 2000s, a unique research methodology emerged, a hybrid form of qualitative arts- and practice-based research called “a/r/tography,” which expressly studies subjective experiences of those who self-identify as artist/researcher/teacher. A/R/Tography focuses on the interplay of these identities, and it includes experiential work in art-making and language arts as a means of expressing subjective experience. A/R/Tography shuns prescribed methodology, preferring instead to select a customized assortment of qualitative methods more directly related to the concepts used to explore the topic.

Arts- and practice-based research is not bound by a single discipline (Leavy, 2011, p. 35). As such, the work accomplished through a/r/tography is transdisciplinary in nature, and various qualitative methods are available for consideration. Seminal thinkers specific to a/r/tography include Rita Irwin, Stephanie Springgay, Barbara Bickel, Sylvia Kind, Carl Leggo, Rita Irwin, and Alex de Cosson ( ). A/R/Tography continues to grow and attract researchers interested in disciplines of education, art, medical care, social sciences, and architecture. Additional countries are beginning to take on the process to examine how we see and experience the world around us.

Research Approach

The research of a/r/tography is the lived experience of art-making and shared reflection. This research does not seek to form or support theory; rather, its focus is on activities that expand knowledge formation. In interpreting the work, the researcher does not seek to define it but to acknowledge the data-driven results appropriately. Arts-based inquiry embraces empathic understanding which, along with reflective renderings, distinguishes it from other kinds of qualitative research (van Manen, 1990). The reflective renderings in this research draw from both visual and language arts. Language arts include, but are not limited to, personal narrative, creative nonfiction, poetry, personal myth, sacred writing, fairy tales, and writing produced from writing prompts. Common art modalities include visual art, installation art, and photography (Knowles & Cole, 2001). This application of arts-based research uses the “raw data of direct experience” in the creation of artistic expression (Bella, 2011, p. 52).

Patricia Leavy states that arts-based research practice is a story of “fusion, affinity, resonance, and above all holistic approaches to research” (2009, p. 253). As such, the “interplay of ideas from disparate areas of knowledge” provides ways for the emergence of “new analogies, metaphors and models” that can be used to better understand objects of inquiry (Barrett & Bolt, 2007, p. 7).

A/R/Tography is an arts-based methodology that explores the experiences of the artist as she moves into liminal spaces of shared identities, objectively challenging dichotomies related to her topic of inquiry (Irwin, 2004). The plasticity of this emergent approach allows for the organic arrival of additional questions that may be pursued as part of the study. It is important to note that this method is interdisciplinary and borrows freely from related qualitative and arts-based research methodologies.

A/R/Tographers utilize word and art forms in ways that extend or challenge their understandings of each other (Aoki, Low, & Paulis, 2001). When fully engaged in the process of a/r/tography, the a/r/tographer (artist/researcher/teacher) focuses on the connective spaces between these identities, thus revealing the liminal space that exists and evolves simultaneously (Irwin, 2004). Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari described a/r/tography as being rhizomatic, that is, having aspects of root-like interconnectivity that allow for multiple points of entry, connection, and interpretation (1987). That complexity and interconnectedness is reflected in the spatiality of a/r/tography. A web of connectivity exists within their unknown unity.

Within liminal space, between the states of reality and the collective unconscious, there is said to also exist an imaginal realm where symbolic imagery may appear (Spiegelman, 1976, p. 108). The imaginal realm is boundary-splitting and intuitively explored. Experiences that take place at this level can have significant meaning for the artist.

The work of a/r/tography is often done through the production of visual arts and writing, although other expressive modalities are also appropriate. The work may be conducted in a process that is cooperative, collaborative, or a blend of the two. The results of this process creates ongoing discussions and conversations, and reveals questions “which have been hidden in the answers” (Barone & Eisner, 2012, p.19; Sullivan, 2000, p. 218). Re-searching our current understandings and beliefs becomes central as we move toward the transpersonal exploration of the imaginal realm. These occasions can serve as inspiration to creative action which includes internal processing and renderings of experience, as well as acts of art-making.

