I hesitate to label myself as an artist, just as I hesitate to label myself as a researcher. Maybe it’s because I’m not one or the other? Maybe it’s because I’m equal parts both?
My approaches to art and research both involve using creative ways of seeing and thinking to illustrate and mobilize ideas. When I’m staring at a blank page, it doesn’t matter whether I’m getting prepared to draw or to write: I call upon the same parts of my brain to inspire me to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. For this reason, it’s hard to separate the artist from the researcher. I feel like if I did separate these parts of myself, I’d do both of those things less well.
More and more, I’m recognizing the value of bringing art into the work I do as part of my research. I’m recognizing that using visual tools and communication strategies enhances my ability to connect ideas and connect with people.
I’m incredibly grateful to be working with mentors and peers who not only help me recognize my art- and research-related abilities, they give me space to nurture and strengthen these abilities. However, entering into this space requires me to challenge and push myself in new and often uncomfortable ways.
Case in point: this past month, I’ve had the opportunity to discover and explore the world of graphic recording. There’s a host of definitions for and approaches to graphic recording, but to me, it’s simply the process of creating a real-time visual depiction of expressions, ideas, and connections (or disconnections) that emerge during a discussion. As the discussion develops, so do the drawings.
I’d seen graphic recording done before, but I’d never done it myself or even thought of doing it myself for that matter. After all, it’s typically done by professionals who have made graphic recording and facilitation into a career. Needless to say, I felt very much out of my element, and still do.
Back in December, our research team met with our Scientific Advisory Committee¹ at the ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting in Winnipeg to discuss a set of broad, overarching questions surrounding the contributions and challenges of Indigenous-led and Indigenous-owned monitoring and surveillance in the North. Then, just last week, I was invited to be a part of The Labrador Institute’s² staff retreat and use graphic recording to aid in their visioning and team-building sessions at the serene and scenic Birch Brook Nordic Ski Club in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Prior to both of the aforementioned occasions, I was given a list of discussion questions and prepared thematic templates on banner paper that corresponded to each question. I then prepared some tentative ideas for how I would tie the illustrations together. I also mentally prepared myself to have my doodling on display for everyone see, as previously I had been used to doodling for my eyes only.
I tend to doodle during most of the meetings and lectures I attend.
Doodling helps me capture ideas in creative ways, and in turn, helps me wrap my head around the concepts being discussed³. By keeping both my pen and my mind in constant motion, I feel like I am more actively and intimately engaged in what’s being said, even though I’m not the one saying it.
Given the reasoning mentioned above, I prefer unlined notebooks. Lines feel restricting to me; they pose a kind of constraint over how I try to capture the ideas that emerge during discussions. It turns out, lines are pretty linear and aren’t very conducive to nonlinear ideas and circular thinking patterns. Further, discussions that involve multiple people necessarily will involve multiple perspectives that often will both complement and contradict each other. So capturing these multi-faceted perspectives is difficult to do in a linear way.
Discussions are dynamic and it’s often difficult to keep up with what’s being said. What’s more, it’s difficult to move from illustrating my own thoughts (which itself is hard to do at times) to attempting to illustrate the thoughts being offered by so many intelligent and insightful people all at once.
I have to be cognizant of the fact that my interpretation of an idea will be one of many and that it will be subject to many other interpretations.
I also have to remember that my job isn’t to capture an entire idea or an entire discussion perfectly, my job is more about providing a way for other people in the room to understand how an idea within the discussion and how individual ideas can come together to create a whole picture. Although I am actively moving around and drawing, I play a relatively passive role in these conversations.
Graphic recording can serve to give these ideas a permanent, prominent place in the discussion. On a deeper level, others in this area of work emphasize how it helps people to visualize their individual contributions to the discussion, fosters trust and connections amongst all those involved, as well as reflects the collective wisdom present in the room. This arts-based approach to communication and mobilization of knowledge is an effective way of supporting more holistic, inclusive ways of meeting and talking together.
It’s all about finding a good flow.
Timing is everything. I have to be mindful of balancing my desire to record an idea as soon as it comes up with my desire to wait and see how groups of ideas start to fit together. The goal, of course, is to illustrate the discussion as it’s happening, but sometimes it’s better for me to wait a few moments until certain ideas are flushed out or summarized before diving in prematurely.
Whenever I make art, I fall into a meditative flow that is unlike any other; basically, all the background noise going on in my brain quiets down, leaving space for more innovative thoughts to grow. One of the reasons I was nervous to do graphic recording was that I thought that it would be hard to focus, that my mind would be too busy buzzing with all the ideas being thrown around that I’d have trouble finding that meditative flow.
To my surprise, I ended up finding that flow pretty easily. It’s not that I forgot there were other people present in the room—after all, they were the ones providing the information for me to work with—but I forgot that they were watching me. I was both within and outside the discussion all at once.
This is a small, unique way I can contribute to some of the dialogue on various topics I am passionate about.
Through graphic recording, I can channel that passionate energy into a productive and creative contribution to a discussion that simultaneously makes space for the contributions of others.
Graphic recording is very much a collaborative, participatory process. I feel I am able to give back something useful to those who so graciously invited me to take part in their conversations. My illustrations wouldn’t be possible without the ideas and the people that inspire them. I love being able to work together with groups of passionate (not to mention patient) to help bring their ideas to life, as well as add new avenues for understanding and interpreting those ideas. The final products are tangible outputs that involve continuously giving back throughout the entire creation process. These outputs are things that everyone involved in the process can be proud of, and feel a sense of ownership over.
The final products are also different every time: unique to those particular individuals, those conversations, those moments. Just like everyone else in the room, I don’t know what directions the discussion will take. And that’s both exciting and nerve-wracking. The drawings develop as the discussion does, and this process can (and should) take everyone down some unexpected and beautiful pathways. It’s iterative. It’s rhythmic. We find a good flow together, and there is power in that.
¹Our Scientific Advisory Committee is comprised of community and academic researchers, Inuit and non-Inuit, government members, policy-makers, and other decision makers, all of whom so graciously offer their unique skill sets, expertise, and support to our project.
²The Labrador Institute is a division of Memorial University, located in Goose Bay, Labrador and is under the direction of Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, on of my PhD advisors. LI staff all have a variety of research interests and passions, and a common commitment to research in the North, led by and for the people who live there.
³Something I’ve also come to realize through talking and writing about my graphic recording experiences is that “doodling” is a fun word to say at first, but after a certain point it gets weird.