visual narratives as sense-making

This is a guest post by Megan McPherson who is an artist, educator and researcher. She is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. She read the patter post on writing narratives as sense-making practice and has written this post about using images as well as/instead of words.

For my PhD research I have a field notes journal. I also have a twenty-five year collection of art journals and artwork. In thinking about how I am progressing through my PhD research, I am realising that there is continual positioning and repositioning informed by the narratives in and between my field notes and practice. This is sense-making.

The practice of doing field notes and journals informs my “hands on hips stance” and finding my voice. It is developing what I understand as my professional practice as a researcher. Lee and Dunston (2011) describe professional practice as dialogue and activity. Practice is not individual skills and knowledge, but dialogue and activity combined ‘as complex socio-material accomplishments, multi-dimensional, situated, embodied, and fundamentally relational’ (Lee & Dunston, 2011). My field notes and journals are not a snapshot of my individual skills and knowledge. They narrate the dialogue and activity of practice. They are a process of enacting a practice of researcher and artist.

Artists in their artwork and sketchbooks use this idea of sense-making as a part of their practice. How sketchbooks and artwork operate as narratives can be one of the most interesting ways to experience artists’ practices. Sketchbooks (or field notes) can be a form of art making. Like Pat’s word narratives, travel images like the fifty-three day journey from Edo to Kyoto prints originally operated via signposting the route for travellers, as a souvenir, an aide to memory or an aspirational catalogue of where travellers might like to visit. These images of the route, the Tokaido, were informed by the artist Hiroshige’s travel experiences. His sketches and prints of the route, the visual narrative now inform my understanding of landscape, of travel, of place, and of culture.

Engaging in visual narratives is a way to question and to discover. Christine Buckton Tillman’s process of working in a sketchbook and publish via Flickr inform her everyday routines and sense-making and add to the materiality of her art practice. What does the process of gathering of 325 women named Jennifer Mills by Jennifer Mills say as an investigation of identity and positioning of self in the world? What is a speech bubble doing on the page of J.M.W. Turner’s sketchbooks?

Another way of thinking about how artistic field-notes work is in their use. On a tram recently, a friend and I compared our recent studio work in progress via photos and Instagrams on our phones. My friend spoke about how the work of layering the printed lithographic images over the top of one another informed the concept of the work. She spoke of how she wanted the image to operate through the disintegration of the composition being ‘muddied’ by the physical layering of the image. The material physicality of the printed surfaces working together to describe a state of being, and of being with the labour of the process of making of the lithographs. She gave me a visual and spoken narrative of her process and how it made sense to her.

The artwork that my friend is making is not created ready formed, it is ‘crafted, composed, and unfold through a process of transforming ideas into [visual] language’ (Paré, 2009). The artwork is informed by sense-making work and talk. My friend was checking if I understood what she was exploring from her process of positioning herself in the midst of the work. The process of making, and the visual narrative of making, was ‘sign posting’ the shifts in approaching, exploring, problem setting and responding in the making of knowledge.

Megan raises some interesting issues for researchers more generally. Could we use images as well as words in ways similar to artists?

Lee, A. & Dunston, R. (2011). Practice, learning and change: towards a re-theorisation of professional education. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(5), 483–494.
Paré, A. (2009) What we know about writing, and why it matters. Compendium 2, 2(1)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Anthony Paré, artist notebooks, image, narrative, writing as heuristic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to visual narratives as sense-making

  1. Graphic novels have been used in interesting ways to explore a wide variety of issues. The visual element can provide more richly textured account than words.


  2. Karina Quinn says:

    Thanks Megan for this very wonderful post. I think of my notebooks as a way of “walking to see” – I can’t know what I’m thinking until it’s performed on the page. And thank you, too, Pat for all of your wise words.


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