October 3, 2017

Narrative inquiry, art as data

Every other week, as part of its launch, the Arts Research Institute will feature a faculty member engaged in research and creative scholarship. This week, we highlight Pamela Lawton, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Art Education.

Pam Lawton conducts research on intergenerational art education, exploring how art and craft activities facilitate storytelling and the passing down of tradition and values. She asks, “What is the role of art in socializing people?” Noting the importance of family and community networks in transmitting knowledge, Lawton says, “School learning is extremely important, but the learning doesn’t stop there.” This includes how children are introduced to arts and culture.

For Lawton, the value lies in art’s ability to connect people, which is why her research is often rooted in communal activity. Think, for instance, of a book-making project, in which high schoolers visit senior day facilities to write and illustrate stories with older adults. By observing the interactions taking place, Lawton distinguishes different modes of learning. “Creating the book form was something that the young people did really well,” she says, pointing to how they’d often instruct their older companions. “When it came to writing the stories and making sure it all flowed, it was the older people doing that. What was interesting was how these roles were fluid—it happened intuitively.”

Lawton’s shared arts activities permit dialogue, often illuminating commonalities that may otherwise be perceived as isolated concerns or experiences. This is why, in the future, she intends to connect her former projects in Washington D.C. to her current ones in Richmond. “Both [cities] have a long history with the Civil War and race [relations],” she says. “For people of color in particular, there are issues of inequity.”

Her current work takes the form of an intergenerational woodcut project that explores the concept of community. The idea is to afford participants – some of whom come from disinvested neighborhoods – the opportunity to speak about issues that matter to them. This type of engagement also becomes a means of broadening art’s scope and potential. Each person shapes their own narrative through a 16 x 20 block of wood. The woodcuts are then pieced together. Recognizing the generativity associated with artistic practice as a means of better understanding oneself and others, Lawton’s research is a discovery towards shared humanity.