I’ve loved you since I was a little girl. As with all great love affairs, there’s been heartbreak. While sorrow beckons me to write this now, let’s start with happier times, when I first fell for you.
My happiest childhood memories center on discovering you. Each shape in which you appeared, mesmerized me: graffiti on the streets of SoHo, hanging on gallery walls, grandma-spun bedtime stories, the twirl of ballerinas and my own dancing swirl, symphony swells, scratchy vibrations from my little blue record player, pictures of couture gowns, actors on stage speaking to my soul, and in the glow of the silver screen shining on my face, illuminating my own story. I swear my heart beat out of my chest as the lights went out at my first concert. People screamed with anticipation. I screamed too. We were all connected. Yeah, I fell hard.
It wasn’t perfect though. You got me in trouble. At performances and movies I couldn’t help but turn around to see others’ expressions. My dad would tap my arm, “You’re looking the wrong way. Face forward.” I tried to make myself face forward, but watching others consume you was intoxicating. Something transformational happens to people’s faces as you move, uplift, console, comfort, infuriate, and enlighten them. It’s magical.
Before long I fell in love with stringing words together. Writing was my calling. I knew from a young age this was my gift in life, not in terms of talent, but having a well from which I could always drink. You sent me inspiration in the form of a guide—an angel, ghost, muse. I chase her in search of clues/ leaving behind residues/ developing my views/ working for breakthroughs. You’re not for the faint of heart.
In my late teens and early twenties I surrounded myself by your hands, eyes, and ears—sculptors, painters, poets, photographers, designers, writers, musicians, and actors. It was a gang of beauty bandits. We spent days in friends’ makeshift studios and long nights in dingy apartments, sharing a loaf of bread and block of cheese, and talking about philosophy and creativity. We had everything we needed. The cross-pollination fueled us all in ways I didn’t yet understand.
Not all love affairs are meant to last. Despite starting college as a theatre arts major, we soon broke up. I abandoned you by day. I wasn’t brave. As much as I wanted to make you my life, fear crept in. Ours became a secret love affair that flourished in the dark, when I scribbled my poems and stories. By day I took a safer path and became a sociology professor, studying identity and relationships. Like most, I still visited you on weekends.
You work in mysterious ways though, because my winding path led me home.
I began my academic career enthusiastically, wanting to make a difference and find personal fulfillment. And while lectures, journal articles, monographs, and conference presentations aren’t sexy, they provided an acceptable way to spend time writing and try to do something useful in the world. And hey, I was a published author. For a while, I was content. But at some point questions started to haunt me. Where was my published writing going? Who was reading it?
It turns out, like most academic writing, it was going into a void. Basically no one was reading it. Some reports claim the majority of journal articles have an audience of 3-8 readers. One study that found ninety percent of journal articles are only read by the author, their advisor, and editor. It was bleak. I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life developing scholarly insights that no one would ever read. There had to be a better way. That’s what led me back to you.
I wondered, why didn’t people read academic journal articles? In my mind I heard you whisper from the ether.
“They are boring and inaccessible. They’re filled with highly specific disciplinary jargon and only circulate in academic institutions.”
And I whispered back to you, “But at your best, you captivate, you speak to all people, you show up everywhere. People elect to spend their time creating and consuming you. You’re the life of the party.”
I again began looking for you everywhere, searching for art in science. I stumbled upon arts-based research and realized we never broke up; we were on a break.
There were others in the academy that had also become disenchanted and started carving new tools with which to create and share scholarly work. Art-making is a way of knowing. In academic speak, arts-based research (ABR) is a set of research tools that draw on the tenets of the creative arts in order to conduct social research in any discipline. These approaches make research more engaging and accessible and are more effective in creating lasting learning.
I thought back to my childhood fascination with watching people consume art, how their faces change. What I was seeing wasn’t in my head. I was observing something physiological. There is growing research in the neuroscience of art-making and art consumption. Fields such as “literary neuroscience” and “neuroasthetics” are on the rise. All of this scientific research essentially examines how you impact our brains—our brains on art. Findings have shown consuming you activates both hemispheres of the brain, regions involved with movement and touch literally making people feel immersed in the art, and that there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days. Through you the possibilities for research and education are limitless. Imagine the potential for integrating you into the teaching of other subject matter to promote longer and deeper learning.