Through renderings, a/r/tographers explore and question their preconceived notions and allow their ways of knowing and being to evolve. Rita Irwin and Stephanie Springgay described six renderings of a/r/tography:

1. Contiguity: giving attention to the spaces in-between art, education, and research, in-between “art” and “graphy”, and in-between art and a/r/t; 2. Living Inquiry: giving attention to the complexity and contradictions of relations between people, things, and understandings of life experiences; 3. Openings: giving attention to dialogue and discourse; 4. Metaphor and Metonymy: giving attention to new connections and intertwined relationships; 5. Reverberations: giving attention to shifts in new meaning, new awareness, and new discoveries; and 6. Excess: giving attention to what lies outside the acceptable. (2008, xxvii-xxxi)

Renderings use art-making as a way to better understand the living facets of meaning (Beare & Bellivea, 2008). These renderings have an element of plasticity and remain open to continuous interpretation and discovery. They constitute both a location and a process in which meaning is made pliable (Irwin & Springgay, 2008). A/R/Tography emphasizes the process through which practitioners draw upon their identities as artist, researcher, and teacher to artistically engage in research and (re)questioning their assumptions (Springgay, Irwin, & Kind, 2005).

Arts-based research requires access to the subjective, or emotional, aspects of our experiences, which are generally thought of as residing within us (Bresler, 2006, p. 4). This flow of attention mirrors the shift in roles that each a/r/tographer plays. This constructivist form of learning and teaching is a comfortable and attractive concept for people who use creativity and art as a tool for teaching and sharing. This quality allows for the subjectivity of intuition, inspiration, reflectivity, and intentionality (McNiff, 1998).

The Researcher

[reasons for interest in the study; relevant background – if it goes here]


This study was designed to include five to seven participants. Upon receipt of my HRRC approval (Appendix A), I sought out participants in three ways. I personally invited one artist whose work I had seen displayed at our community library. The next two participants were referred to me by her (snowball effect). The gatekeeper of a local art gallery was able to match my goals to those of one of her artists. Lastly, an additional participant was suggested by a colleague who was following my work.

My research sample was drawn from female artists meeting the following criteria: She must (a) have a strong preference for producing imaginal arts, that is, art-making that reflects strong experiences that occurred within the liminal realm; (b) have worked professionally at least part-time in her field and is highly skilled; (c) self-identify as being an artist, a researcher, and a teacher; and (d) must be associated with the north-central Arkansas region. It was my intention to seek out a purposive sampling—those who share specific history, interests, and perceptual abilities that would be directly related to the research question.

The samples for my study included human female participants, existing artefacts, and the autobiographical works of art they created within this study. Using dialectical and inductive reasoning, they pursued understanding and discovery as important aspects of life purpose, and they were willing to share their interpretations and stories of identity with the group and beyond. They are active in their community and seek ways to be of assistance to others by way of artistic activities and engagement, such as teaching art classes and presenting their works. Their ages range from 35-85. Some, but not all, of the participants had met previously. Although not stipulated, each participant who responded to this study was predominantly Caucasian (some were also part Native American). This area of Arkansas is approximately 97% white, 36% Evangelical Protestant, and only about 17% have completed a degree at the Bachelor’s level or higher (Census.gov). http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/05005/accessible

Table 1

Demographics of Participants

Participants Race Age Education Art Specialties Spiritual
Jeanne Caucasian 60s Master’s Collage/
Lisa Caucasian 50s Master’s Painting/
Jane Caucasian 70s Associate Painting/
Margie Caucasian 80s Self-taught Painting/
Kara Caucasian 30s Bachelor’s Sculpture/

Recruitment and Selection

Engagement with the imaginal realm has been a life-long process for me, and I relate to art in a very intuitive manner. I specifically wanted to study local a/r/tographers who work with and are inspired by liminal space and imaginal engagement.

I began my recruitment efforts by visiting local art galleries and public showings in search of participants who would fit my specific target group. I was seeking female artists living in or near north central Arkansas who gravitate toward imaginal art-making and self-identify as being artist/researcher/teacher.

I copied the email address of one of the featured artists whose work was displayed in the library coffee shop. She phoned me that evening and we spoke for 20 minutes. She was very excited about the study and provided me with the names of two other artists known to her who were aligned with the specifics I was seeking. I visited the manager of a local art gallery (gatekeeper), who later introduced to another potential participants whose work was currently on display. Additionally, a colleague brought me a web link of another possible candidate. None of the artists were personally known to me.

