Here's my proposal, it's been approved. Phew. I am being honest when I say the learning curves are steep. Fish out of water is a phrase that stays in throat. But I have amazing guidance in my supervisors and I have a true need to do this so the map is being drawn, slowly.
The Graphic Memoir as a device for healing
• To investigate, through a practice-as-research process, how the graphic memoir might function as a device for healing through both the experience of reading and the process of creation.
• To explore why - and what happens when - we draw, from a phenomenological perspective.
• To survey the formal characteristics of the comics genre and its syntax to understand its power and effect on both the author and the reader.
• How can a graphic memoir function as a device for healing? How can a first person, autobiographical practice of experimentation/investigation - contained and unfolded through process - contribute to and build upon contemporary drawing research theories?
• How might the exposure of autobiographical memoirs to critical review affect their content and form?
• How might autobiographical narratives be represented ethically in a graphic memoir, taking into account circulation and readership?
Background to Research
My artistic practice is founded in drawing as a process and a performance. Historically the work has been concerned with drawing through self-reflexive experiments. The subject - drawing itself - was often privileged over content; as a result, the outcome tended to be impersonal and without explicit narrative. Whilst experiencing a recent, sustained period of emotional and psychological difficulty, my practice of drawing became a valuable aid to recovery. As a routine I began keeping a regular journal, which serves both as sketchbook and diary, and - completely unintentionally - a character emerged in the journal entries whom I came to know and accept as myself. Through this figure the journal became a dynamic and ‘living’ instrument and somehow alchemised what I perceived as a healing process in me.
This transition from a non-figurative, impersonal standpoint to what can be described as autobiographical, self-reflective, figurative drawing in a sequential form has created fertile territory for new tensions and issues to be explored. As a result, the strands of emerging doctoral research, that will intersect in the production of the graphic memoir, are briefly contextualised below as: healing; memoir and autobiography; graphic memoirs; and drawing.
I describe healing, for the purpose of this project, as an intensely personal, subjective process: the transcendence of mental, emotional and spiritual suffering. My understanding of healing stems from a Jungian perspective and, at this stage, is framed by discourses sourced from Jungian writers, analysts, artists and thinkers with a creative approach.
Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul (1992) articulates healing, not from a psychological or pathological basis but through the language of the soul, which resonates with how healing is understood in this research. His writing tenderly crafts a compilation of Jungian themes into a “self-help manual” for the psyche (Moore, 1992: xii) on how to “bring the soul back to life” (Moore, 1992: xiv). Imagination and archetype play a significant role in Moore’s advice, as do art, understanding our shadows and listening to our dreams, for what he describes as the “mythology of the soul” (Moore, 1992: 291). He advocates that insight gained from our own mythology “feeds our souls and ultimately heals our psychological wounds” (Moore, 1992: 219).
Moore offers a matrix for discussing healing which also brings the numinous into critical thinking. This is particularly helpful as my research is deeply autobiographical and creatively mines the unconscious whilst touching on the mystical, mythological, spiritual, transcendent and alchemic in their roles as healing and artistic processes. A Jungian framework triangulates and facilitates a translation of indescribable, unscientific, experiences for theoretical or academic application. It has offered other creative practitioners a similar handrail, particularly practice-researchers like Jane Bacon.
Bacon is a Jungian analyst and movement-based performer who positions her analytic process and research as a creative practice. She offers a model of academic projects with a therapeutic and yet critical treatment, “providing a space where spirituality is named, embraced and from which new understanding for practice-as-research can emerge” (Bacon, 2017).
Whilst Bacon employs Jungian processes to construct methodologies and unearth and explicate research through experience, Marion Woodman was a seminal author and therapist who applied Jungian analytical theory and expertise to her writing which blends theoretical and creative ideas. She analysed her own dreams, and the dreams of her analysands, weaving metaphor, archetypal elements and transformative experiences within it. In the introduction to The Pregnant Virgin, Woodman describes the process of “looking for ways of restoring the unity of body and soul” (Woodman, 1985: 7) whilst searching for ways to articulate academically this lived research: “For weeks I tried to find the syntax that could simultaneously contain the passion of my heart and the analytical detachment of my mind” (Woodman, 1985: 9).
Offering a cultural way into the Jungian realm of the unconscious, Clarrissa Pinkola Estes brings together symbolism, archetype and myth in her work in storytelling, folklore and legend. Women who Run with Wolves (Estes, 1992/1996) provides an analytical perspective of what she describes in the afterword as a “healing art” (Estes, 1992/1996: 463) describing “The underlying theme of this volume (as) an aim to heal the wounds with story as medicine” (Estes,1992/1996: 462).
