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What’s That Got to Do with Art?

MidPoint Cafe Near Study Painting Seamus Berkeley
MidPoint Cafe Near Study Painting Seamus Berkeley
Route 66 MidPoint (Study)

In one of the many replies to my last post (thank you everyone!), I received an email from my friend Mallory, who forwarded a link to an article about a cancer survivor, Emily McDowell, who is now designing empathy cards. Emily’s designs are written from her perspective of what she wished people had said to her, rather than nothing, unpleasant platitudes or stupid jokes.

Reading about empathy—or its lack—reminded me of a number of workshops I attended a few years ago on non-violent communication (NVC), a process developed by Marshall Rosenberg. In these sessions, the idea of true empathy was explored; some of the most insightful teachings I’ve ever heard.

And we put the ideas to practice.

A major part of NVC is how to listen deeply, that is, without judgment or mentally preparing responses while the other person is speaking.

In one of the first workshops I attended, it might have been in Oakland, Barbara accused me of being an “HSP”. My mind shut down and I wanted to immediately disappear from the room. Three years later, I found myself at an opening of the world premier movie on “highly sensitive people” and found myself saying OMG, that is me.

How fascinating and informative it was to realize, that Barbara was right. And I didn’t realize it then because I wasn’t listening deeply. What a relief. I’m an HSP and it’s okay!

When we block listening, we may missing something huge; in my case, that I was so an overly sensitive individual on many issues. But more to the point, if I had truly paid attention and listened to Barbara, I would have been able to practice more empathy both for her and myself.

Ever since those NVC sessions, it often strikes me how much we spend in aversion; in not wanting to listen, or in wanting to give advice, or suggestions, or relating our own story. Now it seems to me, that true empathy is much more about being totally present to another person’s communication. Most people who took part in the NVC trainings confirmed that really being heard is transforming for the both the speaker and the listener.

I’m not really sure how this applies to artwork. It definitely is a part of what’s been on my mind, as it relates to the question of what is its benefit to other people. Most of the time, we live our lives from the perspective of our own personal world, separated from others. While I’m not certain how it would be to live differently than this, it is what most of the major spiritual teachings point to: that we are all connected, all one.

The thought of opening to this notion of being one, may be daunting or even scary, if it evokes the fear of loss of self. Pondering our oneness and practicing real empathy may just be the remedy for many of our ills.

Which brings me to the main question: Could this idea of empathy and oneness be expressed through my paintings?








20 thoughts on “What’s That Got to Do with Art?”

  1. Love these communications from your heart, Seamus. Have forwarded them to artist friends.

  2. How amazing that I just finished reading the same Non Violent Communications book , loved it, and bought three more copies to distribute as gifts. NAACP and ACLU are using it for joint training sessions in Northwest . That is how I heard about it. I agree that it is a profound book, while it’s title sounds more like a call for pacifist techniques in a war zone. In someways, I think it is a mis-titled book. It is really about powerful, effective communication. Or some such thing. I almost didn’t read it because of its title, just as you almost missed an important piece of information about yourself because of an acronym (and your hesitance to follow up and ask what the heck it referred to).

    Curious when your next workshop will be in Taos. I need one that allows me to incorporate my deep political commitment to act, with my deep need to turn my brain toward the relief and discipline of art. If there were a way to combine the two by paining scenes of resistance, or artwork to use for resistance, from posters to book covers to logos, to scenes from the news, to symbolism on racism versus unity…. nothing ANGRY – art that heals and inspires further effort in the resistance! Your skills in portraiture and painting and art in general, combined with your HSP, is the perfect combo for such a teacher. Ken might come too!

    1. Delighted to read that you are on the same wavelength, Katie! Totally agree with you about the title on the book and the process; perhaps it would be better to call it Harmonious Communication Practice? Regardless of the nomenclature, it was worthwhile studying with Nancy Kahn, a wonderful NVC trainer in the Bay Area.

