Art for empathy

When was the last time you stepped into an art gallery? Or marvelled at the drawing of a 2-year-old? Or drew or made something yourself, and didn’t have dismissive thoughts for lack of artistic aptitude?

If you can’t remember the last time you appreciated art, or can’t remember the last time you were proud of something you drew — I invite you now, today, to pause and embark on a little project.

The House Project

You’ll need: paper/notebook; writing instrument of your choice

  1. Draw a house on a piece of paper or in a notebook. (No need to think too much about it – let it come naturally.)
  2. Approach someone nearby, and ask them to draw a another house. If you have a notebook, it may be fun to ask them to draw it on whichever page they like.
  3. Ask them to sign their creation.
  4. Approach another person and ask them to do the same.
  5. Keep going until you are content with your collection of houses.

There is a likelihood that even if those houses are ‘just’ a triangle-square combo with hatched circles for a bay window, you’ll still appreciate it. Especially if there are a whole book of them. But what I am excited to tell you about this little project is that even the most basic assembly of shapes is a very honest piece of expression.

Drawing a house is one of the earliest creative activities most of us make as young children. I see it often in pre-school: motifs of home emergent when children are given free rein to make or draw whatever they want. The significance of this in The House Project — particularly if you’re a little older than the days of the triangle-square combo — is that it brings you to be aware of yourself right now, and of yourself however many years ago.

Subsequently, the second part of The House Project allow you to bring that awareness in your connection with others. What kind of conversations surfaced during the process? Did you learn anything new about the people you approached; did they feel more familiar afterwards? Did anyone tell you a story of how they used to draw the exact same way when they were 4 years old?

This is art appreciation: to be aware of how you are and how you do things, and to bring that awareness into knowing how others are and how they do things. It is to notice both the sameness and the differentness, and to exist peacefully in the bridges between. This is also empathy.

This year, the first Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) find empathy as its running theme. “I think it says something about the world right now that empathy is an idea that artists feel there’s an urgency to explore,” said Wendy Martin, the Artistic Director of PIAF. One of the projects featured at this Festival is Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes: where you are invited to walk a mile while listening to someone’s life story.

Art can cultivate empathy because it bridges differentness with artistic expression as a leveller. Yet: it goes beyond that, too. To create is generally to bring into this world an extension of oneself, and it is as independent as it is relational. In cultivating empathy through art, we can begin to transform society to see with new eyes and an open mind, and live with a bigger heart.

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