Social Dialogue Magazine
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Dr. Julie Drolet, Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary

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Dr. Amy Fulton, Postdoctoral Fellow, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary

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Sneha Prakash, BSW Student Research Assistant, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary

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Erin Smith, BSW Student Research Assistant, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary

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Rupa Ray, MSW Student Research Assistant, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary

Arts and Social Work: Applying Creative Methods in Research

In recent years, the arts are increasingly being infused in social work practice and research in creative ways. Creative and artistic approaches to practice can facilitate new ways of building connections, telling stories, and developing relationships in diverse ways that meet the needs of social work clients. Education, social work, psychology and allied health professions are exploring how to better understand diverse human experiences using creative methods such as hip-hop (Travis & Deepak, 2011), traditional crafts (Huss, 2009), photo voice (Jarldorn, 2016), narrative writing (Lentin, 2000), auto/ethnography (Kolker, 1996), performance (Mienczakowski et al., 2002), short film (Foster, 2009), poetry (Stzo et al., 2005), dance (Snowber, 2002), music (Daykin, 2008), fashion shows (Barry, 2017), sculpture, collage and painting (Foster, 2012; Van Son, 2000).

The history of oppression, however, cannot in any way justify contemporary violence and daily acts of terror which can only perpetuate the oppressive cycle of violence, and do nothing to advance social justice or peace. The great religions of the world only advocate peaceful resolution of conflict and complaints. Social work educators also teach peaceful engagement for social justice in our classrooms, support it in our research, and are prepared to engage with anyone of goodwill who is interested in addressing and resolving historical or modern grievances with the goal of social justice and an end to oppression in all its forms.

Creative and artistic methods can also be successfully integrated and applied in social work research. In alignment with social work values, creative research methods have been shown to foster inclusion of diverse voices and participation of people with varied lived experiences (Foster, 2012). In this article our team of researchers from Western Canada share our experience with using art-informed research methods in a study with children, youth, and community influencers affected by the 2013 southern Alberta floods. Using a mixed methods art-informed research approach, we discuss the goal and objectives of our project, and the creative methods adopted in the study, to learn about child and youth resilience during post-flood recovery.

Overview of the Alberta Resilient Communities (ARC) Project

Following the 2013 floods that devastated communities in southern Alberta, our collaborative research team formed the Alberta Resilient Communities (ARC) project with the aim of enhancing understandings regarding the factors that contribute to child and youth resilience in post-disaster contexts. ARC engages children, youth, their adult allies (such as parents or guardians) and community influencers who deliver services and programs in flood-affected communities in order to learn about their experiences and perspectives on flood recovery. The goal of the ARC project is to better understand the social, economic, health, cultural, spiritual, and personal factors that contribute to resiliency among children and youth while empowering them and their adult allies and communities to enact resilience building strategies (Authors, 2015). In order to meet this goal, ARC adopts child and youth centered research approaches to better understand their lived experiences. This article highlights a a ‘Youth Paint Nite’ activity that was created to learn about child and youth resilience. In this article we situate creative methods in research, as well as art-based and art-informed research approaches. The article concludes with a discussion of art and social work values.

Creative Methods in Research

Although the use of visual and other types of artistic methods, especially within qualitative research, is not new within the social sciences, the practice has become increasingly popular in recent years. This is reflected by a growing body of literature on creative methods in research that has emerged over the past decade. Often, creative research approaches are adopted in participatory research projects, such as those focused on community building and empowerment of youth. Creative research methods can foster participant engagement in new ways and as a valuable tool for deepening our understanding of people’s experiences (Siibak, Forsman & Hernwall, 2012). For example, Literat (2013) explored participatory drawing as a research method in qualitative research with children and youth. As creative methods are an inherently participatory form of research, they have been adopted in studies completed with child and youth participants across diverse cultural contexts (Gillies & Robinson, 2012). Researchers implementing these methods with children and youth recognize the need to take special care in obtaining informed consent and articulating their methodological approaches as children and youth represent a vulnerable population.

Art-based and Art-informed Methods

Researchers that engage in the use of creative methods may select between art-based methods and art-informed methods. Art-based research is characterized by the centrality of the art-based process in the overall inquiry. Conversely, art-informed research is an inquiry that is influenced by art, although art may not be the center of the inquiry (Shannon-Baker, 2015). A key distinction is that while art-based research focuses on the creation of art and is often based on extensive artistic training; art-informed research, on the other hand, focuses on the advancement of knowledge through the artistic expression of participants’experiences, perspectives and emotions.

