04 April 2023
Why Research is Good for the Artist's Soul
Bobby C. Martin was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
I am not a researcher in any traditional sense of the word. I am a visual artist—my practice consists of primarily painting and printmaking. So even applying for an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship was an act of stepping outside my comfort zone. When I received word that I had been accepted, it made me realize even more that I had no idea what I was getting into. My non-art faculty colleagues in the U.S. (researchers all) were so impressed that I was going to be able to spend several weeks in London at the British Library doing research. All the while, I was battling imposter syndrome—was I even going to be allowed in the building? What was I supposed to do when I got there? How does one go about doing ‘real’ research? Are there YouTube videos for that?
I can now report that all my fears and doubts were totally unfounded. The Eccles Centre staff were incredibly helpful and generous with their time and knowledge and the Library’s Maps team went out of its way both to make space for my untrained questions and to make the collection as accessible as possible. The process of requesting materials was fairly painless to learn and actually became wonderfully exciting as I stumbled upon many items that were well beyond what I had expected or even knew existed. I actually started getting into this whole ‘research’ thing! The time spent in the various Reading Rooms—touching, smelling, experiencing historic maps and materials—allowed me the opportunity to deeply explore items that have already made a tangible difference in the way I approach my art practice.
I came to the Library (I thought) to research the Library’s map collections, specifically maps related to the Southeastern United States. Georgia and Alabama were part of my Mvskoke tribe’s ancestral homelands. Ultimately, I found much more than maps—books, hand-written journals and photographs that helped flesh out my research in ways I hadn’t anticipated. These materials have already found their way into my current work, and informed a large mural project I recently completed that drew from much of the material I discovered during my fellowship.
While I might have been able find the material I needed for this large history mural project online, the research experience of being in the presence of the actual documents themselves deeply informed every design decision I made, and the resulting installation is a work that would not have been as rich and personally satisfying otherwise.
So does my experience as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow make me an official ‘researcher’? I don’t rightly know the answer, but I do know that it was a game-changer for the way I approach my art practice going forward. I have a new appreciation both for the wealth of material that is available to anyone with a British Library Reader Pass and its accessibility for even the most unskilled of researchers. I appreciate the desire of the Library staff to share their amazing storehouse with all comers. I have a new-found interest in going down rabbit trails that lead to the most unexpected of discoveries that then find their way into my work. Poring over (and enjoying the smell of) centuries-old documents and hand-engraved maps brings me a real (if unexpected) joy. If this is what research is all about, then I am most pleased to call myself a researcher. Thank you to the Eccles Centre and the British Library for the opportunity!
To see images of new work and the mural project that was informed and influenced by my British Library research, please visit my Instagram page @bobbycartist.