Story is used autobiographically as medicine by Kim Krans in her graphic memoir Blossoms and Bones (2020), which is an elaborate chronicle of recovery and healing. She is a psychologist and artist, and the memoir was created as she experienced a process of healing transformation. Krans spent a month “drawing the feeling” (Krans, 2020: 4) and the result is published almost entirely unedited because, she says “I felt it was of utmost importance that you could sense the intelligence of the feeling itself and its desire to become a story” (Krans, 2020: 7). This work embeds a subjective view of current attitudes to healing, creativity and spirituality and offers an insight into drawing through a healing process.
Memoir, Journals and the Autobiographical
Although this research project will include key theories from autobiography as a distinct literary genre, it is not limited to literature. This includes any form of memoir, diaries, journals or self-portraiture that account for a period in a life (past, present or projected) rather than the totality of that life.
John Eakin (2008) and Antonio Damasio (1999) offer somatic and neurological theories of autobiography and consider the sociocultural context that they both provide. This is important for understanding the broader meaning of the process of autobiography and its mechanisms in relation to consciousness. Eakins particularly offers links through this to the psychology behind autobiography opening the way for discussions around identity and construction of identity. He proposes that narrative identity achieved through “self-determination”, self-construction and self-invention in autobiographical writing is “not merely about self...put part of self” (Eakin 2008: 2). This idea of self-determination experienced through life writing echoes Jungian theories of transformation and healing through individuation - that is, the process of reconciling the external with one's internal sense of self wherein “we become who we are intended to be rather than the individual who was formed and determined by family, education and culture” (Bacon, website).
These themes are present in the writings of Susan Sontag. As a diarist (Reborn, 1947-1963/2009) and critic of diarists (Against Interpretation, 1966) she self-consciously fashioned herself through life writing, referring to the journal as “an instrument, a tool” (Sontag, 2020/1957: 170), which facilitates her to “create herself” (Sontag, 2020/1958: 166). Joan Didion also offers self-reflective insight into why and how she keeps a notebook (in her essay On Keeping a Notebook (1968) the notebook is another version of a diary) and these intimate reflections provide knowledge about not only the internal systems involved in the autobiographical process but also having one eye on the outward-facing results.
Linda Anderson’s book Autobiography (2001) contextualises these ideas within the field of literature and provides a segue to the broader philosophical and ideology of the practice. This is helpful in situating autobiography historically and also covers a wide range of extended ideas around the personal politics of autobiography, authorial voice and self-empowerment. This links to the issue of personal ethics and self-care within this project which includes both the sense of healing and the act of exposing personal (see Foucault on the Care of the Self as an ethical site and a spiritual aim, 1988). Anderson presents the problem of differentiating between fact and fiction (using Philip Lejeune, 1989) as well as the difference between realising the self and representing the self.
The foundational principles needed for surveying the formal characteristics of the graphic memoir are found in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993). His analysis decodes the conventions, syntax and semiotics of comics. McCloud provides this project a reference guide to the construction, reading and affect of the textual/visual language, and also performs it through that same language. He explicates aesthetic theory, narrative and graphic techniques, complex visual concepts on visual cognition and semiotic theory through the comic form and demonstrates how that form mediates in a specific way. This method is also used by Nick Sousanis who offers a theoretical exegesis through graphic form in his graphic novel Unflattening (2015). This title is important to my research as a book operating in multiple registers: as a model of a methodology; as an example of a graphic novel; and in its subject of the human condition and the philosophical possibilities for reparation and transformation.
Hillary Chute (2010) and Siril Saether Faerstrand (2017) both extrapolate the effects of methods and devices in comic structure, and how these have been used with the vernacular language, democratic nature, accessibility, anti-commercialist characteristic and often subjective perspective of comics, to communicate unspeakable, taboo or resistant themes.
Thi Bui (2017) is an author who used her graphic memoir as an aid to heal her trauma. Like Sacha Mardou (2019), who self-reflectively presents accounts from her psychotherapy sessions in graphic form with the conscious intention to facilitate her healing, they utilise their practice to transform themselves. These approaches could fall into the field of research that has been termed “Graphic Pathographies” by Dr Ian Williams (2011): that is, autobiographical memoirs of suffering or disease. Graphic medicine, a broader term for the field has an emphasis on the dissemination of medical narratives for medical and health purposes but Williams has also considered the motivation for making, what he terms, autographic autotherapy (Williams, 2010: 353). The latter is more relevant for this research in situating graphic memoirs with a focus on the author, from that author’s experience.
