Life as Art

Written on: February 6th, 2013

By: Nicole Armos, ASC! Research Assistant

Nicole Armos is currently finishing her Bachelors Degree with Honours in World Literature at Simon Fraser University. She works as a community program leader with the City of Surrey, and as a Teaching Assistant at SFU. Attending a workshop on Art for Social Change led by Judith Marcuse was greatly influential, allowing her to capitalize on the transformative power of art to facilitate positive interpersonal relationships and spark dialogue on social issues. As a Research Assistant, Nicole is helping conduct literature reviews, map existing partnerships between artists and non-arts organizations across Canada, and provide logistical support for the project.

As both a student and teaching assistant in the Faculty of World Literature at SFU, I constantly face the questions “what’s the point of studying literature?” or “what’s the use of art in the ‘real world’?”  Literature and other art forms are unfortunately often seen as recreational activities: to be promoted for children, taken up as hobbies, or consecrated to museums—not necessarily practical agents of change in our society.

In my own life and studies, however, I have never once questioned the value of art. Reading stories and watching movies with my family always led to long philosophical reflections on our lives. Through the poetry I wrote as a teenager, I was able to explore issues I felt deeply about: from falling in love, to my fears for the environment. When I took up dance, it revolutionized my relationships with my own body, and with my community.

I was finally able to articulate what it was that drew me to art when I attended Judith Marcuse’s Art for Social Change facilitation workshop in the summer of 2012. Judith not only shared her wisdom from a lifetime as an artist and facilitator, but also let us experience first-hand the different art-based exercises she incorporates in her work, such as theatre, movement, storytelling, and visual arts collages.

One of my favourite exercises involves using ten objects taken from your bag to explore a question or situation. One object symbolizes yourself; the other nine objects symbolize concrete or abstract elements of the situation, such as people you work with or time pressures. The objects are laid out in such a way as to reflect your relationships to the different elements they represent. What I love most about this exercise is its simplicity and approachability: art is no longer a distant craft to be done only by experts with special equipment, but is rather an experience involving as little as random items in your bag. By assigning meaning to the different objects, and considering how to design their layout to represent my life, I can turn mundane objects into an event that can affect my perceptions on life and my future actions.

This past fall I had the fortune of joining Judith once more in her five-year, national Art for Social Change research project as a research assistant. Working on mapping projects across Canada where artists and arts organizations are forming partnerships with various non-arts sectors, I have come to appreciate the breadth of impact art has on our society. Everyday, arts-based projects in Canada are actively engaging with community members in settings as diverse as homeless shelters, hospitals, schools, prisons, and mobile studios. Art is helping provide employment skills and opportunities, combat violence and drug use, provide moral support, and research and explore complex issues such as mental health, reconciliation, or immigration—to list just a few.

As I venture deeper into this project, I am intent on using the lessons I gained in the object exercise to turn this job into an experience that affects my life instead of just a fleeting moment in my career. The difference between my dumping the contents of my bag on the floor when I’m looking for my keys and doing an arts-based process with them is the reflection: discussing the significance of the layout, and exploring how moving certain items can change the outcomes. Similarly, through written reflections on my involvement with arts and this research project, I hope to turn them into experiences and better understand the relationships between my work, my art, and my life.

- Nicole Armos is a student in the Faculty of World Literature at SFU and Research Assistant on the ASC! Project.