The Litmus Test Dress Project - A participatory science research project

Multiple sites (1996-present)

Water is synonymous with life.  It is a vital ingredient within all life forms.  Approximately sixty-eight percent of our body is made of it.  Regular supplies of water are the lifeblood of a community. And when it is scarce or contaminated, everyone’s health is at risk.  Fresh water can no longer be taken for granted, only a tiny fraction of water in the world is drinkable water.  Where we find our water, how we use it, and what we teach our children about it, all determine how much clean water is available today and in the future.  In our origin stories, myths, and history, water is recognized as a maternal, feminine property, and women have long been the gathers and keepers of water.  Women’s ceremonies honor the connections between her lifeblood and the lifeblood of water.  
In recognition of this relationship and the emergent need for conserving and protecting our water, the “Litmus Test Dress Project” (LTDP) was created.  This research project explores new forms of discourse, specifically art-based methods, applicable to public environmental policy-making. In the arena of public participation, there is a need for individuals and communities to explore their feelings surrounding personal belief systems regarding environmental issues in order to gain an awareness of how their beliefs inform their decisions. The objective of the LTDP is to explore art as discourse, a discourse applicable to achieving effective democratic policy regarding environmental issues. The researcher desires that the outcome of this study makes gains toward the global preservation and conservation of aquatic resources in ecosystems, laying the groundwork for ensuring clean drinking water for all populations through a participatory democratic process.

Research Question: What is the overall health and quality of the Chicago River?

Methods and Data Collection: Triangulation of methodology in the LTDP includes action research (AR), feminist participatory action research (FPAR), Southern participatory action research (SPAR), and Art-Based Perceptual Ecology  (ABPE). In a group setting, each participant constructs a hand-sewn dress (infant scale), reminiscent of quilting bees of the past. The scale and simple outline of the white infant dress symbolically represents the innocence of new life with the child's hopes and dreams yet untainted. Once constructed, the group travels to the water site and each participant ceremoniously dips their dress in the community’s water source—the dress acting metaphorically as a litmus test with color change potentially reflecting non-point source pollution as well as other possible contaminants. 

Data presentation: The research findings and data were shared at multiple national science conferences. The research data was first exhibited at Gallery 312 in Chicago and multiple national galleries. 

*All artwork and photos on this page copyright L.A. Woolery.

RESEARCH PROJECTS USING Art-Based Perceptual Ecology (ABPE) research methodologies.

Why do research? To advance knowledge, gain understanding, find a solution to a problem, evaluate or assess, impact policy, result in improved life conditions, and study human behavior. But most of all as Leavy says, “research should illuminate, educate, transform, or emancipate” (2000).
     In the early 1990s, during my graduate studies in art therapy, I was introduced to art-based research methodologies (ABR) originating in the social sciences and designed to work with a human population. I recognized they had great application and potential to more than a human population. At the same time, as I was moving toward my professional path, a Ph.D. in environmental studies, I envisioned how I could build out ABR methods and frame them by ecological and biological principles to serve field-based scientific research. I engaged in an iterative process to develop a new methodology with new tools and an expanded framework responding to a new set of questions with application to the natural sciences in studying global environmental change. And, Art-Based Perceptual Ecology (ABPE) research methodologies were born. You will see from my examples below, in most research studies, I engage in both ABPE and conventional science methodologies, the two working in tandem to provide a pluralistic approach and more expansive response to the research question.

© 2023 EcoArt Expeditions and Citizen Artist

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.  

Data for the saguaro cactus nurse tree study, using an Art-Based Perceptual Ecology protocol, I engage in drawing as the form of representation. 

Data for the plant biodiversity study using an art-based perceptual ecology protocol engaging in drawing as the form of representation using a multi-media palette.

Top two images: Data (the dresses) hand sewn by community participants were dipped in the community water source, symbolically and metaphorically communicating unclean drinking water.

Below: Participants also conducted biological water quality testing protocols at the site, biological communities are indicators of river quality and health.

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.
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, one of my
Art-Based Perceptual Ecology protocols. 
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.

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 employ both
Art-Based Perceptual Ecology protocols and traditional science protocols. First I 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. Engaging in drawing as the form of representation in the ABPE protocols, sketches are drawn in the field using mediums of pencil, charcoal and rapidiograph. These initial field drawings are then 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 cactus go to:  Ecology of the Saguaro
https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/science/8/contents.htm

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 other terrestrial plant species found at this site?
Methods and data collection: Using an Art-Based Perceptual Ecology protocol, 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, and 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.

Top image: The shadow drawing as data for the plant biodiversity study, engaging in drawing as the form of representation using an Art-Based Perceptual Ecology protocol.

Bottom image: Field notes as data, mapping the plant biodiversity using a traditional line transect protocol for the study.