The Collaboration of Art and Academia: Learning and Communicating Through Art
Art and academia; two worlds often seen as occupying separate realms. Of course there is the study of art, Art History, but what about the contemporary practice? More importantly, how can contemporary art practice be used in conjunction with academic research to disseminate ideas? This was a question at the heart of an initiative run by King’s College, London.
As an academic and artist myself, this was a fascinating prospect. In the academic world there is always an emphasis on ‘impact’, that is, the scope of your audience and the reach of your work. Yet, there is still a reluctance to communicate academic work in any other way than academic writing. I was excited, then, to be invited along to see this initiative in action and follow one of the projects.
It was part of the Collaborate Scheme for Early Career Researchers by the Cultural Institute at King’s College London, and sought to encourage the development of projects that communicate their research in collaboration with an artist working in any medium. It all culminated in an event at King’s College earlier this year that showcased the results of these partnerships.
The project that was deemed the outright winner and took this year’s prize was ‘Hidden Voice: How to give voice to mothers of daughters with Turner Syndrome’, the work of Dr Jacqueline Collin, Head of the Department of Child & Family Health, in collaboration with the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery and Amanda Clayton, textile fine artist. And, coincidentally, this was the work I had come down to the event to see.
Having previously interviewed and featured work by Clayton on this blog (check here if you missed it), I was excited to see how her work had developed in this project. The end result was realised through a quilt that sought to communicate the difficulties faced by mothers whose daughters had been diagnosed with Turner Syndrome. The overall objective of the quilt was to serve as a teaching aid for student nurses to demonstrate the emotional impact of the diagnosis upon mothers within these families.
The impetus of the work was to present the findings of Collin’s qualitative research. Yet, with the involvement of a fine artist, such as Clayton, this would not just be a tactile object infused with the written word of the thesis. This was very much a collaboration, not just between artist and academic, but also the women who had given up their time and opened themselves up emotionally to take part in the project.
Clayton tells me that it was crucial in developing the finished piece that she needed to meet with the women in the research project. This was not only to get their own input, which you can see through the various coloured squares and handwritten elements of the work, but also so that she herself could better grasp their feelings and responses. What resulted was a workshop that provoked a range of emotions that Clayton knew she had to incorporate into the finished quilt.
Collin reiterates the difficulties in negotiating this subject matter. Using the data she had collected from these women, the stories that they had told of their own daughter’s, their diagnosis, and then their reaction, as mothers, to the prospect of their child’s infertility and the many other factors associated with Turner Syndrome. Collin was conscious that she did not want any work that resulted to feel voyeuristic, but maintained that these stories needed to be shared so that nursing students could learn from them and inform their future practice.
‘My work as an artist is about responding to people’ Clayton states, and this is reflective of the reasons she was chosen by Collin for this project. Through the workshop that developed, with Clayton using cloth, colour, and the physical response to it as a medium in which these mothers could relate their stories, the process became cathartic. Many of the women involved, who had initially been reluctant to tell their stories, opened up by the end of the workshop and wanted to share their experiences.
In addition to this workshop, Clayton also read Collin’s writing upon which the project is based. Yet, as with many specialist academic pieces, the work was often impenetrable – out of bounds for the lay reader. Herein lies the difficulty with the dissemination of academic work to a wider audience, often the language and approach is far too specialised to make it accessible. This was one of the aspects that led Collin to this scheme in the first place; the want to disseminate her research to a wider audience, to transcend ‘disciplines, professional groups and lay-groups.’
Clayton, as an individual with a non-medical background, also felt that it was vital to find some way to mediate this information through her work. Accessibility became a crucial concept. As such, the notion of transparency became a key idea within the quilt. The layers of transparent cloth echo the transference of information from the medical practitioner to the patient; the revealing and concealing of information. While many things can be read on the surface layers, to get a full understanding of the depth here you must peel back to the layers beyond.
