Texas Tech University

School of Art Doctoral Students Combine Art, Science in the PeARL

Amanda Castro-Crist

January 3, 2019

Kathryn Kelley and Sylvia Weintraub are using resources within Texas Tech’s Performing Arts Research Lab to analyze patterns, trends and associations that affect human behavior.

As part of Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA), students, faculty and staff in the School of Music, the School of Art and the School of Theatre & Dance conduct performances, host exhibitions and lead projects and initiatives that enrich the community through the arts.

PeARL logo

In the TCVPA's Performing Arts Research Lab (PeARL),directed by School of Music professors David Sears and Peter Martens, they also conduct groundbreaking, interdisciplinary research. The PeARL combines the arts with other fields of study in Lubbock and around the world like medicine, education, linguistics and psychology, to name a few.

Kathryn Kelley and Sylvia Weintraub have used resources within the PeARL to conduct research for their dissertation work as students in the TCVPA Fine Arts Doctoral Program. This interdisciplinary program includes a concentration in critical studies and artistic practice and allows for collaboration outside the School of Art so students may tackle topics deemed too complex to restrict to a single area of study.

Weintraub's work explores how people living in a consumer society that is flooded with prefabricated products gain adaptive skill sets by engaging in do-it-yourself (DIY) culture via online outlets.

Kelley's research, a collaboration between the PeARL and the Language Use and Social Interaction Lab (LUSI Lab), directed by Molly Ireland in the Department of Psychological Sciences, focuses on how writing is used not only to support and complement artistic processes but also to mitigate mental health risks and issues common to artists.

While their individual research may differ in topics, their work shares a common theme: analyzing large visual arts data sets for patterns, trends and associations to determine how they affect human behavior.

"The art forms we know and love are all around us, whether we're in the car driving to work, at home in front of a computer or at an art gallery," Sears said. "One of the goals of the PeARL is to use computational methods to examine how all of these daily experiences impact human behavior, health and well-being, and creative self-expression. By embracing methods at the forefront of big data to study large samples of artist writings or DIY projects on Pinterest, Kathy and Sylvia have developed research projects requiring exactly this sort of interdisciplinary thinking." 

Self-education and DIY

Sylvia Weintraub
Sylvia Weintraub

Weintraub's project, "Art Education Online: How Users Engaged in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Culture Self-Educate Using Pinterest," attempts to shed light on the limitations or advantages social media, like posts on Pinterest, has on an individual's creative process.

"The nature of commodity culture discourages consumers from actively understanding how to manipulate matter," said Weintraub, a third-year doctoral student in the PeARL. "DIY is a movement that enables individuals to seek information pertaining to fixing and making, which reinforces reliance on traditional manufacturing processes."

She said her findings are the result of incorporating mixed research methods.

"On the qualitative side, I use narrative analysis to study how students who are given loose criteria for making artworks seek relevant information and are inspired by others' projects posted on Pinterest," Weintraub said. "On the quantitative side, I analyze big data from Pinterest users in order to identify characteristics of DIY projects that are trending. My preliminary findings indicate that when information is circulated online, like posts containing specific image or text data, it encourages homogeneity in the creative endeavors of individuals."

Weintraub said her research thus far also has shown, in regard to DIY culture, that seeking information online and implementing it as knowledge in the physical world is an important way to empower individuals living in a consumer economy.

"No matter how much time humans spend engaged with virtual realms, we are still biological beings who experience reality through our bodies," she said "Thus, the exchange of information, like self-education online via participation in DIY culture, is vital to our ability to make sense of our experiences. It encourages interaction with physical matter, problem-solving in experiential reality and an awareness of cause and effect during the manipulation of matter. In a way, DIY culture online encourages re-entry into physical reality."

Art and mental health

Kelley, who is in her fifth year of doctoral studies, said she never pictured herself as a visual artist or writer. But after several years working as a designer, she began writing on a regular basis. Soon, that type of expression led to her working as a visual artist, creating and teaching as an installation artist and art professor in Houston.