I contacted the rest of the potential participants by phone, introduced myself, and asked if I could email informal information to them about my study (Appendix C). I sent with this email a Survey Monkey link to gather information about time availabilities.

Interview appointments were set with each artist at her creative work space. Consent forms, confidentiality agreements, participants’ bill of rights, and workshop guidelines were provided in hard copy at that time (Appendices D, E, F, G, H).

Setting and Site Selection

Qualitative research is conducted in naturalistic settings so that observations may reflect the true essence of everyday activity. Therefore, informal and in-depth interviews were conducted in the work spaces or homes of each participant, allowing me opportunity to meet the artists in person as well as to become more intimately involved with their artworks and the creative processes that each employed. Because the physical location covered a circumference of fifty miles, I created a group email account (with their permission) to help us keep up with schedules, the sharing of ideas, and knowing each other better as community members. For our presentations and group discussions, I chose to hold a concluding day retreat at Arkansas State University Mountain Home, which is centrally located to participants. It afforded a comfortable space to show and discuss our works in an academic setting, to enjoy sisterhood at a luncheon, and to reflect upon the overall process of this study. This setting was a comfortable choice for each participant.

Data Sources

My initial data sources included information from an art gallery gatekeeper and viewed art pieces. After selecting participants, I used interviews, emails, and phone conversations to add to textual data sources and to contribute to my framework of understanding the artists. I interwove my observations with any process in which participants were physically present and used my researcher’s journal to record ideas and personal observations throughout the process, using the left side of the page for reflective thoughts, and the right side for reflexive observations.

Exemplars of participants’ previous artwork lent significant insight into their experiences, especially those which the artist identified as being particularly meaningful or presenting as an on-going story. Artists often experience their creations as extensions of themselves, and as such, my observations of artists with their previous works (artefacts) provided a source of rich detail. The artists allowed visual data sources to be photographed as illustrations of nonverbal communication and artistic understanding. The new art created by each artist within this study coupled artist history with her concepts of a/r/tography and created an opportunity for additional learning. Each form of data illustrated a high level of rationality to the other.

Data-Gathering Procedures

In preparation for gathering data for this study, I spent three weeks researching background information on qualitative research, arts-based research, arts-based educational research, a/r/tography, and interpretive inquiry. I sought a clear language of applied terminology and an understanding of relationality within the literature. I also consulted handbooks and encyclopedias in order to confirm specific differences between methods, terms, and theories. Although this is not a form of collected data, it did serve as my first step in assuring my forms of data collection would be appropriate and explicitly valuable to my study.

In-depth Interviews

To best discover relevant data, it was important to conduct in-depth interviews with each participant in her natural setting. I scheduled interviews on separate days to allow for participants’ schedules and to provide maximum access to participants. Interview time lasted between two and four hours based on the preferences of the participant, with the exception of Margie, who informed me that with more than eighty years of life experience, she would require an entire afternoon. I used semi-structured, open-ended questions to ask each for her story of self-discovery through imaginal arts and how the process had been engaged and illustrated to inform her profession. Each participant, or co-researcher, followed her own flow of consciousness and went into as much detail as she wished. Additionally, this process provided me with the opportunity to observe their creative setting, use of materials, and body language. The following interview questions were asked:

  1. Can you tell me the story of how and when you realized your artist identity and how that realization affected or changed you?
  2. Can you tell me the story of how art became of signature importance in your life and how it was influenced by liminal and imaginal processes?
  3. Do you have pre-existing examples (artefacts) of your art that you could share and discuss?
  4. How is dialogic process, the act of imaginal conversation between your art and yourself, useful to your artistic process?

Direction of questions unfolded organically through that sharing process, drawing from my intuition and each artist’s responses. Exploratory questions differed slightly from one artist to the next dependent upon her expressed interests, choice of materials, or type of story shared.

The purpose of private interviews was to establish a comfortable line of communication between participants and me, to gather information about how imaginal experience influences their work, and to view specially selected works of their choice. During the interview process, I examined and photographed previously created visual or language art renderings created by the participant to serve as pre-existing documents, or artefacts, upon the artist’s consent.

A less formal, yet in-depth type of interview took place during our retreat when each participant made a presentation and opened the floor for questions and discussion concerning her work. The interviewing of presenting participants contributed to the information used to conduct this study, but more importantly, it added a qualitative layer to the relationship between us all. Additionally, imaginal dialogue between artist and her art (during and after its creation) was part of the dialogical or “interview” information shared in presentations and served to inform artistic process and expanding knowledge.

