Canadian Artist working in Art + Medicine

An Opening

Introduction: An opening

[this introductory section needs to be rewritten as the following chapters have developed since writing this]

In mid-June 2017, I was six weeks past my second research visit to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, Canada, and three weeks into the worst manic episode of my life. Because of temporal and attention problems from the mania my dad had driven me to the campus to talk with a friend and colleague. We were outside, and I was outlining several papers I wanted to write with him when a hard rain hit. We rushed inside and continued to talk. I looked out the window and watched as the rain fell sideways, limiting visibility. Did it always rain this hard in the prairies? I had lived there my whole life, and this intensity wasn’t part of my memories. We continued to talk, but I looked out the window. Suddenly, I felt the pull of gravity down towards the center of the earth. I felt the momentum around the sun, around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. I felt the pull of everything towards everything in the supercluster of galaxies we were within. Why was I not getting the ecstatic revelations, the communions with God that Derek, a patient at CAMH, got? Why were my visions so meaningless and devoid of hope?

My thoughts turned to my daughters, and I imagined the state of the world that they would inherit: one of seemingly inexorable climate change, economic uncertainty, and rampant inequality. What have I done bringing them into this world? I thought of Elliot’s gentleness and intellect and Mary’s strength, and I felt a deep uneasiness toward them, and towards their potential children, and their children’s children, a bone-deep fear that this will not be a world for them. I thought back into the Holocene and before, to all my ancestors and what their momentum had led to in me, in my children, and their children. With absolute clarity, I could see a lineup of all that came before and next. I found a sense of spirituality I was looking for, not the kind that explains but, instead, a deeply rooted sense of exploration, future growth, and connectedness. I thought back to the Sunday before, Father’s Day, and how I couldn’t remember the faces of my children and how I had thought of how many pills I would have to take to die.

I kept field notes of my experiences during this time. However, mostly I painted, something that is not a regular part of my artistic practice. I couldn’t do anything but paint: dissolving portraits set against fields of colour and dots, reflections of deep histories of the mind. I kept my techniques fluid and allowed the illness to guide me. Each portrait acted as an archive of my manic journey from clarity to disintegration, through isolation, and eventually, recovery and reconciliation. Over the next year, I spent time taking all these records, notes, and artifacts from my research with patients and their illnesses and considered how they were filtered through my own illness and altered states. Through the act of creation, of visual and narrative works, I was able to piece together those experiences into something that told a story different than the one that I was used to. Not just a story that personally healed me, but hopefully one that might be useful for others, as they try to understand illnesses, the communities we form around them, and the possibility of vital meaning-making events found within illness. This is where art can take us.  

I am a Canadian visual and narrative artist-researcher working with marginalized and ill populations across Canada. I began this field of research with the families of organ and tissue donors—often parents of children lost to suicide—and then moved to work directly with organ transplant recipients immediately out of surgery. This experience led to my enrollment in a  Ph.D. in Psychiatry at the University of Alberta where I study the lived experience of illness, primarily mental illness. Soon after, I was involved in a multi-year project working with Head and Neck Cancer patients, participating in arts-based workshops with patients and their family members, artists, researchers, and health professionals. We were looking for ways that visual art could be used to explore and illuminate the experience of cancer. As this project developed, I started my primary project as a visiting artist-researcher at CAMH, the largest psychiatric treatment and research facility in Canada. Over the next two years, I would travel to CAMH and have extended visits directly in the wards with patients, first in the Youth with Concurrent Addiction, and then in the Mood and Anxiety Unit. At the same time, I developed an auto-ethnographic practice, creating new understandings around living my research, and working through and with my episodes of illness. I have used the process of creation as a means to illuminate ways of understanding, narrating, and being with illness. Through this collection of essays, I hope to share the work I have produced, the multiple understandings I have come to, and the approaches I developed to get there.