Kathryn Kelley
Kathryn Kelley

It was there that Kelley said she began noticing a trend: she wasn't the only artist using writing as an additional outlet. She said she eventually was attracted to the fine arts doctoral program at Texas Tech because of the program's commitment to exploring the relationships between creative function, mental health and art-making across interdisciplinary boundaries.

"This program has allowed me to work collaboratively in the LUSI Lab and the PeARL," Kelley said. "Additionally, it has allowed me to cull course work from many departments that might inform my research questions, like nonfiction creative writing in the Department of English, text analysis in the Department of Political Science and psychosomatic processes and emotions in the Department of Psychological Sciences."

Her research so far has shown that instances of artists who also write are not limited to a certain time period or type of artistry.

"Eminent visual artists and artisans dating back to the Renaissance persistently and prolifically wrote, often reporting a need or even a compulsion to write," Kelley said. "It suggests that even beyond a social function of writing, this practice serves some internal function common to artists noted for influencing the art domain. My research seeks to unpack and explore patterns, even strategies, artists may employ in writing that influence their creative and psychologic function."

In her research, Kelley has collected and begun statistically analyzing a body of work that includes about 2,100 writing samples penned by eminent and professional artists dating from 1900 to 2018. The samples include letters, essays, diaries, artist statements and lecture scripts, which she said provide a rich data source to study how writing may serve the artist cognitively, affectively and creatively.

Using computational psycholinguistic text analysis software developed at the University of Texas, Language Inquiry & Word Count (also known as LIWC), Kelley is able to analyze the writings of participants who engage writing strategies that involve active reappraisal and rational/analytical processing of highly self-relevant and stressful experiences. The software was created to evaluate writing samples prompted during psychological experimental writing interventions in exploring trauma recovery.

Previous psychological studies have found that when using writing interventions, physical arousal, as measured by skin conductivity and cortisol levels, is lowered, while positive emotions increase and working memory is enhanced. There also is a reduction in absences from academic and vocational endeavors and a drop in health care visits for up to six months after these writing interventions.

"In studies of rational versus immersive narrative writing after an experimental ego threat, those writing rationally exhibited mood improvement and less defensive self-enhancement behaviors," Kelley said. "Further, writing rationally about a self-relevant value held before or after the identity threat improved creative performance on divergent thinking tests, which is a proxy for measuring a component linked with high, creative achievement."

Kelley said she also found that artists' writing samples displayed high rates of words associated with analytic thinking style and cognitive complexity and very low rates of emotional words.

"This suggests that artists employ highly rational and cognitively engaged processing of experiences with low levels of reiterating an experience immersively through highly charged emotions," she said.

Kelley's work, which she has presented at numerous conferences around the world, could change the way new artists are trained in regards to caring for their mental health.

"If artists who influence cultural conventions through innovation are spontaneously engaging writing strategies that improve problem-solving and divergent thinking while also buffering negative emotions and mood disorders that are common among artists, there are implications for training emerging artists in these writing practices," Kelley said. "This research may inform shifts in training to teach these artists to self-enhance their creative processing and mental health."

A collaborative effort

Both Kelley and Weintraub said resources in the PeARL and at Texas Tech have been essential to their research.

"My research is occurring under the umbrella of both the PeARL and the LUSI Lab," Kelley said. "The most valuable resource of the two labs is the faculty via their expertise and guidance with statistical analysis, modeling and interpreting results of psycholinguistic computational analysis of visual artists' writings. They've also offered guidance on publication opportunities, practices and manuscript preparation."

Weintraub said those within the PeARL have taught her how to conduct the type of research needed for her project by allowing her to create hybrid forms of knowledge that incorporate insights from the arts with empirical methods.

"As a research institution, the rigor of the research we conduct at Texas Tech requires a thoroughness that uniquely complements the more exploratory creative processes associated with fine arts practice," Weintraub said. "I have benefitted from learning experimental design by talking with my colleagues about my methods. I also have benefitted tremendously from watching how others conduct research and discussing the meaning of findings and of my research in general with my lab mates. The social environment has been key in this sense, and the structure that the lab provides due to its physical location and frequent meetings is extremely helpful.

"What I have learned is that quality empirical research requires consistency and the willingness to be receptive, and the PeARL as an environment fosters this type of commitment."