People, Research

Western Education PhD student uses art to advance research

October 18, 2022

Sarah Hennessy with one of her art pieces.

Students, faculty, and staff were treated to an art exhibition at the Faculty of Education that challenges perceptions about the world.

PhD candidate, Sarah Hennessy, presented her doctoral research through ‘Inklings: Becoming with a Palette of Place,’ which highlights the relationship of colours, plants, people, and place.

Hennessy said place is important because it’s political, messy, and entangled. From an education perspective, place has traditionally been associated with geography, but she emphasizes a place is more than a physical location as it has more than one story and it’s shared by many people.  

“The land we’re standing on right now has so many histories to it, so many lives, so many worlds, the idea of place is really complicated,” Hennessy said.

She has three goals for the exhibition. First, it lets her art be part of her research. Second, she hopes early childhood educators, children, and families see art as academic research and not a bonus or an add on. Finally, she hopes viewers see her artwork as an accessible way to engage with her research.

“I’m as much an educator as I am an artist and researcher,” Hennessy said. “It’s one of my ways of learning, processing, thinking as well as transmitting my knowledge of my PhD.”

She created her artwork using a common worlds approach. She describes it as an understanding that humans are part of, but not separate from nature. Hennessy added humans are not the centre of the world and her research focuses on how early childhood educators can support young children to think about place and other species beyond human centric ways.

“We are humans in a world that is not ours, it’s a shared world,” Hennessy said. “The common worlds approach destabilizes, deconstructs, and disrupts the human-is-best approach to this world.”

The ‘Inklings’ exhibition also contributes to the Climate Action Network (CAN) project, an international collaboration that researches climate change pedagogies with young children.

The art included in this exhibition is from her research with children and educators at an early learning centre in southwestern Ontario. Each art piece informs an area of her research.

What’s more, Hennessy created more than the artwork. She also created the ink for it because the pandemic gave her more time to forage in the London area. She created the ink from buckthorn, sumac, wild grapes, copper, black walnut, pokeberry, and goldenrod.

“The black walnut ink that I created goes back to Aristotle, which he used, and to Leonardo Di Vinci who wrote with it,” Hennessy said.

Hennessy describes the inks as a palette of place because the phrase denotes the intimacy of generating small batches of colour to materially engage with place. In addition, each work in the exhibition is accompanied by a provocation, which is a written narrative that encourages viewers to think about it.