Chapter 1: Trauma

Chapter One deals with trauma, both my own and that of my co-creators. Traumas are cracks in the body—ruptures, hemorrhages that form where boundaries can no longer mark this from that, where worlds no longer hold together in their stories. These are sites of new potentials, new configurations both individually and collectively. They are openings. Where thinking through trauma has become increasingly useful in my research has been the development of post-traumatic growth. In trauma studies, mainly within the medical discipline of psychiatry, there is energy spent on either thinking about resilience, how someone was able to endure trauma, or post-traumatic stress, where the person carries it with them, continually reliving it. However, there is a generative possibility within post-traumatic growth, where the trauma opens up a space for productive psychic integrations that can lead to lasting personal and social change. It is with this point that I want to acknowledge the material histories, balanced with the biological, that the people and communities I have been working with are formed by.

I look to psychiatrist George Engel’s development of the Biopsychosocial model (1977) that looks at the illness as a complex interaction between biological, psychological, and social considerations. The dominant model within medicine and psychiatry is primarily focused on biological understandings of disease and treatment, leaving out crucial understandings around the psychological and social environments that the patient inhabits. This reductive understanding of the individual and illness leads to precarious and marginalized peoples. A Canadian example of this is the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada through numerous government activities, most notably the taking of Indigenous children from their families and the placement of them in Residential schools. There they were denied their cultural legacy and submitted to Western dominance with the aim of erasing their culture and ways of knowing. While biological models around epigenetics and its contributions to understandings around generational trauma provide insights into the current state of Indigenous peoples in Canada, we still need to take in their histories, their individual experiences, and social surrounds if we are going to make any lasting progress towards reconciliation and healing. This chapter will open up stories and understandings around trauma from a multifaceted perspective building off my evolving understandings of autoethnography (discusses in-depth in Chapter Three), time, and story.

Chapter 2 Art as research

Chapter three, Art as research, will look at an emerging field in Canadian scholarship around research-creation. Here we will tease out research-creation from closely related practices, specifically arts-based research, while also recognizing its ability to work closely with such fields as practice-based research, practice-led research, research-based practice, research-led practice, creative-praxis, arts-driven inquiry, or more broadly artistic research (Loveless, 2019: 14). I will be drawing from contemporary art theorist Natalie Loveless and communications theorists Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuck as significant contributors to research-creation. Loveless traces the origins of research-creation to a category created by a provincial funding agency in the province of Quebec Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC), that then was adopted by our national academic funding agency for the humanities and social sciences Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). SSHRC has defined research-creation as “an approach to research that combines creative and academic research practices and supports the development of knowledge and innovation through artistic expression, scholarly investigation, and experimentation” (Loveless, 2019: 17). This definition provides a space and an opening to obtain federal academic funding for projects, however, to become a grounded and usable field we will need to expand on this continually moving understanding of research-creation. Next, I have identified a specific familiar form of research-creation, first introduced by Chapman and Sawchuck, called creation-as-research. It is here that I want to situate the artist-researcher, not only within the academy (this is the site Loveless is writing in and to in her text A Manifesto for Research-Creation) but within the broader context of a socially engaged artistic-research.

Chapter 3: Time

Chapter three in four autoethnographic parts thinks through time, both the time it takes to integrate or live with trauma (often this never ends) but also the time artists must take in their practice to collect, assemble, and process experiences through creation. With time temporality doesn’t have to be linear and unidirectional but can move in unexpected ways, where understandings precede understanding, memories of the future, and where human temporalities meet the genomic or geological temporalities. These are times for attention, intense attention, intuitive attention that allows for unexpected combinations to form, yet exactly the ones needed. Time and trauma cycle together as they are forever in motion—event, time for psychological integration, accommodation or assimilation, and back.

Chapter 4: Healing

Chapter four thinks through healing, but not in the expected understanding of now you are better, but a richer expanse of being-with-trauma. This is a mode of being that I feel confident in saying everyone exists in, where you are neither wholly healthy or dead but are on a spectrum of illness, where you learn to be-with your illness or trauma. This is a space where an artist-researcher tries to get to in their life and practice, where the process of thinking through the act of creating has led to moments of immense connectedness, new understandings, and growth. Healing isn’t the end goal but is a journey, one that is continuous, generative, and quenching.