Creative Practice

Will Garrett-Petts is Professor of English and Modern Languages at Thompson Rivers University, where he directed The Centre for the Study of Multiple Literacies, the Mapping Quality of Life and the Culture of Small Cities (a national community-university research alliance), and remains co-editor and co-founder of Textual Studies in Canada, a publishing collective. Seeking to employ a mix of critical and creative inquiry, he has published widely on reading theory, literature, and interarts practices. Will’s interest in visual literacy has led to a number of curatorial initiatives, one on “photography and literature,” two on “the ‘Homeless Mind’ and the Small City,” and “Proximities” (an exhibition of artists’ statements, Kamloops Art Gallery, October 15 – December 31).

His mixed media installation “Catch & Release,” was exhibited as part of Witness Marks: The Exotic Close to Home, a two-person exhibition, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, July – August, 2006. Video productions include Writing Your “Self” into the Disciplines (a 10-part series), a video on Modes of Documentation and Historica Fairs, a video on the Homeless Mind and Memory Mapping, and Understanding Conflicts in the Forests, a workshop video co-written and directed (with 3 Service Learning students) and produced as part of the Small Cities CURA by the Forest Research Extension Partnership, © 2002. He’s was engaged for 12 years as a member of the Small Cities CURA research group, exploring cultural capital, memory mapping, audio walks, and oral histories in small cities; as a member of the Canadians and Their Pasts CURA (Laval University), and working with Rob Schoen, he explored the development of historical literacy in children; and, with co-researcher Rachel Nash, he conducted an interdisciplinary study of artists’ statements and artists-as-researchers. More recently, he has been focusing on community visual literacies, in particular vernacular mapping and alternative museum display practices. A 2007 review presented at the University of Florida (with co-researcher Donald Lawrence) gives a nice mid-project summary of my work in progress: The Kamloops Tranquille Project and the Exotic Close to Home in Victoria.

He organized an international invitational workshop, “Artist Statement: Artistic Inquiry and the Role of the Artist in Academe,” held on November 24 – 26, 2005, and supported by a SSHRC Aid to Workshops Grant. In May-June, 2008, he led a 6-week Residency on Making Artistic Inquiry Visible (MAIV) at the Banff Centre. His recent books which feature creative and critical practice include Cultural Mapping as Cultural Inquiry (2015); The Last Best West: An Exploration of Myth, Identity, and Quality of Life in Western Canada (2009); Imaging Place (2009); Artists’ Statements and the Nature of Artistic Inquiry (2007); Proximities: Artist Statements and Their Works (2005); The Small Cities Book: On the Cultural Future of Small Cities (2005); Relocating the Homeless Mind: Memory, Landscape, The Small City and Rural Community (2004); PhotoGraphic Encounters: The Edges and Edginess of Reading Prose Pictures and Visual Fictions (2000); Writing about Literature (2000; 2nd ed. 2013), and Integrating Visual and Verbal Literacies (1996).





Critical/Creative Practice, Artists as Researchers & Community Engagement

The following is extracted from the article “Re-Visioning the Visual: Making Artistic Inquiry Visible,” a section titled “The Prospect of Realigning Writing with the Visual Arts, or What’s a Nice English Professor Like You Doing in a Studio Like This?”

“Those of us whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries find ourselves—from time to time—with no firm place to stand. Such displacement is usually temporary, frequently uncomfortable, but almost always an invitation toward some new insight or perspective. I was trained as a literary critic and composition specialist, and I later developed an interest in interarts practices. My academic preparation argued for keeping the works studied at arm’s length, safely aestheticized as objects of critical attention. However, the more I worked with visual artists, the more I found myself drawn into initially unfamiliar practices and venues: over the last ten years, I’ve been invited to curate exhibitions, write catalogue essays, participate in gallery panels, contribute image/text artwork to two group shows, deliver three “artist talks,” and compose two artist statements.

“Inevitably, such boundary-crossing has implications for researching and writing: though I’m writing this section of the essay in the first person, it is informed by multiple collaborations—informal conversations, formal interviews, and correspondence with artists and authors; participation in a multi-disciplinary community-university research alliance exploring questions of culture, the arts, and quality of life; the development of a team-taught course on photography and literature; the co-authorship (with visual artist Donald Lawrence) of a book on prose pictures and visual fictions; a three-day workshop on arts-led research and a seven-week exhibition on artists’ statements and their works (both co-organized, co-curated with my research partner Rachel Nash); and, most recently, by a six-week international residency on Making Artistic Inquiry Visible [Click Here for PDF of MAIV Publication: MAIVBook copy ] hosted by the Banff Centre for the Arts. These interests and set of ongoing conversations found a congenial home last year at the Imaging Place Conference, where thirty or so writers, artists, and theorists gathered to both exchange and mutually explore notions of place, space, and interdisciplinary ways of knowing.”

