Periodically, we pose a question to artists about an issue they face in their work and lives.
Historical, archival, and other research can be crucial to artists, but how and why can vary widely depending on the artist’s work. We asked artists in different disciplines, What role does research play in your process?
View a gallery of some of the research-influenced work of the responding artists
Claire Beckett, photographer
I tend to be interested in subjects that I know very little about, so I need to learn in order to make work. For example, with my current project, The Converts, about Americans converts to Islam, I initially knew very little about the subject. I needed to learn about Islam, about Muslims in America, and about the experience of conversion. I began by reading, where I always begin, because I love to read. I read novels, I re-read The Autobiography of Malcom X, I read a linguistic study, I read ethnography, I read the news. After I while I found that YouTube was full of conversion stories, so I watched those. Beyond the reading, I joined a class for women converting to Islam at a local mosque. When I began attending the class I was straightforward, introducing myself as an artist who wanted to learn about conversion. It must have been odd for the women in the class, but they accepted me. I went on to participate in the class for several years, and I still attend whenever I can. Through the generosity of this group, I learned so much.
Cam Terwilliger, writer
As a historical novelist, research plays an enormous role in my creative process. Right now I’m finishing a novel titled Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart, which takes place in the colonies of New York and Quebec during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). As the plot develops, the book investigates how colonists conflicted and collaborated with Native people, giving rise to the North America we know today. I’m especially interested in dramatizing the lives of people that existed between cultures, such as Native people that lived in Europe, colonists that studied among Natives, and escaped slaves that took shelter in Indigenous communities.
In terms of process, I research the past first through books of history to get a broad picture of the events, and then I move into primary sources in search of concrete sensory details of the time and place – the details that make the past feel immediate and sensory. I scour through the letters of Jesuit missionaries, the travelogues of naturalists, the narratives of slaves, and newspaper advertisements, hunting for a handful of anecdotes and images that will bring the complex truth of this time into focus. As the novelist Ian McEwan remarks, “It’s worth knowing about ten times as much as you ever use, so you can move freely.”
I then I stitch these details into a single bolt of cloth. My goal is to have all these images and anecdotes fit seamlessly together, even though I’m pulling from very disparate places. The challenge is to imagine a scenario in which they coexist in a dramatically interesting way that does not feel overly contrived or convenient.
Steve Gentile, animator
In the case of my most recently finished animated film, A Pirate Named Ned, the research found me. I was just trying to escape the idea of “reading for a purpose” because I had just finished a film about Emily Dickinson, and that involved extensive research. So I started reading about pirates just for fun. That turned into a short, animated film by accident, and I swear, the research made me do it.
Typically with film & animation, I need to become a semi-expert on the topic at hand, which means a lot of reading. Scholarly researchers who write biographies usually have more constraints with format and also the audience they intend to reach. With film, and especially animation, there’s an opportunity to take more risks, so I try to run to the margins of information. I’ve probably chased down more interesting information from footnotes and appendices than in the actual body of the texts.
Time-based media is not really the most efficient way to convey a mountain of facts and information. Writing is better suited for that. It’s hard to convey every detail of every story without putting the viewer to sleep, so a lot of the stories that I think are really neat sometimes don’t make it into a film. This is o.k. – those ideas can work their way into how a character is drawn, or how they move – how they’re animated. That’s an advantage animation has over writing.
Emily Lombardo, visual artist
When I decide to take on a project that is in direct relationship to another work of art or historical moment, I dive into research like a newly awakened conspiracy theorist. I feverishly comb the Internet for articles, links, books, interviews and documentaries. With The Caprichos, I had 80 plates to decode which Goya had made purposefully ambiguous to fly under the radar of the Spanish Monarchy. However in order for me to be able to recode and create a new independent body of work, it is important for me to step outside of the research to be able to make room for fantasy and a new narrative. The research serves as a solid point of departure where parallels and differences are revealed in my relationship with the reference. For me the research is the love affair, and the work comes after the break up. One can see the final effects of my research in the crafting of the works. This means that if I choose to appropriate a work of art that is etching I will take painstaking measures to accomplish the work in the traditional method of the artist I am referencing. By paying homage to the craftsmanship of the previous work, the audience is free to discuss why the work was made rather than how.
Azadeh Tajpour, visual artist
Research has been an essential and often the most time consuming part of my art making process. My installations of paintings, drawings, prints, and video have all been based on images or footages found within an area of curiosity, followed by further research of the subject, imagery, and the ways of representation.
Currently, I am studying a huge photo album from the 19th c., which I have been amazed not only by the photographs and their variety of genres, but also by their arrangements, and the ethnographic style of documentation. I read the textual narrative and look at their relationship with the photographs. Even though I have some vague ideas, mostly visual, the final outcome is uncertain, which can be frightening so keeping faith in the process is crucial. The next step would be to go back and look at my notes and selected images, with either a clearer sense of the direction, or just a narrower focus; this step might be repeated again and again. Research, brainstorming, drawing charts, and possible conversations will help me to progress. After all, maybe we are all doing what Michelangelo had mentioned, discovering the statue inside of the stone block by carving and carving.
Related reading: What do we owe to history in our art?
Claire Beckett is a photographer whose solo exhibition The Converts is on view at Carroll & Sons Gallery through May 28 (opening reception May 6, 2016, 5:30-7:30 pm. She also has work in the The Outwin: American Portraiture Today exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, through 2016.
Steve Gentile is an animator, documentary filmmaker, and Professor of Animation at Massachusetts College of Art & Design. His current project, “Chateau au Go Go,” is an animated film that uses the images from wine corks to make a kinetic statement about the human history of control over nature. The research involved the opening of a lot of wine bottles.
Emily Lombardo is a visual artist who applies her vast knowledge of sculpture and print across a wide range of conceptual projects.
Azadeh Tajpour is a visual artist working in various media. She recently exhibited art based on found footage and archival photos at the Hollister Gallery of Babson College, and earlier this year, she was in a group show at the Walter Feldman Gallery and had a residency at PLAYA in Summerlake, Oregon.
Cam Terwilliger is the 2015/2016 winner of the Historical Novel Society’s New Novel Award and is currently the Tickner Writing Fellow at Gilman School in Baltimore. From May 2 to May 6, he is teaching a one-week intensive online course on Flash Fiction through the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.