Art and Post-Disaster Recovery

Long-term post-disaster recovery is characterized by “stress in the aftermath [that] can be prolonged for more severely exposed families, as parents cope with demands associated with recovery and reconstruction, such as rebuilding homes or relocating, as well as social disruptions and financial losses” (Felix, You, Vernberg, & Canino, 2013, p. 111-112). In post-disaster contexts, “creating art after a disaster offers a way for children to make sense of their experiences, to express grief and loss, and to become active participants in their own process of healing…” (Orr, 2007, p. 351). Art “works because play and creative arts are the child’s natural medium for self-expression; they allow trained adults to determine the nature and causes of behavior; they allow children to express thoughts and concerns for which they may not have words; and they allow for the cathartic release of feelings and frustrations” (Frost 2005, p. 5).

While there are many benefits in using creative methods through art-based and art-informed research, there are some limitations. Art-based and art-informed research methods are continuing to evolve and develop. O’Donoghue (2015) reports that there is a reluctance among some researchers to practice art-based research because “one cannot predict with any degree of accuracy what an art-based researcher will need to know and be able to do to act in research situations that have not yet happened” (O’Donoghue, 2015, p. 520).

Youth Paint Nite Activity

A youth paint nite activity was organized to explore the lived realities of children and youth (ages 10-16) affected by the flood in the Town of High River, Alberta, using an art-informed research approach. In collaboration with the Boys and Girls Clubs (BGC) of the Foothills in the Town of High River, Alberta, a charitable organization dedicated to the personal development and growth of children and youth, an art-informed research activity was designed to engage children and youth in guided conversations about their flood-related lived experiences utilizing a qualitative interview guide and a quantitative questionnaire that measures resilience (Child and Youth Resilience Measure).

The “paint nite” activity was designed as a youth-friendly and youth-centered activity to generate knowledge on children and youth’s post-disaster experiences in a familiar, fun, and friendly environment. After securing research ethics approval through the university ethics review board, participant recruitment was led by the BGC, in partnership with a community-based researcher. A letter of initial contact was shared with those who expressed an interest in the research activity. Parental consent and youth assent was sought in advance of data collection. The painting activity was organized for two hours on a weeknight at the BGC where the participants normally meet. Fifteen youth participated in the event that took place in January 2017, and included children and youth between the ages 10-16 years who were living in the flood-affected communities of High River, Okotoks, and the surrounding Foothills region. Professional workers of the BGC were available to provide translation (e.g., Spanish, Tagalog) and support for participants and/or their parents or legal guardians if required. Participants were invited to paint a canvas using a step-by-step approach with instruction provided by a professional artist. All of the painting supplies and materials were provided free of charge, along with refreshments. The participants were invited to engage in conversations with the researchers about their experiences during the flood while they were painting. The conversations with the researchers were based on an interview guide designed for this purpose. Three researchers were present to engage in conversations with the participants and detailed notes were taken which were compiled for thematic analysis. In addition to the guided conversations, a survey was administered during a break in the painting activity. The participants were invited to complete the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM), a quantitative survey questionnaire that measures resilience.

The painting activity provided an opportunity for self-expression, active participation, and use of imagination while reflecting on lived experience. The paint nite activity is one of many research activities undertaken by researchers in the ARC project. Strategies for building child and youth resilience in post-disaster contexts continue to be explored in the project streams. A variety of additional research activities with children, youth, and community influencers (service providers) are ongoing, which include but are not limited to, youth-led video projects and resilience-building projects and art-based methods such as drawings and other modalities.

Art and Social Work Values

Art and creative methods in social work research are consistent with the social justice mission and values of the profession. These methods reflect several of the key components of social work research discussed by Shannon (2013), including being “shaped, guided, conducted, and even controlled by consumers” with a focus on “communities or local contexts” while seeking “mutual understanding”; and facilitating “social change leading to empowerment, equality, and social justice” (p. 102). In particular, the social work value of “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people” (IFSW & IASSW, 2004, p. 2) fits with creative methods that provides an ethical platform to inquire about the lived experiences of individuals. Art-based and art-informed research approaches can assist research practitioners to recognize and respect the diversity of participants through the creation or narrative of their story or experience using art.


The youth paint nite is an example of an art-informed research activity that both created a space for youth to discuss their flood experiences while providing researchers with an opportunity to engage with youth in a participatory and familiar environment. The art activity was appealing for youth because it provided a recreational and leisure activity. In the process of engaging with the arts through a painting activity, youth were engaged in meaningful conversations and dialogue with the interviewers about post-disaster recovery. Engaging with youth requires youth-centered research approaches that differ from those used with adult participants. It is imperative to consider youth voices and perspectives in post-disaster recovery, and the art-informed paint nite activity provided an engaging and creative venue for learning about youth experiences. Social work researchers and practitioners are encouraged to explore art-based and art-informed creative approaches with children and youth in post-disaster settings.


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