PhD by Creative Practice thesis: ‘The Ecological Turn…’

The Ecological Turn: Living Well with Forests
To Articulate Eco-Social Art Practices
Using a Guattari Ecosophy and Action Research Framework

Read the full thesis here:

Read the accompanying audiovisual ebook here

Cathy Fitzgerald, PhD, Visual Culture


Eco-social art practitioners routinely foster cycles of multi-constituent translation, reflection and action, across lifeworlds, art, science, and other socio-political domains to progress new life-sustaining knowledge. This enquiry, however, reveals the absence of a guiding theory and a clearly articulated methodology for such transversal practices. A lack of a general theory and methodology, I argue, significantly hinders the education, practice, and appreciation of such practices’ value and, inevitably, understanding of the art and ecology field as an innovator of creative practice particularly suited to respond to 21st century eco-social concerns.

As a consequence, the central research objective of this enquiry is to model, through creative practice and theory analyses, why, and how, a selected theoretical-methodological framework may articulate a clearer understanding of eco-social art practice. This framework formulates a foundation to advance sophisticated transversal practiceresponses, and makes a contribution to knowledge for the art and ecology field in articulating an accessible, transferable framework for eco-social art practice. The proposed framework builds on my ongoing Hollywood Forest Story eco-social art practice, ecological knowledge and actions, and criticalreview of a suitable theory and methodology. From 2008, this includes transforming Hollywood forest, the monoculture conifer plantation where I live in rural South County Carlow in Ireland, into a permanent forest.

This thesis is framed by critical reflection on and is an extension of new mappings of the emergent art and ecology field. Suzi Gablik (2004), Sacha Kagan (2011), David Haley (2011a; 2016), Linda Weintraub (2012) and others chiefly view transdisciplinarity as best describing long-term art practices that aim for a deeper understanding of sustainability in emergent eco-social contexts. While transdisciplinarity is evident in such practices, I propose a hybrid theoretical-methodological framework to fully articulate the overarching purpose and common methodology of transversal eco-social art practices. I apply Félix Guattari’s theoretical concept of ecosophy, which articulates transversality, with an action research methodological approach. I thus define eco-social art practices as working creatively in an ecosophical-action research mode to develop ecoliteracy and agency for their practitioners, collaborators and audiences. Such practices encompass emergent transversal endeavours directed by innovative, yet recognisable pattern of social enquiry.

My research draws attention to recent advances in understanding the value of artful activities in action research for sustainability from Chris Seeley and Peter Reason (Seeley, 2011b; Seeley and Reason, 2008) and the usefulness, and under-explored potential of online social media to support the connected learning and sharing of eco-social art practice. The significance, challenges and transferability the eco-social art practice framework advances are characterised and evaluated in application to my practice and the exemplary eco-social art practice of Helen Mayer Harrison and  Newton Harrison. From these studies, I conclude that the eco-social art  practice framework has potential to advance understanding that transversal practices are as critical as scientific, economic and political responses to advance a life-sustaining, ecological turn.


art and ecology, eco-social art practice, Guattari, transversality, ecosophy, action research, ecoliteracy, agency, blogging, continuous cover forestry, social art practice, the Harrisons


Dr Paul O’Brien, National College of Art & Design, Ireland (retired)

Dr Iain Biggs, Bath Univ., UK. Environmental Humanities Fellow

Prof. Jessica Hemmings, Former Head of Visual Culture, National College of Art & Design, Ireland

Internal examiner: Prof. Siún Hanrahan, Head of Academic Affairs, National College of Art & Design, Ireland

External examiner: Prof. Richard Povall, Dartington College, Devon, UK.


I wish to thank my supervisors Dr. Paul O’Brien, Dr. Iain Biggs and Professor Jessica Hemmings for their experience, guidance, trust and good humour in supporting my research and practice journey. I thank my family, Martin Lyttle and Holly, Mary and Michael Dawson, Joan and Bruce, Alannah and Karine and many friends who have supported me constantly. I would also like to thank Jan Alexander for the inspiration behind my forest work, the Pro Silva Ireland continuous cover forestry committee, and Dr. Michael Lee and Dr. Rhys Jones for steering me so well in my journeys between the shores of art and science. Thanks also to Prof. Tara Brabazon and the late Prof. Steve Redhead; your podcasts, enthusiasm and knowledge of what constitutes excellence in doctoral scholarship supported my work in countless ways. As my work is a transversal endeavour, I acknowledge many more contributions from many fields in The Hollywood Forest Story eBook. Most importantly, I acknowledge Hollywood forest and all who reside there.


I dedicate this work to my late mother, Mary Cowie Fitzgerald Dawson, thanking her for the countless, joyful ways she supported me through life and to the memory of my late father, Kevin Fitzgerald.

Interested in doing a creative phd?

I’m often asked what this experience was like? Why did I do an Art-led Creative PhD?

For me, I knew that as beyond the PhD I wanted to relate to my creative, non-academic peers that pursuing an Art-led practice PhD was paramount – this was because I knew there was an imperative to share ecological knowledge across the art sector. My background in science made me sense that I could ‘frame’ my art and ecology practice as having value for my doctoral arguments. But presenting a practice-research, art-ecology doctoral study was easier said than done – particularly when doctoral-level research still largely retains a single discipline focus.

In fact, I was encouraged to do a theory-only PhD on several occasions, as been a less risky propistion. However, I knew that I wouldn’t have the motivation to continue if I couldn’t bring my practice into my research. I also had a preference for digital means of communication!

I struggled for some time about best to present all of this as valid research. My practice supervisor Iain Biggs was instrumental in giving me confidence that my practice could further knowledge.

But a defining moment for my doctoral studies was when a colleague told me about the work of Australian Professor Tara Brabazon. Tara had co-authored research that clearly delineates how creative practice can be used as evidence to advance doctoral arguments and she clearly warned creatives of the dangers of relying on value judgments of art for PhDs. But there was more than this proposition on what constitutes the best in Creative Practice research.

Tara is a legend in revitalising higher education with extraordinary professionalism for herself, for doctoral students and supervisors. She furthers knowledge in many fields across the arts and humanities, tech and science fields in advancing best practice for doctoral education across the world. She opened up her PhD tutorials with students in her often entertaining podcasts and with her late husband Prof Steve Redhead treaded topics of theory.

and vlogs sustained and emboldened my work like nothing else. It’s why I acknowledged them both in my PhD dedication. I always suggest Tara’s vlogs and podcasts