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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Canvas mirrors: cultural-identities-in-transition as reflected through art Noble, Steven Edward


After immigrants haul bags from the luggage carousel, hail a cab and sally forth to temporary accommodation in Vancouver, they find life here is not the same as at their recently departed home. There have been many attempts to study "culture shock," "identity-in- transition," or other changes experienced by immigrants. In many studies the person-in-transition is interviewed or completes questionnaires. Whilst useful, these studies often mask deeper structures, dilemmas and other conflicts lying beneath words used to describe identity conflicts. This study was designed to remedy this limitation. The problem and methodology was informed by theory derived from art therapy, cross-cultural psychology, adult education and the psychology of identity. Art therapy was central to the analysis performed on data provided by three participants. The other theories helped shape the conceptual framework. The goal of the study was to better understand internal conflicts experienced by people in transition. It was not a study of immigrant settlement. Rather, the purpose was to explore meanings, blocked by language. The methodology was an artistic process which unmasked relevant emotion and provided a visual record of change. The purpose was achieved by chronicling the experience of two immigrant women and myself as a gay man. The stories of these people became fundamentally and profoundly related. Paintings were produced over an eight week period. Each artist's statement about their own creative projects was included as a second source of data. The paintings were interpreted in accord with models and procedures derived from art therapy. The results of this study stem from a thematic interpretation of the symbolic images and words incorporated by each of the participants. All participants experienced a sense of social invisibility or "strangeness." During the eight week period each participant appeared to (and confirmed that they) developed a more inclusive world view. They spoke of their ability to accept change, to embrace others, to attempt new projects. The concept of "home" as source of grounding was critical. However, they also spoke about "colliding" with others. Numerous minor themes were also disclosed. As well, the author showed the strengths and limitations of using artwork as "data." In general, the decision to have people paint their lives was amply rewarded by the richness of the data derived. This was a study of two recently arrived immigrants and one gay man. However, in the future both the conceptual approach and methodology could be applied to other forms of identity "discontinuity" or upheaval experienced by people crossing boundaries, For example, there are issues pertaining to sexuality, class, race, gender and other matters that beg for this kind of attention. Art can inform, teach and record. Other artistic processes need to be explored, such as theatre, music, dance, sculpture, and still art forms. When people move among cultures they rarely study their experiences. Rather, they learn in nonformal and informal settings. It would be instructive to use art to study these learning processes. In the postmodern state numerous borders are collapsing. People are expected to cross them with minimal fuss and few casualties. Learning helps the border crossing process. Adult educators are probably less wedded to words (such as in lectures) than other branches of education. Hence, using art should not pose an enormous challenge. The notion of the complete learner takes on a profound significance when art is used. At the dawn of the 21st century it would be useful to determine the extent to which art brings into consciousness dimensions of the adult learner usually concealed in more traditional class settings. The use of art challenges the hegemony of talk therapy or talking heads as teachers. It embraces emotional and intuitive learning. Both, potentially, are powerful and key future areas of adult education research.

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