Once I discovered arts-based research, I was hooked. I transformed interviews into poems, wrote book chapters about ABR, and documented ABR approaches in my book Method Meets Art. It wasn’t enough. You whispered, “Dive deep for the truths you seek.” I needed to return to my core passion, creative writing. I penned my first novel based on interview research, Low-Fat Love. The response to the novel showed me your true power: readers bombarded me with emails and lined hallways at book talks and conferences to tell me how a character uplifted, guided, surprised, or haunted them. Others whispered their most intimate stories to me. The depth of self and social reflection, empathy, and resonance blew my mind. They were affected, in one way or another, with lasting impressions. Suddenly my life was again spent watching people partake in you.
Making and sharing you is a high. You’re addictive. More novels followed, better ones, as well as a short story and art collection. I also continued to write books about the art-research connection intended for academics, to show them another path. Like you, I wanted to show, not tell. Most recently I edited the Handbook of Arts-Based Research. This seven hundred plus page collection represents a full circle moment. I invited leading arts-based scholars, many of whom are now friends, to contribute chapters. Folks jumped on board, generously donating their time and expertise to create this one-of-a-kind collection. Holding this handbook, I realize I’m again in a gang of beauty bandits, just like those who fed my soul when I was younger. I’m back to the good stuff.
Sometimes people ask me what the arts and artists do beyond providing pleasure (funny how pleasure isn’t considered enough). Artists document and chronicle the world as it is. We also (re)imagine, offering alternative worlds. We fashion pathways between the public and private. We attempt to restructure power through imagery and narrative. We connect people. We are dangerous.
This brings me to our heartbreak and struggle. You are under attack. As a woman, it’s a struggle of control and exclusion that resonates viscerally. The structures that try to formalize, contain, compartmentalize, and control you—these powers seek to exclude me. They seek to exclude all those they push to the peripheries. But you include me. You include us.
From board rooms to governments to those seeking to spread grassroots terror, you’re always the first target for those haunted by the ghosts of other people’s fears. Today, as many times before, it has intensified. You are under attack in a battleground of tattered flags. There are landmines everywhere. They are hitting us where it hurts on levels we can’t even explain. We need you. When there’s much to lose/ a cover-up or ruse/ and chaos ensues/ the creative path we must choose. There is an army ready to protect you: warrior artists armed with the tools you helped them create. Even when we think we’re powerless against horrific mass suffering, we go into warzones to try to save you, putting lives on the line to protect something we can’t define. This is grace.
I’ve been told that many people don’t love you the way I do. Perhaps. However, when I see the person in the car next to me bopping their head along to the radio, or when I hear people munching on popcorn through their laughter at the movies, or when I wade through the ceaseless crowd surrounding Van Gogh’s The Starry Night at the MoMA, I’m not so sure. Perhaps the issue isn’t love, but appreciation. It’s easy to take things for granted.
You are imagination in the midst of the unimaginable. Light. Hope. Possibility. Education. Resistance. Proof of humanity. The creation of a new (re)imagined world. You shape consciousness and move the needle forward. We need you. I need you. I am a writer. I am an artist.
This letter is a thank you, apology, and plea for these times. You create what we need most: connections. There is a network of possibilities in those connections. In writing to you, I write a love letter as much to the universe, to humanity, and to myself.
Thank you to Celine Boyle, Sandra Faulkner, and Jessica Smartt Gullion for providing invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.
Handbook of Arts-Based Research, Method Meets Art, Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches, Low-Fat Love, American Circumstance, Blue, Low Fat-Love Stories
Guilford Press automatically offers 15% off on their website (includes free shipping in the US & Canada). Patricia’s books qualify for this discount: Handbook of Arts-Based Research, Method Meets Art, and Research Design The Handbook of Arts-Based Research is available for preorder and will ship Sept. 8.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College). She is widely considered an international leader in the fields of arts-based research and qualitative inquiry. [...]