In mapping out the social history of comics to trace the development of graphic memoirs I have looked to Sarenci (2003), Baetens and Frey (2015,) Versaci (2007) and Eisner (2008), Sabine (2011) and Postema (2013). Most critical theorists of comics use a legacy of underground, subcultural rebelliousness, to describe a genre that is reputed to facilitate freedom of expression in its authors. The critics listed above offer a range of theories about the sociological, commercial and ideological impacts on the genre. For example, the reputed trait of subversion in comics is significant for discussions about agency of the author and social factors that influence narrative authority. Similarly, arguments around terminology and definition tend to favour graphic memoirs as carrying more gravitas than comics Postema, (2013). El Refaie (2012), Hillary Chute (2010) and Olga Michael (2013) expand on this discourse and frame theories around empowerment (through the liberating freedoms offered in comics structure and identity) as part of a reparation process.
Amongst the graphic memoir authors analysed by El Refaie et al are Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel and Aline Kominsky Crumb. To intersect with practical drawing research, I intend to focus on these as studies, decoding form and content alongside examining artists like Emma Talbot - whose autobiographical work Thrown on the Rocks in an Unfamiliar Place (2018) is formally reminiscent of the sequential image/text layout of comics, merging comics with contemporary art drawing.
Drawing is central to this project and touches every other area of the research. Patrick Maynard’s Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties of Graphic Expression (2005) considers the capacity of drawing’s reach by interrogating it from multiple angles. He analyses the activity of drawing as a mechanism by connecting the myriad of graphic languages with other disciplines to explain the existence and function of each. Along with Dianna Petherbridge’s survey, The Primacy of Drawing (2010), it provides a bridge between traditional and contemporary histories and theories of drawing, something Petherbridge describes as “trans-historical methodology” (2010: 13). Petherbridge comprehensively scrutinizes phenomenological, cognitive, semiotic, philosophical, psychological, psychic and mythic ideologies of drawing and pulls together the strands of the research potentials through which to read the notion of healing through drawing.
Deborah Harty (2012) and Geoffrey Bailey (1983) specifically discuss drawing as phenomenological as did the philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1961), who they both reference. The idea that an artist offers their body through their eyes and hand is of interest to me and talks to John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934/2005) and pragmatic ideas about art inhabiting our experience, rather than the resulting object or performance of making.
Jack Burnham’s The Structure of Art (1973) provides a discussion of the structure of drawing as object and thinking mechanism which is important for understanding my process of thinking through drawing. Alongside Tim Ingold’s anthropological perspective, which expands the meaning of the craft of drawing, this will create a foundation for developing ideas on pragmatic drawing making. With reference to Deleuze and Guattari (1968) and Claude Levis Strauss (1962) and extended by Emma Cocker (2012) these theories, as applied to the drawing process and object, will facilitate exploration of lived trace and line and their metaphorical equivalences and philosophical potential. I use Howard Hoffman’s Vision and The Art of Drawing (1989) for its discussion of the cognitive, psychological and physiological science of drawing. Ideas of perception and visual language, which I take from Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925), lead on from this. Klee’s metaphysical treatise On Modern Art (1948/1966) invites the research to migrate out into the realm of drawing research that considers drawing as expressive, intuitive, and transformative, and to situate the discourse in the transcendental sense of healing through drawing. It demonstrates the synthesis of pragmatic drawing technique through a metaphorical treaty which echoes Jungian theories of the subconsciousness as the source of creativity and transformation, as Hubert Read’s introduction acknowledges, “Art, for Klee, meant an exercise in self-analysis” (Read in Klee, 1948:6).
For a contemporary framing of these themes, I lean on Lynn Imperatore whose work demonstrates how drawing can reveal - through activity or trace - “unseen or barely seen phenomena” (Imperatore, 2015:15). Similarly, Duncan Bullen, theorises drawing and meditation as enactments of well-being and his thesis which discusses practice as phenomenological contemplation offers a reference point and a practice-based model.
At the centre of this project is the production of a graphic memoir. I am using a practice-research methodology to explore healing through the method of drawing, simultaneously creating insight and documenting the process, by working phenomenologically and autobiographically through Nelson’s model of “Modes of Knowing” (Nelson, 2013: 37). Within the practice, a flow between the haptic (know how), distant knowledge (know that) and the tacit (know what) produces and refines gained. The final thesis submission comprises a graphic memoir and a textual critical commentary. The latter will incorporate embedded graphic memoirs produced through and about the research process, reflections about the methodology and the process of making the graphic memoir, as well as the consideration and application of critical theories (such those outlined in the previous section).