      Workshops! Still working on scheduling those. Future workshops will have a slightly different focus than those in the past. ‘Art Retreats‘ will use the lens of creating artwork to practice looking deeply in a more contemplative setting. While this approach may not be specific to resistance art, it could be useful in finding some balance amidst the ongoing political turmoil. Would be fantastic for both you and Ken to come visit Taos!

  3. Christopher Peterson

    I think you should try to express this in paintings. It’s important for an artist to have a central message or theme, other than “this is a nice painting of___” I’m not sure how, but I’m looking forward to seeing it.

  4. Hi Seamus,
    So good to hear from you, and thanks for sharing your insightful reflections on what is projected in a painting and what is received by the observer. Cliches are cliches because they share a bit of truth that bears repeating. Perhaps these route recitals by observers that are using the ‘bit of truth’ in a second hand way–not fully realizing the impact of the observation–are the best way to bridge the gap in communication. Until the ‘truth’ becomes our own it really is just words. Now, your paintings are like you–both a projection and a mirror. The way you communicate with the observer is by this relationship created in the art work. Physical, emotional, and mental aspects go into each stroke you place on the canvas–oneness is both a state of being/state of consciousness and an invitation for the observer to join. 🙂 merit

  5. Thanks Seamus, This is very thought inspiring. I like the idea of empathy and oneness being expressed through art; I like to think that creating art is a way of accessing oneness when the art resonates with the individual, a form of empathy, connection that is deeper than the surface. I see oneness as the foundation of our existence; deeper connection means going to the foundation together and art is one means to that accomplishment. Love Light Peace

    1. Well stated perspective on art and oneness, Peter. Art as a means of deeper connection is a great intention for creating. One step further is how that practice of oneness in making art can be conveyed as the meaning to the viewer. Working on this!

  6. Your piece on Empathy is very thought provoking…and for me the answer to your question is yes.
    I believe that the condition of empathy and the condition of compassion are intertwined deeply in the soul of the artist and not simply as a noun attributed to an emotion or state of mind but as a verb. Empathy and compassion are actions. Each true stroke on the canvas conveys this to the prospective viewer by channelling pure action of the soul and heart.
    Not every word or stroke from the mind of the artist or poet may come from that place initially but each forges a path that creates a more permanent access whereby the action of empathy and compassion conveys its meaning directly to and from the heart. We just have to commit to living in the bittersweet place of that tender heart to make it so.
    Warmest regards,
    Christine Rossi
    Berkeley CA

    1. Appreciate your comments, Christine, and wonder if it’s setting the intention to create work with a ‘tender heart’ that could make the difference? Perhaps work created from that inner space may convey that intention?

  7. Beautifully said, Seamus and so true! At different stages of our life, we think we know all, but the truth is, we’re just beginning to understand.

  8. Seamus, I responded to your last post about your Mom and what good is art- when I got to the place asking me if I was a human- I did it wrong and just freaked out.Now, I understand how this works and I just wanted to respond to your writings. First of all, my sympathies for loosing your Mom. I am so glad she was able to be near you and you her.
    I believe art and creation help balance this world.I know personally that I inspire people by just being an artist whether they respond to my art or not. When I see a beautiful painting, experience soul touching music or a film-it strengthens my connection to others and I experience the life affirming “All” . I
    As for practicing empathy, I was reinvigorated by reading your thoughts to consciously be more aware and to truly listen, just listen. Thank you for that.
    If you are in Taos Sept 23rd- I am trying to arrange being at Wilder Nightingale’s opening 5-7pm. It’s an all gallery show- I’ll have three new ones and it’s called “Solace In Sanctuary” I would love to see you and I know many of these paintings will have a spiritual focus and it would be interesting to see how you respond. Would love to catch up and see you in person anyway. Anyway, I’ll keep reading your post!, Teresa

    1. Teresa! Nice to hear from you and to read your words — thank you for taking the time to write.

      Balance: perhaps this is what we all need in our lives and the experience of beauty may just be one way to achieve that.

      Put your opening on the calendar and will be there. Also have a “Route 66” show the following Sunday that you’re invited to attend.

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