Art can be used as a therapeutic tool as well as a research method.  The creation of art can facilitate relationship building as well as sharing stories to influence change.  Art can transform individual and collective experiences; as it fosters creativity.  Imaginative spaces allow for creativity and self-expression to help individuals express themselves; further, it is dynamic, and ever-evolving, allowing for multiple stories to emerge.  It is relational to self-expression, place, time, language, relationships, emotions, and spirituality.  Transformative learning environments are dependent on the facilitator; and their ability to actively listen and implement the ideas of individuals.  Transformative facilitators recognize the importance of active and authentic engagement, people’s readiness to learn, to be present and know people’s context and needs, and be adaptable and reflective of their personal and collective needs and growth.  This article is a short example of how arts-based methods were used as a tool in health research.



This article highlights the creation of a transformative learning environment through art as a research tool to influence positive community change with youth.  To facilitate research authentically and to gather quality data, it is essential to have a trusting reciprocal relationship.  For research to be reciprocal, it needs to follow participatory processes in which there is no hierarchy between ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’; creating a co-learning environment where everyone learns through each other’s stories.  This participatory approach is highly recommended for therapists and client relationships as it creates a therapeutic environment that increases clients’ empowerment.

The effectiveness of art to transform and shift research paradigms and health practices is needed in the face of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.  Art can decolonize Indigenous youths identities; as colonial structures in Canada have disrupted the imagination of Indigenous children through the Indian Residential Schools.  It is a tool for the resurgence of Indigenous customs, values, and norms.  Research with and for Indigenous youth should be building capacity, grounded in their cultural worldviews, and meaningful.  As a research method, art has been used in other disciplines and is beginning to gain traction in health research.  Art is a viable research method in health research as it creates and utilizes its therapeutic elements.  Research that uses arts-based approaches are guided by intuition, feelings, and emotions, and can lead to a transformative experience when done authentically and meaningfully.

To begin facilitating the research project, I had to sit, listen, and play with the girls to build meaningful relationships.  This was done over the course of the summer in which I helped to co-facilitate and engage with youth in youth identified activities.  Through relationship building, the research project emerged.  The research project aimed to understand empowerment from an Indigenous perspective to ground community health development for youth in the local customs, values, norms, and ideologies of the community.  The project was co-designed and implemented with First Nation girls between the ages of 10 to 15; the girls used art forms of their choice to express their experiences of empowerment and disempowerment, guiding program development and opportunities for change.  By authentically and actively engaging the girls through art, it was found that the girls were more likely to participate, became comfortable in sharing stories, had fun, and wanted to make change through participating in other youth activities in the community (i.e., attending the youth centre and helping in the youth community garden).

Art was used in various forms throughout this study. For example, as an introduction to the project, the girls worked collectively to brainstorm what it meant to be a girl.  The girls did a body mapping art activity; they worked in three groups of five to outline a body.  Through art and words, the girls provided their perspective of being a girl.  Following this we did participatory analysis, creating a more extensive outline in which we looked for commonalities across the three art pieces.  Art was also used to have the girls create an ‘Empowerment Blueprint’; this was any art form (e.g., drawing, painting, and writing) they wished to describe their experiences and hopes and dreams regarding empowerment.  To conclude the research project, it was decided to use media arts to have the girls share their collective description of empowerment through a video.

Through the expression of art, the girls began to express and decolonize their self and collective identities.  Imaginative spaces are important in decolonizing practices and ideologies; through the usage of art, girls were encouraged to dream and imagine a positive future for themselves and future generations.  They begin to shift their thinking from the roadblocks of empowerment to thinking of empowerment within themselves, their community, and all girls.  The research process took time to process the stories and the emotions evoked by sharing stories.  Further, following an iterative approach we moved as fast or as slow as needed based on the girl’s readiness and ability to absorb new information.  As the research was conducted through participatory processes, it was also critical for the youth to participate in knowledge translation.


Indigenous Roots of Expressive Arts Therapy: Transformation, Social Justice, and Social Change, Globally and Locally Conference

Traveling to attend the International Expressive Arts Therapy Associations (IEATA), Indigenous Roots of Expressive Arts Therapy: Transformation, Social Justice and Social Change, Globally and Locally conference in Winnipeg allowed us as a research team to travel and share our research experiences as well as learn about other ways art is used to create better communities.  The research teamthat traveled was three youth, a chaperone, and myself (See photo below).  The conference allowed the youth co-researchers in the project to share the skills they developed, enhance their facilitation and presentation skills and co-learn with other women on their definition of empowerment (See photo two below).  The title of our workshop wasMamāhtāwicikewIskwēsis: A Plains Cree Description of Girl Empowerment.  It was also a time for the girls to learn about the other ways in which art and culture are being implemented to transform and create social change within Canada and globally.  After the closing of the conference, the girls travelled back to the community and shared the knowledge they gained with their peers.

As a graduate student (first author of the article), this was a unique opportunity as I acted as a catalyst to get the abstract ready for submission and planned and prepared for the trip to Winnipeg.  This was important for me as a young researcher, as often knowledge is generated within communities and community members do not have the opportunity to participate in the knowledge translation of the project fruitfully.  For me, research and program development has always been about the participatory process and finding ways for youth to participate and continue to learn through the research we have co-created together.  Traveling to attend the IEATA conference strengthened our relationships and created an environment for our continued co-learning through not only facilitating and sharing our experiences with attendees but also attending workshops and learning from other attendees’ experiences.


The Authors: Carolyn Gaspar, Star Sundown, Kara Prosper, 
Gracie Ermine Charles, & Joy Charles