Why do research? . . . to advance knowledge, to gain understanding, to find a solution to a problem, to evaluate or assess, to impact policy, to result in improved life conditions, to study human behavior. But most of all as Leavy says, “research should illuminate, educate, transform, or emancipate” (2000).
I have engaged in Art-Based Research methods (ABR) to study environmental issues since the mid 1990’s. The projects below reflect some of my research using this methodology. Art-Based Research is a new and emerging alternative research methodology with a focus on pluralism. ABR embraces an expansive alternative language that goes beyond numbers and includes art, metaphor and symbolism.
An ABR investigation utilizes alternative forms of representation such as drawing and painting, narrative, film, dance, or poetry, among others. The form, the art, is the data. Key to art-based research, art-making and the ensuing art product or the data is in response to a research question. I choose to employ drawing and painting as my primary forms of representation.
When investigating a research question, I engage in Art-Based Perceptual Ecology. This alternative research methodology provides me with multi-modal protocols, engagement through multiple sensory modalities. I also employ Western science methodologies, the two working in tandem to provide an expansive response to the research question.
Biodiversity Study at Saguaro National Park, AZ. (2011)
I was one of 200 scientists involved in BIOBLITZ, a biodiversity species inventory at Saguaro National Park sponsored by National Geographic and National Park Service. Situated within SE Arizona in the US, Saguaro National Park sits within the AZ upland subdivision. This northeastern section, mostly in south-central Arizona and northern Sonora, is the highest and coldest subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. Saguaro National Park covers 91,000 acres of Sonoran Desert and includes two primary ecological indicators:
1) columnar cacti: the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) - which can live to be 200 years old and can tower more than 50 feet and weigh 16,000 pounds or more. They are the largest cacti in the US.
2) legume trees such as foothill palo verde (Cercidium microphyllum) - which can live to be 400 years old.
This park flanks two sides of the city of Tucson—population 1 million. As this urban area continues to grow, aridity and loss of biodiversity are the primary concerns for this ecosystem.
Research question: What is the biodiversity of terrestrial plants in Saguaro National Park?
Methods and data collection: In this multimodal field research study I walked and visually documented the terrestrial plants at the study plot. Next I employed a traditional line transect methodology used in Western science, mapping, naming and counting the plants along a 120’ line, documenting them first in the field and then a final logbook. Then I employed an alternative art-based research methodology, the shadow drawing, from my Art-Based Perceptual Ecology’s methods book.
Data presentation: The research data and findings were shared with researchers at Saguaro National Park and the public attending BioBlitz. In addition, I shared a public presentation at BioBlitz: Painting the stories in the land: A unique approach for biodiversity research.
Many of my research projects focus on biodiversity. Biodiversity (or biological diversity) is an indicator of the environment’s health, a measure of the variety of living organisms from all sources, including diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems in a given habitat at a particular time. I recognize the importance of biodiversity and the regular monitoring of habitats through biodiversity inventories as it provides the data needed to predict possible problems and to facilitate greater species diversity thus ensuring a healthier system.
Biodiversity Study at Peña Blanca Lake, AZ (2008)
Traveling across SE Arizona, my eyes were drawn to a large stand of ocotillos. This site is located to the east of Peña Blanca Lake- a mountain lake located at 4,000 feet elevation nestled in the Pajarito Mountain foothills on the southern border of the Atascosa Mountains located in the Tumacacori Highlands.
Research questions: What are the terrestrial plants at this site? What is the ratio of ocotillo to additional terrestrial plant species found at this site?
Methods and data collection: I chose drawing and painting as the forms of representation for this research study. Initially I engaged in field sketching at the site, a full landscape drawing on graph paper, then quick sketches of all terrestrial plants in the plot, creating abstract forms, unique symbols to denote each plant based on the sensory data I collected. I took these sketches into the studio and enlarged their scale, creating a 3-panel study, each panel 40” x 28” using charcoal pencil, ink, and colored pencil on 400 series drawing paper.
Data presentation: The research findings and data were shared at multiple national science conferences. The research data was exhibited at the George Caleb Bingham Gallery, University of Missouri, Columbia.
Saguaro Cactus Nurse Tree study (2019-present)
Seedling and juvenile saguaros, in their desert microhabitats survive mainly due to their initial seedling location beneath the canopies of nurse plants such as palo verde, mesquite, ocotillo, and the creosote bush. Since my initial introduction to the Sonoran Desert in 1994, my explorations and findings of saguaro cactus, nurse tree relationships have brought me great joy. To discover the saguaro at the ‘spherical juvenile’ stage, tells the story of survival of a seven year old nurtured under the mature limbs of a nurse plant.
Research question: What is the relationship between nurse plant and saguaro cactus during multi-growth-stages from seedling to maturity?
Methods and data collection: In this multimodal field research study, I first identify saguaros with multi-stages of growth from seedling to maturity standing under the protection of a nurse tree. Using GPS, the location of the plot is mapped, then measurements are taken of the saguaros height and circumference as well as mapping of arms, cavities, and epidermal scars. Distances between the saguaro and nurse tree are taken indicating key points in time of the saguaros growth, from seedling, juvenile, young adult, to mature adult. Sketches are drawn in the field using mediums of pencil, charcoal and rapidiograph. These initial field drawings are taken into the studio and scaled up to 32” x 40” drawings on heavy drawing paper (90 lb.) using the mediums of charcoal, charcoal pencil, watercolor, and ink.
*For more information on the saguaro go to: Ecology of the Saguaro. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/science/8/contents.htm