Existing Artefacts

During the individual interviews, each participant shared stories of how she discovered her artist identity and selected one significant pre-existing art piece (artefact) whose history held great personal importance. The ongoing stories of their artefact provided deeper insight into the depth of their subjective experiences than did the initial interview questions. I watched carefully and listened deeply to them as they shared their stories, their art, and the art/artist dialogue that unfolded during its creation. I intuitively began to sense a much deeper and personal connection to their work through their non-verbal communications, the loving ways in which they held their work, and the careful way they shared its access with others. It was clear to me that their works were not only living representations of something precious and significant to their identity, but that these relationships grew and evolved with time into ever-deepening connections.

A/R/Tography calls upon our intuitive capacities and sometimes presents us with ways of knowing that are impossible or difficult to put into words. The medium speaks in its own voice, which may not always translate into verbal representations. Although each believes herself to be primarily an imaginal artist, each artist continues to explore previous and additional artistic venues in the search for new ways to expand knowing. Works from additional genres illustrated progression in the making of an artist and also helped me to identify deep themes that ran continuously in their work, themes that would not have been possible to recognize in a talk-only interview.

Distance Work/Art Creation

Each participant engaged with the study through use of digital discussions which included writing prompts, process journaling, and reflective dialogue with her work. A/R/Tography is concerned with what is true to our living sense of an account, and artists were encouraged to utilize free associations as they deemed appropriate.

Each participant accepted the challenge to create artwork during the course of this study. The work was to be autobiographic in nature and was to include the use of text in keeping with tenets of art-text relationship in a/r/tography. Observations, original poetry, artist statement, or confabulations of words were all part of possible outcomes.

The artist had total control over choice of materials and means of expression, as long as it fit within the category of visual arts. If her creation was too large or fragile to bring to the retreat, she could photograph her work to present to others.

Participants had three weeks to complete these projects. They brought their renderings to the day retreat.


At the conclusion of week four, we conducted a one-day retreat on the campus of Arkansas State University Mountain Home. During the retreat, each participant presented her artistic creations and provided reflection on her processes and experiences of meaning-making. Products created included collage, assemblages, drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Each artist incorporated art and text that enhanced each other, and each shared the inner dialogue that took place between artist and her creation. They invited feedback and discussion from their co-participants, and when completed, they instinctively allowed a few moments of silence between presentations. Collaborative feedback contributed to the additional sharing of best practices and contributive thought for creative community services. This process revealed a deep and symbiotic relationality between the artist and her work, between co-participants, and between them and me.

To allow us time to process the ending of our work together, I planned a carefully selected array of luncheon items and beverages to celebrate the time and work participants had contributed to the study. During this time we shared ideas and suggestions of ways in which we might better serve our community. We planned to continue to stay in touch.

Analysis Procedures and Coding Process

The analysis for this study was generated from a qualitative, emergent, and exploratory framework. Although a/r/tography is often reluctant to be bound to methods of confirmation, I felt my study would be best expressed through the interpretivist paradigm along with a thematic analysis. It was important for me to explore the unique ways through which my participants made sense of their imaginal experiences, their lives, and their worlds. In preparation for analysis, I paid particular attention to my empathetic and intuitive understanding of the data. A relativist ontology, which assumes knowledge is constructed intersubjectively, helped me to explore the concepts of constructed realities, as opposed to adhering to a unified “one way, one truth, one size fits all” vision of truth. A transactional/subjective epistemology, which assumes we cannot separate ourselves from what we know—and that the “knower” and the “known” are intimately linked to how we understand self/other/world—was in play. Our truth is discovered as experiential knowledge but is subject to revision through negotiated knowledge made possible when learning from others. This is particularly useful for tending to complexities of the human experience and the meanings that are generated accordingly.

Results included the presentation of stories and experiences shared by participants which were in some ways similar, but also unique for each artist. In the a/r/tographic methodology, emphasis includes the relationships between person, process, product, presentation, and audience. Discourse was expanded to include artefacts. Such visual data is seen as a way to extend the non-linguistic conversation to discover potentially transformative ways of knowing and understanding the educational practice. All of these many variables created layers of complex data that complemented the textual interview and were equally important to the process of analysis and the coding process. As the study evolved, it became apparent that each participant grew more deeply and intrinsically invested in the analytic process and the potential themes that came to light.

