Using Art to help Sustainability Dialogue

I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks over my lunch break recently. One which really stood out was BJ Miller’s thought-provoking talk on ‘What really matters at the end of life‘. While the talk itself was, obviously, about death, he said something that really stuck with me:

The word anaesthetic suggests numbing, not feeling. What is the opposite of this? Aesthetic. Using your senses, allowing you to get instant sensory gratification for just being.

My journey – infographic

When I was a child, I used to do a lot of art. In the summer sun, I used to paint my body with flowers, and spent hours designing my ideal house, fitted with a menagerie and play slide. At school, I often drew comics and watercolours to illustrate soil horizons or mitochondria functions, and as a visual learner, I made graphic posters to revise. When I got to University to study Geography and Sustainable Agriculture, I stopped being creative. I started using theoretical jargon, lengthy academic essays and learned how to structure policy reports. My visual brain shut down, and it was only last year that I started drawing again.

My journey continued…

It was my way of relaxing, but also of trying to understand and learn new topics. I started an Environmental Leadership Programme with Uprising UK, and each week we listened to an expert educate us on topics ranging from sustainable cities to food waste, from grassroots campaigning to body language in leadership roles. For three hours every Thursday, I got out my pens and I started visually recording every key message, quote and image that came to mind.

I got instant sensory gratification from just drawing, and never in a million years did I believe the art would be of value to others, yet I had a lot of positive feedback. This boosted my confidence in my own ‘visual voice’ when it came to sustainability. It was my unique way of making sense of complex topics, and could be used as an accessible, aesthetic way to educate and inspire others to do the same. A picture can tell a thousand words, which makes looking at a graphic recording of a workshop a much more effective way of giving a message than reading a thousand-plus word policy report.

feedback infographic
Feedback – a food waste campaign

I signed up to do a graphic recording course, which teaches me to think fast and draw in a way that delivers an obvious message. These images can be conveyed to anyone, regardless of literacy, language, culture. You do not have to be an expert to be a graphic recorder; the simpler and more universal the image, the better.

The idea that art can create value, or help at least re-think and re-value the way we tackle climate, environment and sustainability, got me thinking.

When I was in India doing research on millet seed systems, the majority of female farmers were illiterate. We used signs and art to educate but also to learn from them. When someone goes through trauma, for example war, famine, poverty or abuse, psychologists often suggest they use their senses to help ‘speak’ about their experience. Drawing symbols instead of writing about trauma, using bread-making as a physical means to release anger or pain… Using our senses to communicate is an incredibly important and empowering ability, yet it is so often neglected compared to text.

I am now determined to change this.

commonwealth i am able campaign
Graphic recording at the Commonwealth conference on mental health and young people, 2017

In the short-term, I will be continuing to do graphic recording at conferences on sustainability. Recently, I recorded the key messages from a workshop on young people with disabilities, showing how we can put infrastructure in place to empower people with mental and physical health issues to have a voice when it comes to policy and international advocacy in the Commonwealth.

My long term aim is to establish myself as a graphic recorder, using art to convey complex and dynamic topics such as climate change, food and farming challenges and opportunities, diet and sustainable eating debates, mental health and food… The list is endless. I also want to educate by training others, especially marginalised groups who may not have a voice amidst a sustainability policy culture that is often esoteric.

It is fantastic to see that others are already thinking the same. A recent briefing paper by the Food Research Council and Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network (BSUFN) encourages the use of artwork as a participatory method in food policy. They state:

The authors’ main interest is the way in which arts-based methods provide a set of tools which can reveal, and give voice to, perspectives on food issues which remain otherwise absent from research and policy debates. In the authors’ experience, this happens either because community members are not asked for their views or because of the way in which much traditional/positivist/biomedical academic research is based around pre-determined research questions that do not provide adequate space for community members to explore and voice their own concerns.

I really hope that more papers like this are published, but more importantly, that it gives power to people to use art and senses to convey their truths, experiences and hopes for the future of our sustainable food and agricultural systems.

If you would like to speak more with me, or collaborate, please do get in touch.

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