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Community Connections

Inspiring Women: Jen Webb

BroadAgenda is featuring a short series of profiles on amazing women and LGBTIQ+ folks. You’re about to meet Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice at the University of Canberra, Jen Webb.

How would you explain your work and research in a nutshell?

I’m very interested in people, and particularly in communities of people, and what provides meaning and connection in their lives. And because I am a creative practitioner myself (I’m a poet), my work over the past decades has focused particularly on how artists – by which I mean anyone who does creative ‘stuff’, anyone who thinks of themselves, at some level, as a creative person who does creative things – how such people fit into society, and how society fits them to itself.

One example of that is what I did for my PhD. I was living in Rockhampton, in Central Queensland, which at least in the 1990s was not a centre for creative excellence. But I knew there were plenty of artists tucked away here and there in the communities up and down the Western line (Yeppoon to Winton).

So I set out to talk to local artists, get a sense of their life, of their work and what they make, who they know and what they do in their community, how they make their living, and how they publish their work (exhibition, performance, book or journal publishing etc).

In between such conversations, I talked to members of local governments, schoolteachers, representatives of community organisations etc, and read the local newspaper if there was one, and visited the local museum where there was one.

All this provided a sense of how a community is organised and structured, how its members see themselves, and what they think of their artists and the art things they make and do.

At the end of this research I crafted a narrative about that community that showed what sort of art practices are valued and in what contexts they are valued. Oh, and I wrote a book of short stories about it all, too.

What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?

I’m particularly excited about the work I’ve been doing with my colleagues over the past almost-decade on the impact of creative practices on people suffering from trauma or other stress and distress.

We have been conducting biannual month-long workshops with returned service personnel who are wounded, injured or ill, and teaching them skills in creative writing, or visual art, or music-making; the effects are both positive, and sustained. Five years after completing a workshop, they’re still doing very well.

We extended this into similar – but much shorter – workshops with rural and regional communities who have suffered from environmental catastrophes (fires, drought, flood) and seen how writing and talking and drawing et al. can help both the individuals, and the community as a whole, to recover and rebuild.

Let’s wind back the clock a bit. Why did you go into this field?  

I grew up in apartheid South Africa, surrounded by examples of injustice and trauma, and with parents who instilled in my siblings, and in me, a deep sense of responsibility to try to make the world a better, fairer, kinder, more just place. And for me this has meant writing/art/learning. I was a standard girlie-swot as a kid; I loved learning languages and grammar and history, loved writing stories and poems.

My parents and my school took me to theatres, art galleries and concerts very often; my parents also took me into places of terrible poverty to deliver blankets and medicines and food. So, I guess my small-child mind drew lines of connection between the worlds of learning and of art, and the obligation to do something in society.

Later, as an adult, this process of distributing largesse smacks far too much of white saviour behaviour, so I would not now do that. But the principle of paying attention to others, to their lives and aspirations, to their expressed needs, and the importance of knowing more, knowing better – this hasn’t changed.

It is just that I don’t unquestioningly assume that I know what others need. At least, I hope I don’t!

What impact do you hope your work has? 

I gain immensely from working in research and creative practice with others. When it comes to the arts and health projects, I am one of a group of people doing this work, and my role has been far more in theorising and analysing than in getting out there and conducting workshops.

This work in the arts and health areas has had measurable impact: significantly reduced suicide rates, for instance. Participants telling us that they are continuing to write, or draw, or drum years after their workshop. And the top rating of ‘high impact’ for creative arts research, in the Australian Research Council’s 2018 Engagement and Impact Outcomes.

That the work is having a positive impact fills me with delight, and also with energy to keep learning more about what creative interventions such as these can offer.

Do you view yourself as feminist researcher?

Absolutely! I’m a feminist researcher, and a feminist poet, because I’m a feminist person.

I don’t think it should be considered a feminist act to work toward a kinder and better-informed society – this is everyone’s task. But until ‘everyone’ has access and equity, it does seem to me important to keep attention on women’s issues and women’s work.

One tiny way I try to do this is to foreground women in my research – ensure that when I write articles, and quote from the work of others, at least 50 per cent of those others are women scholars and artists.

My colleagues and I used to play a pretend drinking game when listening to lectures from important (usually) international professors of poetry – drinking an imaginary shot each time they mentioned a woman poet. Usually, after the lecture, we’d agree that if there had in fact been any alcohol involved, we would be stone-cold sober.

(And often one of us would ask the Important Speaker about the paucity of women in their talk, and watch the defensive response.)

If we don’t talk about women, they are, or seem, invisible. We need to support each other, and each other’s work.

What have you discovered in your work that has most enchanted you? 

Probably the greatest enchantment has been experiencing and researching the remarkable benefits of creative collaboration.

Poets tend to be solitary creatures, but when they work together, a lot of the anxiety seems to fall away, and greater leaps of creativity can emerge. I have been part of several interconnected poetry collaborations over the last decade and found it literally enchanted – I am cast under the spell of working in this way.

At the heart of it is a 10-year-old collaboration we call the Prose Poetry, where a shifting group of poets email off-the-cuff poems – fast writing, barely edited – to everyone in the group, and these spark new poems in response.

All sorts of creative and scholarly works have Catherine-wheeled off this Project over the years. This is enchanting – it keeps me writing, and thinking, and playing, and feeling part of something I care about.

Is there anything else you want to say?

The academic world gets a bad rap, so often. We’re called elitist, eggheads, Ivory Tower dwellers, or we bemoan our sense of being overworked and underpaid, tied up in red tape, writing articles no one will ever read.

The poetry world is no better: poetry operates outside the economy; who reads poems, except other poets (and excepting at weddings and funerals, of course)? However – there has to be a ‘however’ – both are also fields of extraordinary richness, measuring wealth in ideas, creative thinking and practice, opportunities to connect with others, and to pursue the something you are passionate about.

Poetry and the academy: both are tough gigs, but for me they have been life-making, life-affirming. And they’re enchanting – I’m still here, captivated by the power of their magic.

Words and photo by Ginger Gorman.

Ginger is BroadAgenda's Editor. A multi-award-winning social justice journalist and feminist, her book Troll Hunting came out in 2019. She is also the gender editor at HerCanberra.

This article was first published on BroadAgenda on 9 April 2024.

BroadAgenda is Australia’s leading research-based gender equality media platform.

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