These multi-layers are such that without a strong light behind it, the work loses the transparent effect of the individual layers of cloth which can have multiple interpretations. The movement from the personal stories depicted from one side of the quilt to the medical/academic information on the other could be seen as representing the barriers perceived by patients and their families in getting a diagnosis and information about Turner’s. But it could also be read as the way in which individuals are homogenised through the medical system. It is not until you look closer, peel back the layers of cloth, and see in detail the information it presents that you get the full picture. This is reminiscent of Turner Syndrome and the difficulties families face during the initial diagnosis phase.
Turner Syndrome is a chromosomal anomaly affecting 1 in 2000 girls. With no risk factors, it can affect any group of people and impacts upon the lives of many families. It results from damage to the X chromosome which can lead to very different outcomes in all patients. There are few common themes, and because of this diagnosis can occur at varying stages. It is a multi-system condition, and often the wealth of information given to families upon diagnosis will not have any relevance to their own child. As such, many of the families involved must become their own expert on the condition, and the specific impacts it will have on their own child, to effectively negotiate the best care they can.
Collaboration and understanding, then, is not just a central theme of the project that produced the quilt, but also of the families that have daughters with Turner’s and their trajectory through the healthcare system. Just as the mothers that took part in this project detailed how they would have to constantly question, analyse and contextualise their daughter’s condition, so too did Clayton with the approach to the materials, colours, and representation of their ideas in this piece.
Unlike her usual work, Clayton chose to use machine stitching for many elements of the quilt. This, like the overall monochrome colour palette, reflected the objectivity, and sometimes mechanical, approach of medicine, academia, and research. For the words and stories of the mothers involved in the project, however, each chose a colour which offered a stark contrast to the overall feeling of the piece. Again, these colours were invisible when viewing the quilt from the academic/medical side, unless the correct light was shone through its complex layers.
The use of hand stitch within the quilt, which Clayton imbues with a more emotive quality, was mainly used in a 9 – block configuration to represent each mother and her experiences. These patches of the quilt are all individual and a representation of the thoughts and emotions expressed by the seven women in attendance at the workshop. For example, one mother stated that a predominant feeling was emptiness, and this is reflected in the space left with her patch. As Clayton explains, ‘silences are as important as the words sometimes.’
As well as hand stitched elements to signify the individual and unique aspects of the Turner Syndrome experience, there is also the inclusion of the mothers’ handwriting using digital transfer to the cloth. It was an important inclusion, as to type this information seemed to detach from the emotional quality and impact of the sentiments expressed. While some of the mothers wished to remove some of their thoughts from the work, they were simply crossed through, as in a diary. Again, this simple detail is reminiscent of many important emotive factors – the changing perception of the emotive space these women occupied, the willingness to reveal and also conceal aspects of their thoughts and feelings, and the notion that some aspects should be kept private.
The tactile quality of the quilt, its multi-layer, shifting transparency and raw edges, all have a deep symbolic meaning. From the showcase event which featured all of the other works within the Collaborate Scheme for Early Career Researchers to a workshop with nursing students, it was clear that the work inspired conversation and intrigue within all that viewed it. The willingness of the artist to allow people to not only touch the work, but also explore the middle layers ensured that for most of the showcase event the quilt had the addition of a person physically nestled in between layers. A tangible reflection of the lives, stories and emotions that were abundant within the piece.
As intended, this work has now found a life outside of academia, and it will feature this week in the Fine Art Quilt Masters competition at the Festival of Quilts, at Birmingham NEC. A prestigious and highly contested category, the recognition of this work demonstrates that collaborative work between academics and artists can produce results that have an impact that reaches far and wide. I hope more universities adopt this innovative collaborative approach that is being pursued by King’s College London, as the projects that emerged from this year’s scheme proved to be more than worthwhile endeavours for art and academia.
You can find out more about this project here.
If you would like more information, help, or support in relation to Turner’s Syndrome then contact the Turner Syndrome Support Society (UK).