By Shannon Boklaschuk
While everyone is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals living through the global health crisis experience it in unique and varied ways.
The experiences of adolescents living in Saskatoon is of particular interest to University of Saskatchewan (USask) student Meagan Hong. As a fourth-year health studies student in USask’s College of Arts and Science, Hong recently completed an honours research project titled Pandemic Life Project: Participatory Animation Workshops with Adolescents. The project involved guiding six Saskatoon teenagers through five virtual workshops so that they could learn to create animated artwork to express their COVID-19 life experiences.
“A lot of adolescents are so willing to learn and they’re so hard-working,” she said.
In January, Hong recruited the project participants from the high school she previously attended, Aden Bowman Collegiate, as well as from Bethlehem Catholic High School and the MNP Remai Modern Art Collective. She then guided the students through interactive animation workshops with the goal of providing them with the tools they needed to share their pandemic stories through animated artwork.
Hong said the participants were very engaged and “took to the new technology very easily,” even expanding their learning beyond what she taught them in the sessions. The result is a series of animated artworks and short films that can now be viewed online, on a website that Hong created specifically for the project. On Sunday, March 27, 2022, the participants’ work will also be showcased during an online exhibition that will be held from 6 pm – 7 pm. Attendees can register online for the event and join the exhibition via Zoom.
“I felt so proud that my participants were able to create this in such a short amount of time,” said Hong.
“I had one-on-one interviews with them after they completed the work, and some of them told me that after the session they would spend three or four hours every day for the whole week working on their projects. That’s amazing. They put a lot of time and work into it. I just felt so proud, and I feel like I have a responsibility as the researcher and as the facilitator to really reach more audiences because of all the work that they’ve put in to express their experiences.”
After the March 27 exhibition is over, Hong hopes to find other avenues through which to share the participants’ work. For example, she has applied to be a part of the annual Nuit Blanche Saskatoon festivities, and she has also applied for inclusion in several film festivals.
Hong, who has had a longtime interest in art, chose her honours project topic after working in animation and digital media with Saskatoon arts organizations AKA Artist-Run and Void Gallery. Through those experiences, she saw the power of art in community engagement and how art can uplift marginalized voices. She’s also passionate about health-related topics, so her honours project was a great fit for her.
“I thought, for this project, ‘What’s a better topic than the COVID-19 pandemic?’ ”
Hong said she chose to become a health studies student due to the dynamic, holistic and interdisciplinary nature of the program. Health studies at USask examines issues of health and wellness, including mental health, from a variety of perspectives, including how biological, cultural, social and environmental contexts influence the health and well-being of the individual.
Hong said the program’s academic approach enables health studies students to customize their degrees to suit their interests; for example, she was pleased to have the opportunity to enrol in art and developmental psychology courses during her degree—classes that she found to be particularly beneficial as she pursued her honours project.
Dr. Ulrich Teucher (PhD), co-chair of the Health Studies Program and a faculty member in the Department of Psychology and Health Studies, and Prof. Lisa Birke, a multidisciplinary artist and a faculty member in the Department of Art and Art History, co-supervised Hong’s undergraduate research project. Both Teucher and Birke were very impressed with Hong’s work, including her professionalism, attention to detail and enthusiasm.
Birke was also pleased to have an opportunity to sit in on some of the workshops that Hong provided to the participants.
“Meagan is a great role model and is really able to engage and motivate the students in creating their animation. She was able to establish an environment of trust and sharing very quickly,” Birke said. “She encouraged each young artist to bring their own ideas to the projects and was able to articulate the strengths of each concept, supporting each artist in the iteration process, rather than dictating a specific way in which the artwork should be approached. This is reflected in the variety and strength of the outcomes in the work created.”
Hong is now in the process of outlining her research findings in her honours thesis. Teucher said the work Hong is doing is scientific in nature in that she posed a research question, observed empirically and systematically how her participants used their art to address mental health in the pandemic and then analyzed the art with the help of a method known as thematic analysis.
Teucher also noted that Hong’s research is “testament to humans’ responses to health challenges that are not only physical, but also psychological, social and spiritual” in nature.
“Meagan attempts to understand the uses of artful animation by youth as they try to give form and movement to the struggles with mental health in the pandemic,” he said. “Meagan’s participants’ approaches turn out to present a breadth of artistic variety and solutions to their conditions in the pandemic—a breadth that can inform us about the richness of human approaches to mental health care under a global threat and help us to personalize health care. The participatory character of Meagan’s art may have emancipatory effects on the youths, encouraging them to make their critical voices heard.”