Re-Cultivating Compassion: Conversations and Creative Resources

by Robyn Thomas Providence, Rhode Island USA

I am an abstract painter, questioning how I became involved in this project, Re-Cultivating Compassion. My artistic practice is painting; however, I do not limit my creative explorations to painting.  My painting practice benefits from the conversations I have with other artists whose methods are quite different from my own yet share a curiosity for similar ideas. Through verbal and creative dialogues with others, I seek different approaches to the ideas I am exploring through painting. The ideas that spur my painting practice surround identity. In the past decade, through the growth of means of mass communication, life-changing events seem to be occurring with increasing frequency and at an extremely de-stabilizing pace world-wide and making questions of identity more pressing than ever. Observing these situations has led me to pinpoint two critical drivers of the environment we currently find ourselves in. First, the role of power, and, second, the position of power, the marginalization of compassion. It is this diminishment of compassion in our world which brings me to this project.

Engaging in dialogue necessitates the cultivation of skills essential to compassion. This sensitivity is both emotional and rational, leading to applications based on sound judgment and full of depth and passion for others. Claire Elizabeth Barratt (CillaVee Life Arts) and I began a dialogue on identity and self-portrayal while completing a Masters of Fine Arts, Creative Practice degree program.

Claire Elizabeth Barrat and Robyn Thomas. Still Images from Dialogue FaceTime. 2016. Video.
Performance/Installation July 26, 2016 Ufer Studios, Berlin, Germany. 
Fabric design from the photo series Twinning. 2015 by Robyn Thomas. 

By keeping the conversation forthcoming, we discovered a mutual questioning of how compassion — feeling for another — might be creatively re-cultivated in a time where empathy —feeling as another — is plentiful.

Although compassion is a precursor to empathy, empathy’s dominance has thrown our ability to feel for another off-balance. We suffer from a shortage of compassion. We agreed, the need to differentiate between compassion and empathy is critical. We are no longer feeling for another as much as feeling for ourselves. How might we creatively redirect the excess of empathy back towards cultivating a healthy balance of compassion? In this video from 2017, including watercolor paintings of CillaVee at X-Fest 2017, Holyoke Town Hall, Holyoke, MA USA, the themes of compassion versus empathy begin to emerge between the words of Emily Dickinson and Melusine Van der Weyden.

Robyn Thomas. Fresh Widow. 2017 Video.

June 2019, while discussing what form a collaboration on the re-cultivation of compassion might take, Claire and I met up with my fellow Providence, Rhode Island-based artist, Markus Berger. Markus was in the process of launching The Repair Atelier.

Robyn Thomas. The Gold Beneath. 2019 5 x 7 inches.
A wall in The Repair Atelier.
The top layers of paint cracked, revealing layers of gold paint beneath. 
This and other small watercolor and gouache paintings express compassion for a friend.

The three of us discussed how our thoughts and ideas surrounding compassion intersected and how The Repair Atelier might become part of this unfolding project. We began planning a multi-day symposium/happening involving others who are creatively re-cultivating compassion to take place in The Repair Atelier in June 2020. Then the world has changed. With an IRL project no longer feasible for Spring/Summer 2020 and the need to re-cultivate compassion more pressing, we decided to begin this project virtually. The Re-Cultivating Compassion symposium/blog is a virtual space to share how others creatively re-cultivate compassion. Our intention for this website is to serve as a resource for research on the creative cultivation of compassion and future IRL symposiums, workshops, projects, or happenings.

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