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.

Listening to All the Questions

We were at the pool the other day and Bea started asking a random woman about a million questions – What are you wearing? Why? What are you doing? Why? Do you want to swim with me? Why? The woman, who was trying to relax, was incredibly patient and answered Bea’s questions with a laugh. Midway through, she asked me if Bea was about three years old.

Why yes – how did you know? The stream of questions fills our day and it can be both amazing to play a part in helping Bea discover her world and equally frustrating when I just want to pack up and get in the car.

Taking notes on her questions
Taking notes on her questions

Some questions I take the time to answer correctly and with reason, even if we’re in a rush. These are the bigger questions – the ones about how our world works, why we as a society do things a certain way, and why we as a family have chosen to do things. (Not that Bea asks in those terms, but I have learned to quickly categorize the nature of her questions.) Other questions, like why we have to wear shoes in the store, are quicker answers. I’ll admit, I’ve even resorted to the Because I said so answer – one I vowed I would never give to my children.

Being part of this process has been amazing. When we explained why a man was holding a sign on the side of the road, we were able to link it to the time we gave our leftover dinner to a hungry man and then link that to the reason daddy goes to work every day. And now, weeks later, Bea is still making those connections. It shows me how worth the time and effort it is to stop and really answer the big questions.

I realize that, even though I attribute constant questioning to preschoolers, I have never really stopped questioning. Perhaps I don’t do it aloud and I find most of my answers through books, articles, blogs, and trusted friends, but I still am always questioning my world.

I credit my parents with this trait. While I’m sure it was exhausting, they always made space for questions well beyond our preschool years. When I would come home from high school Bible study, filled with more questions than when I arrived, my parents would listen. Sometimes they’d offer an answer; sometimes they’d let me grapple with it myself; sometimes they’d process with me. When I would come home from the Sunday sermon, my prayer request form filled with questions and (what I felt to be) discrepancies in the sermon, my parents would listen. Every morning, I’d read the newspaper with my dad (the morning person of my parents) and we’d question the politics, letters to the editor, and local policies covered each day.

What I learned from my parents, now that I’m a parent myself, is the power of listening to questions. Most of my questions were not good questions. They were typical adolescent questions, helping me develop my own opinion apart from my family’s and my church’s. This process was awkward and filled with mediocre questions. But, by allowing me to ask all my questions, my parents helped me weed through the poor ones and hone in on the good ones.

I still ask too many questions. Most of them aren’t world-changing, big important questions. Most are just me processing through the most recent news story or book I’ve read. I’ve learned, though, that asking a lot of questions leads us to asking good questions. As I ask more and more, I pay attention to the good ones – the ones that have the possibility of changing the world, even if just a little bit.

And, as Bea questions more and more, I want to encourage her to keep asking. Many of her questions are unanswerable, but I will do my best to help her discover answers to the ones that can be found. I want her to begin learning to weed out the good questions – the ones that help her change her world.

Are you a questioner? If you’re around littles, how do you answer all the questions?

Linked with the High Calling’s community theme: The Power of Good Questions.