Artistic approaches to data collection: illustrations and collage

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In October 2011, archaeologists in Italy discovered fragmentsof ceramic pots. The excitement of the fi nd was heightenedas the world learned of the two small pictures depicting awoman giving birth. The illustrations are likely to be over2600 years old and as such would be the earliest known artisticrepresentation of the birthing process in Western Europe(Discovery News, 2011). Researchers from a wide range ofbackgrounds are already actively engaged in data analyses withexpert anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, technologistsand artists working collaboratively to determine its meaningfor our postmodern culture. This phenomenon is a perfectexample of how illustrative, artistic data can be used as evidencefor historical research purposes and it is another example ofoccularcentrism, as previously discussed in the June editorial(Sinclair, 2011).The sheer fact that this particular image of a mother with herlong ponytail birthing the head and shoulders of her infant ishighly symbolic of the culture of the people at that time. WhenI looked at the picture, I was struck by the graphical illustrationof the woman, alone, upright and in the squatting position.The artist valued this birth and that is evident in the detailedportrayal. Having studied fine art, it is not possible to ‘see’ withthe fetters on and as I kept looking at the image I was transfixedwith a sense of the power of creativity and timeless spiritualitysurrounding the act of birth. This simple line drawing conveysbirthing power and energy. It has withstood destructive elementsand the corrosion of time and the image does not change itsform, but the interpretation is fluid and will be heavily influencedby the philosophy, politics and culture of our time. The originsand history of art enrich our lives and it is important to remindourselves that art is the earliest form of communication knownto us and, as such, is priceless. Symbolism and spirituality weremajor concepts depicted in the visual world of early times andartists are renowned for their endeavours to depict the deepermeaning of life and this can make us feel very uncomfortable.For example, the same portrayal of the power of birth couldarguably be evidenced in modern times by referral to the recentbirth of baby boy in 2011 at the Microscope Art Gallery in NewYork. His mother, Marni Kotak, an arts performer, gave birthwith the help of a midwife as part of an art installation and liveexhibition. This artistic expression was designed to demonstratethat human life was and is a profound work of art (Canning,2011). However, this particular use of art may be too abstractand philosophical for many of us to comprehend and thereforeit is important to focus on the use of visual communications ata more grounded level.The methodological home for artistic approaches isethnography where using symbols, drawings and multimediaare part of the process. Applied and creative use of artistictechniques offers a different form of knowledge and a differentway of seeing and knowing. Approaches include the use ofphotographs, drawings, collage, cartoons, pictures, music,poetry, storytelling, role play and using diaries. Midwives arelearning to use artistic approaches to enrich research datacollection in situations where words are not enough andsometimes it is too painful to talk. In other instances, languageis not used because of the sensitivities, translation issues orspeech impediments of the participants and these issues offer astrong rationale for the use of creative methods. I have personalexperience of using artistic approaches to collect data over thepast 15 years; mainly illustrations and collage although poetry isbeginning to emerge. The research studies have been focused onexploring women’s birth memories and perceptions of normaland technological birth (Sinclair, 1999). My doctoral studentshave used video, multimedia, graphical illustrations and poetry.However, collage and illustrations have been most popular andthis is understandable. The main attractiveness of collage is therapid building of the image and the fluidity of materials whilethe use of illustrations seems to be more popular with thosewho have some confidence in their drawing ability.Key principles for the researcher include clearly articulating therationale for artistic/creative approaches and how they are themost appropriate medium for collecting data to answer specificresearch questions. In addition, data analyses must be carefullyplanned and, if necessary, supplementation by interpretativeinterview, focus group or online discussion. Based on previousresearch, asking women to remember their birth experience andto let their mind form pictures requires considerable planningand extensive pilot work to ensure person-centeredness.Strategies for confidence building and practical use of the toolsof the trade – such as paint, pencils, oils, camera, video – needto be incorporated into the project planning, if participants areto engage meaningfully. One of the most important factors tobear in mind when using creative approaches is to ensure clarityof understanding with regard to the fact that artistic ability isnot required.In conclusion, artistic approaches in the form of illustrationsand collage are being used in midwifery research, but one of themost profound differences is the fact that the researcher usingcreative methods needs to learn to listen visually and this willrequire training, support and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3
JournalEvidence Based Midiwfery
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Jan 2012

Bibliographical note

Reference text: Canning A. (2011) NY woman ‘performs’ live birth for gallery patrons. See:
gallery-patrons (accessed 10 February 2012).
Discovery News. (2011) Ancient images of mother giving birth found. See: www. (accessed 14
February 2012).
Sinclair M. (1999) Midwives’ readiness to use high technology in the labour ward:
implications for education and training. Unpublished PhD thesis: Queen’s
University, Belfast.
Sinclair M. (2011) Occularcentrism and the need to ‘see’ the evidence of impact.
Evidence Based Midwifery 5(1): 39.


  • Artistic expression
  • childbirth art
  • collage
  • illustrations
  • evidence-based midwifery


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