A variety of drawing systems and directives will be employed to begin with, and it is anticipated that these will evolve, and the project will innovate and adapt new methods of drawing as research. A graphic memoir as a personal visual/textual journal and as a system of drawing itself employs both implicit and explicit language, so that the documentation of research process will build within the development of the image/text of the memoir. Drawing describes its own history, “it has a particular capacity to construct and enact at the same time” (Cain, 2010: 267). The graphic memoir will both be generating and presenting/documenting knowledge-making. It is important to also acknowledge that the discrete but oscillating methods between personal visual/textual journal and the formation of the graphic memoir as it transitions to outward facing object is a further research opportunity.
Diagramming is a prospecting method that creates and documents simultaneously and lends itself to the methodology of the project. Dean Kenning, in his Exploratory Diagrams presentation (at Diagramming Research, Plymouth University, 2019, chaired by Geoff Cox) explains diagramming as researching through drawing as a comic form.
The synthesis of different notions, not necessarily resolved, coexisting of ideas, working in a dynamic on a 2d surface in relation with each other, combines inference of new forms allowing new thought and also shows its own process and history to be revisited and reworked and further new ideas to emerge. Tension between present moment past and future potential creating - creating a critical tool to understand, systemize information. (Kenning, 2019)
The move from fine art drawing to graphic memoir making as a practitioner is a huge departure for me. From the outside it may seem the two disciplines are close but within the field of drawing they are very different. Nelson (2013: 28) refers to this as “de-familiarisation” which can positively affect results; he suggests diversity can lead to rigor rather than a lack of specialism. To explore this, the respective disciplines will each be surveyed to establish characteristic elements for each. I will then document the phenomenological experience of mimesis of selected artists from each respected field. Mimesis – or what Cain describes as enactive copying (2010) - will be an in-depth research activity, both to gain understanding of it as a process of drawing mediation (Wilson 2005) and to use as a methodological system.
The exploration of the tensions between the continuous, free, unedited process of the journaling, and the application of design or planned drawings in the production of the graphic memoir are an anticipated source of rich data; comparing these approaches - the raw, unmediated, instinctive material to the planned, redrawn or refined images - and introducing interruptions, permutations and combinations of these in experimentation is a planned approach.
This will be extended in the experience of moving from an impersonal approach to personal subjectivity to be observed to enable the discussion of craft and mechanisms as influences on experience. I will devise variations to test further theories, underpinned with experiments in conditions of production, including practical changes in materials, form, styles and scale of drawing and timed frequency of drawing.
The self-analytical journal practice will be supported by Jungian theory as an integral part of the experimental methodological process. Drawing from the subconscious by using Jung’s technique of active imagination, will both generate creative content and be used to reflectively understand drawing as healing. The method of measuring if healing has taken place will be a combination of; using somaesthetic awareness and assessment; time-framed narrative documentation; qualitative analysis of both the experiential evidence and the artistic output; reflections through contextual research, all understood against my own picture of what healing looks like. Nelson’s practice-as-research model facilitates a stepping outside of the paradigm of autobiographical, self-analysis and solipsism to maintain a critical lens whilst immersing in the self as subject.
I will also be examining the content and research of examples of autobiographical graphic medicine and artworks. This will be in order to analyse the authors’ and artists’ direct accounts of what their intentions and experience was in creating personal works and what my phenomenological experience is in receiving them. This ground also provides a space for discussing expanded autobiography. I will look to Chris Kraus and Olivia Laing as authors who have played with autobiography as a creative vehicle. Kraus intentionally blurs truth and fiction in I Love Dick (2006) and Laing uses the device of biography to examine her loneliness by piggybacking on various artists’ experiences and stories in her book The Lonely City (2016).
Statement of Ethical Research
The outcome of producing a graphic memoir, which will be autobiographical, may indirectly refer to living people by association and affect their privacy. If and when this occurs (because of the nature of the ongoing personal discovery as research I will not be able anticipate this occurring) I will seek permission to include them in going forward towards the final submission and discuss the details of the data and the implications and possible publication of the project outcome before making any research public.
I will also ensure I use measures to anonymise any representation of these people by changing names and representing them visually as fictional characters as far as possible, with negotiation and permission.
The project will not directly use research with other participants therefore: I do not intend to research with human or animal participants and therefore do not need to complete an application for ethical approval.