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Art-Based Learning can help people in palliative care create meaning in their lives

  • Education in Art
  • Research

Art - and Art-Based Learning - can help people in palliative care with a diagnosis of advanced cancer create meaning in their lives. This is the conclusion of a research conducted by Silvia Russel, artist and researcher affiliated with ArtEZ's professorship Art Education as Critical Tactics. The results of Russel's research were recently published in the scientific journal Palliative Medicine.

The exhibition curated by Silvia Russel during her research.
The exhibition curated by Silvia Russel during her research.

Living with a terminal illness: in a seemingly hopeless situation, how can one still live a meaningful life? People diagnosed with advanced cancer often experience what are known as 'contingent experiences,' or the realisation that things in life will turn out differently than planned. They ask themselves: Why me, and why now? What happens after death? And what will it be like when I die? "It's precisely in dealing with these life questions that we need creative approaches. Art-Based Learning stimulates or fuels such approaches," says Russel. Together with researchers from the Amsterdam UMC, University of Twente, ArtEZ University of the Arts and Radboud University, Russel investigated whether - and in what way - the art-educational method Art-Based Learning (ABL) can support people in palliative care in the process of finding meaning in their lives.

Not learning about but, from art

ABL, short for Art-Based Learning, is an educational method designed to stimulate creative thinking, where the dialogue between the viewer and the artwork is central, and participants learn not so much about, but from art. For her research, Russel looked specifically at ABL as formulated by Jeroen Lutters (professorship Art Education as Critical Tactics). Together with Lutters and curators from the Amsterdam UMC, Russel curated an exhibition around the theme "light". The people who took part in the research were patients diagnosed with advanced cancer. But, Russel stresses, "among the participants were people with a lot of experience looking at art, and people who actually never engage with art."

Art-Based Learning and creating meaning

Famke Sinninghe Damsté, trainer and ABL expert, guided the participants through the exhibition according to Jeroen Lutters' ABL method. This specific ABL method consists of a number of steps, Russel explains: "The participants were given a notebook before visiting the exhibition. In the back, they wrote down a question that is relevant and urgent for them at that moment, on that day. There is no guidance from us, any question is good. Then the participants chose an artwork that spoke to them the most." They then described the artwork, in as neutral and formal a manner as possible. They described what they were seeing, what colours were used... "The idea behind this step is that it allows the participants to really get to know the artwork: the use of colour, the texture. After the dry and formal description, we ask them to step into the artwork. At this stage, the aim is also for the participants to stop seeing the artwork, i.e. turn their backs to it, for example, and really let their creative thinking and imagination run wild. What does the space of the artwork feel like, what does it smell like there, what does it evoke, what stories unfold?" explains Russel.

"After the last step, that is, when they have 'stepped out of the artwork' again, we look to see if there is a connection to the question they wrote down in the beginning. We ask participants if they want to share that question with us, and also to what extent their experience in the artwork had a connection to the question they asked," Russel says.

This research shows that ABL seems to be a positive and useful method for this, and these initial findings serve as basis for follow-up research
Silvia Russel, researcher and artist affiliated to the professorship Art Education as Critical Tactics

First conclusions

All participants indicated that while looking at the artworks, they did find a connection to their initial question. But not only that: all participants also indicated that they came to new insights in relation to their question, "And that was an important point we wanted to elucidate with this study: can ABL be meaningful for these people in the palliative phase - and can it help them take the next step in making meaning in their lives? This study shows that ABL seems to be a positive and useful method for this, and these initial findings serve as basis for follow-up research," Russel said.

Next steps for follow-up research

And that follow-up research is already in full swing. Russel's research and publication is at the forefront of a larger follow-up study for which the researchers involved, led by Lutters, have received a RAAK-PRO grant: Art-Based Learning in Palliative Care. In this four-year RAAK-PRO research project, Russel has been appointed as one of two PhD researchers. In addition to being able to deepen her research, Russel - together with the other PhD researcher, Shailoh Phillips - will also research how to curate an ABL exhibition for people in palliative care. In the RAAK PRO consortium, museums and patient associations will then collaborate, to ensure that patients play an active role in co-curating an ABL exhibition. Fabiola Camuti, a researcher and lecturer affiliated to the professorship Art Education as Critical Tactics, was involved in Russel's research as research coordinator, and will continue in that role during the RAAK-PRO research. She ensures that the various partners - museums, hospitals, art academies, universities - can work well together and join forces.

Read the full publication

You can read the publication by Russel and her colleagues on Sagepub (open access):

Read the full publication here

All researchers and authors involved: Silvia Russel (Amsterdam UMC ) Gerben Westerhof (Universiteit Twente), Michael Scherer-Rath (Radboud Universiteit), Fabiola Camuti (ArtEZ University of the Arts), Sabrina Kamstra (Amsterdam UMC), Zarah M Bood (Amsterdam UMC), Niels van Poecke (Amsterdam UMC), Jeroen Lutters (ArtEZ University of the Arts), and Hanneke WM van Laarhoven (Amsterdam UMC).

Curious about what else ArtEZ is doing in the field of Art-Based Learning?

Have a look at other research projects led by the professorship Art Education as Critical Tactics

httpVisit the website of the RAAK-PRO consortium 'Art-Based Learning in Palliative Care'

Read more over the professorship Art Education as Critical Tactics