For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been exploring the notion of artistic research. This exploration began in earnest with the first Small Cities Community-University Research Alliance, or CURA (2001 – 2006), and became a defining element of our second CURA, “Mapping the Quality of Life and Culture of Small Cities.”

Adelheid Mers and Will Garrett-Petts at Banff Centre, 2008

The research projects included in the Small Cities CURAs did not employ a single methodology; rather they revealed a commitment to methodological diversity, where the fundamental criterion is to use the most appropriate form of inquiry for the topic under study. Some projects incorporated traditional archival and historical methods; others employed ethnographic approaches and action research; while some used a combination of methods. One unique feature of this endeavour has been the involvement of artists-as-researchers.

From the beginning–and with an art gallery as lead partner–the directors of the Small Cities CURA saw the potential for “displaying” research as an important means of public dissemination. Once the research program was underway, at the first major meeting of researchers and community partners, the group reviewed its goals for (1) collaboration and assessment, (2) new partners and alliances, (3) additional funding possibilities, and (4) communications and dissemination strategies. In addition, Lon Dubinsky and I presented a brief on the potential involvement of artists. Initially, including the artists was presented as an example of how new researchers could be drawn into the project, in this case through culminating exhibitions that documented the projects and presented artistic work reflecting major project concerns. The program quickly moved to attach artists to projects as they arose. In the meeting, we noted that this enhanced use of artist-participants reflected the progress of several current projects, and was generally supported by an increasing interest by the contemporary art world in what we might call ‘community-based art.’ We envisaged several possibilities, each contingent upon agreement by the researcher(s), community partner and artist(s) for each project. For example, some artists might participate fully as researchers with their work incorporated into, if not in some cases synonymous with, a specific project. in other cases, artists might work as more detached observers.

Since the first CURA, we have refined the roles of artist-researchers, with the artists now following one of three inquiry models:

(1) Affinity: where the artist is encouraged to match existing work with issues under exploration by a particular CURA research group.

(2) Response: where the artist is encouraged to create new work responding directly to the particular research group’s project.

(3) Integrated: where the artist works with a particular research group, becoming in effect a co-researcher by committing skills, insights and art production to the research findings.

A couple of years ago I submitted the following description of the artist-researcher team as part of a funding report:

“A key aspect of our first CURA continued in our future work: the inclusion of artist-researchers, practising artists working alongside academics and community partners. We are encouraged by the potential we see for linking creative inquiry to more traditional methods of research. The presence of working artists as co-researchers (Doug Buis, John Craig Freeman, Laura Hargrave, Ernie Kroeger, Donald Lawrence, Eileen Leier, Adelheid Mers, and Melinda Spooner) provides enhanced access to, and credibility with, the cultural communities of our participating cities: as one of our partner organizations found when employing artists in the ‘‘Small Towns : Big Picture’’ project, ‘‘While the development of sustainability indicators is of academic interest to those working in the field of . . . performance evaluation, the [Small Towns] research would have been an insignificant blip in the community’s experience if it had not been for the involvement of the artists’’ (Rogers, 2005; Rogers & Collins, 2001). Involving participating artists and engaging communities via locally-developed cultural projects promotes dialogue and social interaction. In addition, artists offer opportunities for well-crafted critique, playful destabilization, and an identifiable ‘‘Third View,’’ not tied directly to either the university or the community partners.”

Thus, the interest in artistic forms of inquiry and the role of artists in community-based research arose from our work with the community partners–-and was especially inspired by our partnership with the Kamloops Art Gallery. Video documentation of my Emily Carr “Remaking Research” reflection on the role of artist-researchers in our Small Cities Research Alliance can be found here: the presentation begins at the 14-minute mark.

In 2005, Rachel Nash and I hosted an international symposium on “artistic inquiry”; and in 2008, in collaboration with the Banff Centre, we ran a 6-week residency devoted to exploring notions of artistic research. My current set of research projects, grouped together under the title of “Making Interdisciplinary Inquiry Visible” [click on this PDF link for a recent article: ArtInPublicSphere ] builds on these earlier initiatives.

In brief, we are now looking at the following questions:

What happens to academic writing and research when non-linguistic modes, strategies, assumptions, and traditions are introduced?

What special opportunities, benefits, limitations, pressures, and obligations does involvement in academic and community-based research offer artists and their co-researchers?

What can we learn from visual artists, in particular, about image-based inquiry and writing?

How can such a focus on visual/verbal collaborations help construct a new paradigm for academic research, one that recognizes a “visual turn” in academic and creative work?

Most recently, the interest in inter-arts theory and practice—and especially the process of exhibiting research—has coalesced in my cultural mapping work. A good example is my team’s contributions to the co-development of the Kamloops Cultural Strategic Plan, where we gathered and displayed hundreds of maps and involved over 2000 participants.