Art Creates Empathy

One of my favorite memories growing up is sitting in front of my dad’s reference books in his home studio, looking through his Jansen’s History of Art while he drew. It was from his college days and the photos reflected its publication date. I remember looking at an image of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and talking with him about the restoration process. I couldn’t wait to one day travel to Rome myself to see the newly refinished vivid colors of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

Browsing those reference books changed my life. In a very obvious way, they sparked an interest in art history that took me to Paris for four years, which in turn fed my love for travel and exploring different cultures. This worldview spilled into my second grade classroom, provided opportunities to work at a museum here in Denver, and has guided how we parent Bea.

In a more subtle way, those books gave me deeper empathy for the world around me. By looking at images of history, I looked through new eyes at what I was learning in school and reading in the newspaper. From Greek Antiquity and the Renaissance to Monet’s early picnic scenes and Duchamp’s ready-mades, I saw my own world through a new lens.

Our house is filled with art and we’re hoping to add to our collection. Most of the pieces we own were bought on travels, created by artists we know personally, are prints of exhibitions I went to in college, or murals my dad painted. The art in our home tells our family’s story – one of relationships and exploration.

Instructing Grandpa on her bedroom mural.
Instructing Grandpa on her bedroom mural.

This art is not only a tangible way to tell our own story, but I hope it plants the seeds of curiosity and wonder as our girls learn to recognize the places and artists they represent. I keep my art history books on low shelves around the house and Bea has her own small collection of books for children. She recognizes some famous artists and the idea of creating a mural or project is part of her daily vocabulary. As she creates, she narrates the story of her day or recent events – on some level, she already understands the storytelling aspect of art.

One of the most important things I learned when studying art history was how to stop and look at a painting. I might not know all of the deep symbolism or exactly what was happening during that time, but I did learn to “read” a painting: To start in a corner and let my eye move across the canvas. I learned to research the questions I had and how to find the answers that helped make the art come alive.

I wonder if we looked at the world in the same way if we could avoid many conflicts. Perhaps we need to stop, take some time to really look at a person or a situation, go find the answers to our questions, and then come back again. If we slowed down and really took the time to know others, to know stories, would we be as quick to jump to our own conclusions?

Art builds bridges – between whole cultures as well as individual stories. One of my favorite moments when I’m talking with a group of kids about the art of Clyfford Still is when they suddenly make a link to their own lives. They are no longer seeing a large canvas filled with color, but an emotion in which they can relate. Part of the Abstract Expressionist movement is helping the viewer look inward – that art doesn’t have to be a specific moment in history but can be a specific moment in your own life. It’s not taking the art or artist out of context, but bringing your own life experience into a more global idea. What I love most about that movement is the ability to see our own story in the work of an artist.

I’m learning to translate those ideas to my relationships and the way in which I read the world around me: To stop and find my own story within a larger context.

How has art affected your worldview? What have you learned from someone else’s creation?

Linked with The High Calling’s community theme: Art Matters.

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6 thoughts on “Art Creates Empathy

  1. Love this post Annie. I’ve never considered how particular approaches to looking at paintings can inform what you take in but it makes sense. Your passion for art is so evident. A lovely post.

    1. Thanks, Debby! I think we don’t realize how much we are influenced by the art we see – why it’s so important. I’m honored to have some of yours hanging in our home. Since it’s in the stairwell, it’s one of the first things I see each morning. 🙂

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