Art Encounters with Health Data

Before social distancing was a thing, an unexpected meeting with Paul Hartley at an art exhibition opened my eyes to a new kind of research. Paul work for In-Situ, an arts organisation in Pendle and he explained a new project he was soon to be working on- it involved learning about physical activity in Pendle and In-Situ’s vision was to do this using art. Any creativity I did have had been left in my art GCSE class, and working in academia, to me research meant graphs, focus groups and statistics. Safe to say I was intrigued as to how and where art would fit into research.



"The aims were clear, if we were going to reach communities that do not always participate in traditional research, we needed to try new approaches."


Not sure what to expect, I met two local artists, Emma Long and Alison Cooper as well as local researcher Adam Pearson. To my relief, Adam was used to dealing with graphs and numbers. But Alison and Emma introduced me to a new world of ideas, gathering data by drawing portraits, creating a comfy living room set and creating audio clips. The aims were clear, if we were going to reach communities that do not always participate in traditional research, we needed to try new approaches. Emma, Alison and I explored areas of Pendle, trying to find places we could set up and engage people that struggle with physical activity.



We ended up setting up outside local supermarkets, in town centres and even visiting taxi ranks! This was vastly different from my usual office environment and working with in-Situ made me realise the importance of taking research to people rather than hoping they would see adverts and emails. Local residents were thrilled to answer our questions, often in exchange for their portrait. These abstract, colourful drawings captured the interests of local residents who would ask what we are doing and whether they could have their picture drawn (I’m still waiting for mine!). People talked to us about the difficulties they were faced with when trying to be active and the barriers that held them back. Children were invited to decorate and paint their own face masks, ensuring families were kept entertained and there was something in this for them. It felt like we were giving something back rather than simply asking for endless forms to be filled in.



"I hope to continue working alongside artists and using creative approaches in my work, hopefully taking some of what I’ve learned into the traditional academic world."


Through more traditional graphs and short surveys alongside portraits and recorded clips, we were able to gather a wholesome account of physical activity in Pendle. I saw first-hand how non-traditional approaches appealed to more people, to families and to communities that usually present low rates of participation in research (for example, South Asian communities). Despite the overall success of the project, unfortunately we were somewhat hindered by the pandemic and adjusted some ideas to ensure social distancing and safety measures were met. It was great to meet and learn from local artists who made me think about how I could approach research in a different way. I hope to continue working alongside artists and using creative approaches in my work, hopefully taking some of what I’ve learned into the traditional academic world.



This writing has been created and shared as part of Thinking Out Loud - a series of texts and conversations from a wide range of perspectives within In-Situ's practice, that explore the social role of art in everyday life.


Anam Elahi is a lecturer on the Doctorate of Clinical Psychology Programme at the University of Liverpool, and before that, was Research Associate at the University of Manchester. Her research includes a PhD and several articles on social identity theory and paranoia and mental health in ethnic minorities in the UK and in low and middle income countries. Anam has been a resident in Pendle all her life, and is passionate about helping the community that she lives in. She has an understanding of the diverse communities in Pendle and the unique challenges they face.

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