Art Can Be A Home

June 03, 2023

By Amreet Shergill

As a high school student with a desire to conduct research, I applied to the STEM Fellowship Internship opportunity, offered by the O’Brien Institute of Public Health at the University of Calgary. Given my drive to pursue medicine, I had hoped to be matched with a medical research internship. However, I was accepted and welcomed into the Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) research team, a multi-city interdisciplinary project whose Calgary team is led by a social work faculty member, Dr. Christine Walsh. With minimal understanding of social work and the social sciences, I embraced the opportunity. During the week-long fellowship, I met an amazing team, gained a better sense of what social work is truly like, and unearthed a passion for qualitative data collection methods.

For as long as I can remember, I have immersed myself in the world of art, whether that be drawing, painting, music, or dexterous hobbies like embroidering and crocheting. The AIRP research team I worked with uses arts-based methods and photovoice to share the concerns of participants, letting their inner creativity shine. I was amazed by arts-based methods' ability to empower participants to reflect on and express their emotions, thoughts, and experiences of AIRP and am so grateful for the fellowship granting me the ability to explore the world of academic research.  

Art is not good or bad, it's a form of expression: The power of art and photovoice in research

Through discussion with AIRP team members, I recognized that channeling creativity in seniors was often difficult. The older adults in the study would frequently need help understanding the point of creating art and were often self-critical. In one interaction, I witnessed a participant expressing dissatisfaction with their own art, telling a research assistant that it was bad. In return, the research assistant reassured them that art is not good or bad: it’s a form of expression.

For some, it may be difficult to sit down and pause to draw, especially when one has experienced trauma or challenges, like many of the research participants. However, upon being given the space to relax and find peace, instead of fighting to survive, the residents became more comfortable and began freeing their imaginations. I was also struck by this emerging imagination from photovoice participants. I observed that they sometimes needed to be reassured that the types of pictures they could take was their decision, and that the power of choice was in their hands. After some encouragement, many of the residents joyfully participated in the artistic expression of photovoice.

After a visit to the Homes for Heroes Foundation, a tiny home village that supports veterans experiencing homelessness in Calgary, I was able to discuss with participants how art affected their daily lives, whether that be through artistic techniques or through photovoice. I found that members loved to take pictures of their environment and nature. They would capture small, simple things that were meaningful in their daily lives. Talking with a participant, they expressed their attempts at taking photos of birds but being blinded by the sun or trying to take a photo of a squirrel before it scurried away. These simple moments made me recognize how photovoice permits residents, who are coping with experiences of homelessness and military service, to take a minute out of their busy lives and find peace.

Although not all individuals considered themselves artistic, many participants discovered they were talented in the arts once given the opportunity. For example, a participant conveyed their sense of belonging through art. By using an artistic media, they shared the bond they had with their new home, expressing that they now had a place to go to, people to see, and a will to keep going. When I visited the Homes for Heroes Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet one individual who loved art and wished that one day he would have his own art exhibit. When asked if he would be willing to display his art for an event, he immediately agreed and was ecstatic. He then shared a new project that he was working on and he appeared to be one of the happiest individuals I have ever seen. Seeing his eyes light up in excitement showed me that art gave him something to look forward to each day, helping him to heal and develop his world through pencils and brushes.

Making Art of my Own

From these experiences, I was inspired to draw something that could capture the feelings and experiences I witnessed throughout the week. Through the participants’ pictures, art pieces, and interviews, I realized that nature and a sense of belonging were common themes. Most importantly, though, the participants all expressed one main idea: home. The feeling of how having a home–that is, a personal environment waiting for you–was a key value for the participants.

I expressed these feelings through illustrating home in nature, demonstrating that home can be both physical and mental. I decided to keep my piece in pencil to show how a home is not definite; it has no boundaries, can be anywhere, and can change. Further, my choice of black and white allows freedom for the viewer to imagine what home looks like for them. Perhaps the grass is lime green or forest green, but that depends completely on the viewer and how they see the environment. This also reflects humanity as a whole, and how each individual views their environment differently. While some things may be important to one person, it may lack importance to others. This was evident among participants and how the environments that were home to them differed. Although their visions may have varied, they all found something to look forward to everyday.

Reflecting on my fellowship experience

In making art of my own, and brushing my feelings onto a canvas like participants, I found myself building a bridge with the research participants. This bridge made me more aware of how art impacts others and how meaningful it is. For me, I may graze over the simple things in life, like birds or squirrels, but for others, that may be the reason they smile and continue walking through life. Despite our different approaches to seeing the world, something we all shared was the importance and value of art.

Through my fellowship experience, I realized that the arts-based methods used in the AIRP project not only collect data, but also contribute to healing individuals. The experiences of many of the older adults who participated in this study can be burdensome, and art can offer a reprieve. Like participants, I also rely on art to relieve my own tension and stress. Through this connection, art creates a community where we can all be aware of and better understand one another.

My brief time working on the AIRP project helped me recognize the importance of art in others’ lives and how it impacts each individual differently. Although I may not have thought of social work before my internship, I could not be more grateful for this opportunity to explore the project and meet the wonderful people that came with it. By stepping inside participants' shoes, I learned invaluable lessons. Most importantly, I have learned that art can be home too.

Amreet Shergill is a high school student attending West Island College in Calgary, AB. She participated in the STEM Fellowship program through the University of Calgary and joined the Calgary AIRP team from March 27-31st, 2023.