IJCAIP Featured Book Review


Book Review, Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice

by Pete Cormier

This book is filled with research, narratives and ideas for the student, scholar, community art-maker and anyone interested in using the arts to connect with and engage the marginalized in our communities. In Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice, Inquiries for Hope and Change, editor Cheryl McLean enlists a talented and passionate group of researchers and practitioners to share their experiences using various art forms to change lives.

In The Voice of the Artist as Researcher, Writing Toward Homelessness, An Artist Researcher’s Reflections, artist researcher Nancy Viva Davis Halifax provides an insightful piece that describes community work using  photographs, poetry, knitting and storytelling to capture the compelling personal stories of the homeless with great empathy. Viva Davis Halifax describes her unique engagement approach which results in a common language.

In this group we eat and drink, take photographs, draw, knit, crochet, braid our lives and selves together. We move in our roles from teacher to learner to teacher. Speaking through the development of a collage, a knitted scarf, the creation of a series of friendship bracelets language unfolds (p. 53).

This piece is particularly informative because Viva Davis Halifax also introduces the work of community arts practitioners such as Suzanne Lacy, Suzy Gablik and Carol Becker who have contributed much in the field of activist art during the last several decades.

Although numerous issues are addressed in the text, such as health care, grief, substance addiction, HIV/AIDS and schizophrenia, homelessness is also the subject of Mining the Depths: Performing Stories of Home and Homelessness by Ian Prinsloo, Jessie Negropontes, Sarada Eastham, Christine Walsh and Gayle Rutherford. We learn how a theatre project involving a cast made up of health care workers, faculty members and homeless persons engage each other in deep listening during rehearsals. The authors effectively combine the use of theory, such as Tuckman’s six stages of group development with practical analysis methods provided by the process notes recorded by the authors after each stage.

In Ethnodramas about Health and Illness: Staging Human Vulnerability, Fragility and Resiliency, artist and scholar Johnny Saldana tackles issues like cancer and HIV/AIDS by presenting several examples of ethnodramas, which are theatrical performances that dramatize the narrative of a participant’s experiences. The script excerpts provided by Saldana based on the words of people dealing with their illness make a powerful narrative and pull the reader into the liminal space that exists between the participant and the researcher; that threshold area that lies between the hospital room and the stage.

McLean skillfully weaves a tapestry of empathic and innovative practices that provide a series of effective real-world strategies for engaging marginalized populations who are facing daunting social issues. Empathy is clearly the thread running through the text which connects the stories and experiences of the practitioners, patients and researchers described in these pages.

Susan MacRae, R.N. uses narratives to convey her empathetic relationship-based approach to healing in To be Human with Other Humans: A Caregiver’s Narrative.  MacRae’s stories convey the power that narratives can provide by releasing the stress inherent in the healthcare field.

I realized that narratives were giving people space to release tension and address unresolved experiences in their own practice. Forgotten and forgiven content was allowed to breathe (p. 287).

A specific type of empathy, called kinaesthetic empathy is the subject of Performance Based Approaches and Moving Toward  Kinaesthetic Understandings of Illness in Healthcare by April Nunes Tucker and Amanda Price. The authors describe what happens when healthcare workers engage patients on a human level.

The relationship between the patient and nurse, in empathetic encounters, is one in which the nurse ceases to use his/her professional role as a defense against suffering and in a moment of shared humanity, identifies with both the suffering and the patient in order to be able to respond appropriately to their experience (p. 191).

We travel with these researchers as they struggle to create an empathetic response to patients’ experiences by committing their bodies to a simulated process so that they can experience it themselves. In a poignant passage, we visualize Price garbing herself in a cancer headscarf in an effort to represent the post-diagnosis period of Ann, a patient with breast cancer, and we witness her terror when she tears off the scarf after glimpsing herself in the mirror. Her visceral reaction to experiencing the reality of Ann is the essence of what practitioners like Viva Davis Halifax, Saldana, MacRae, Nunes Tucker, Price and the rest of the authors in this wonderful text, seek and aspire to: understanding, giving voice and making meaning for those among us whose stories need to be heard. This book is a must read for anyone interested in how the arts can be used to effectively transform the lives of the sick, the homeless, and all those who are challenged in some way and who struggle to exist, every day.

Pete Cormier is a doctoral student in the Educational Studies program at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts where he is researching the engagement practices of performance art-makers as pedagogy for community service. Pete has a MS in nonprofit management from Worcester State University and a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Notre Dame. Pete is also the managing director of Cornerstone Performing Arts Center (www.cpacfitchburg.org), a nonprofit in Fitchburg, MA which provides training and performance opportunities to the region’s marginalized youth.