Thematic coding is a reductive, descriptive strategy that requires the researcher to seek patterns within the data drawn from semi-structured interviews and in this case, the backstories and also production and sharing of participant artwork. Coding and data management issues were addressed during the first half of the research process. Because I was working with a small number of participants, I chose to hand-code my notes. The coding process initially collects data into comparative category sets to reveal patterns. I gathered an assortment of colored markers and post-it notes and secured use of a large white board. Drawing from my intuition, I allowed the information to position itself. It was at first a list of categories in sequential order, and I drew color-specific circles around those with similarity. I photographed each step with my iPad so that I could refer back to them, and as my work was done mostly on weekends, I enjoyed uninterrupted access to my classroom whiteboard during those times.

At this point, I began analytic induction to discover which themes, or variants thereof, appeared at both individual and group levels. As occurrences increased, I began to recognize the formation of pertinent themes within the study and made lists of them accordingly. Identification of patterns and analysis were conducted mostly during the second half of analysis, as more data became available.

Due to the nature of the study and its use of a purposive (selective) sampling, I had some anticipation of general themes which could evolve, but I remained open for information to evolve organically. For instance, I was quite sure that identity would play a major theme, but I was also prepared for unexpected emergent data to dictate additional themes. Once I examined the relevance, commonality, and relationship of themes, I was ready to synthesize the information. Identification of patterns and analysis took place mostly during the second half of analysis. I repeated the process for a second time to double check my own interpretations, then invited a colleague to engage in the process to see if her results would be comparable. I was satisfied that the resulting themes were trustworthy representations of the data. Because elements of this process took place throughout the study, it was sometimes difficult to know just where the coding process crossed over to the analytic stage.

Ethical Considerations

In order to conduct this study, my proposal had to first be approved by the Institutional Review Board (Appendix A). Several forms were presented to participants at the onset of this study during their initial interviews. This allowed me to explain the purpose of the research to each artist and to address any questions or uncertainties a participant might have. Discussed in detail were the consent form (Appendix D) and the Participants Bill of Rights (Appendix G), which specified information I felt was extremely important in setting my participants at ease. Confidentiality is also an ethical consideration in research. However, in this study, my participants elected unanimously to use first names so as not to be estranged from ownership of their art. Additionally, my attention to matters of privacy addressed ethical consideration of data security (Appendix D, F).

When artists share the inner processes of their work, they may cross over into vulnerable areas, and being allowed to interview them in their personal space implies a level of trust. Mutual involvement in such trusted territories can result in emotional connections between participant and researcher, and participants may feel uncomfortable in departing from the study. Each of these forms of communication among like-minded peers potentially presented reasons for the researcher to be extra attentive to the subjective needs of participants as well as the required ethical considerations.


It is important to supply contextual detail in order to bolster the creation of the four areas of trustworthiness: credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability (Lincoln and Guba, l985).

Credibility speaks to the consistency and believability of the interpretations of the study. If the participants and readers of the study all feel the information presented is believable, it has reached an element of consistency which makes it credible (Jensen, 2008). I assured the credibility of my study by being continuously engaged in the process and looking for multiple influences, by looking to see if different perspectives led to the same conclusion (triangulation), and consulting with participants (member-checking) and peers (Lincoln and Guba, 1985).

In order to show transferability, I used thick descriptions which might empathetically connect participants and readers to the study. Transferability shows that findings could apply to other contexts besides just the one currently in process (Lincoln and Guba, l985).

To demonstrate dependability, I used a second set of eyes to review my findings and see if they concurred (external audit). In this case, one of my colleagues came up with similar but not identical results. I also employed member checks to confirm my interpretations.

Confirmability is made when the researcher uses a neutral approach to the coding process in order to interpret findings that were data driven (Lincoln and Guba, l985). I presented a retraceable research path that could be tracked through design, data collection, managing and analyzing the data, as well as reporting it. This created an audit trail that demonstrated the progression of the study. I also looked at information through different perspectives (triangulation). Throughout this study, I utilized my researcher’s journal to record my thoughts, observations, impressions, and decision-making processes (reflexivity).

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