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SAM Creates: Inventions for Empathy

Look & Make Activities are designed as grade-specific lesson plans for remote learning. Find more information and artworks to inspire creative learning through these activities available for download on our website in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

This artwork is an installation created by the contemporary artist Saya Woolfalk. If you were to visit this work at the Seattle Art Museum, you could walk into this space and move, meditate, or just observe. Rhythmic music plays and a video of rotating leaves, eyes, hands, and patterns projects onto the wall and floor. The colors are mostly blues, greens, and purples. This  artwork is surrounded by a blend of cultures, symbols, ideas, experiences, and life forms and shows us what a better future for all living creatures might look and feel like. Hear from the artist in the video below as she discusses this installation when it was first exhibited as part of Disguise: Masks & Global African Art.

Woolfalk created this work to help fix a real world-wide issue: lack of empathy. Empathy is understanding how someone else is feeling because you have been in a similar situation or felt that way before. If you have ever felt sad because your friend was sad or excited because your friend was excited about something, you have felt empathy! You can show empathy for someone by thinking about their perspective. In this space, the three figures are called Empathics. The Empathics are imaginary alien beings that were transformed by fusing their cells with cells of animals and plants. The Empathics believe that the world would be a better place if more people were able to develop empathy for each other. It is their job to help guide this process.

LOOKING QUESTIONS

  • What’s going on in this artwork? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find?
  • If you were to put yourself in this work of art, where would you go? How would you want to move around? 
  • What do you think it would feel like to be there? What do you see that makes you feel that way?

ART ACTIVITY

Design and create a prototype for an invention that will help the Empathics spread empathy in the world. A prototype is a simple model that helps you test out your idea.

What You’ll Need

  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Eraser
  • Cardboard
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Optional: markers, aluminum foil, wire, string, other available materials
  • If you prefer to draw in a computer program, you can design your invention on the PBS Kids Design Squad website.
  • Check out this video for tips on different ways to use cardboard.
  1. You have been chosen by the Empathics to create an invention that will help people have more empathy for others. They want this invention to be something that people can carry with them—either in their hand or on their body. Write down your task on a piece of paper!
  1. Imagine: Write about and/or draw at least 3 possible inventions. Circle your favorite one.
  1. Plan: Create a detailed drawing of your favorite invention. Give it a title, label each part of your invention, and write notes about how it will help spread empathy.
  1. Create: Use cardboard, scissors, and tape to create a prototype of your invention. Create this prototype to-scale, or the same size that you want your invention to be.
  1. (Optional) Add decorations or designs to your prototype. You can even add sound if you want! Think about all of the visual and sound elements that Saya Woolfak uses in her artwork to spread the message of empathy.
  1. When you’re done, share your prototype with a friend, family member, or teacher. Describe your task and tell them how your invention works. What do they particularly like about your invention? Do they have any ideas on how to make it even better?
  1. You can refine your idea and create new versions of your invention to share with people you know. What do they think about when they use your invention? Does it change how they think about other people?

KEEP LEARNING WITH A STORY

Read a classic book about empathy in a new form by borrowing the e-book graphic novel adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (original story) and Hope Larson (graphic novel adaptation) from King County or Seattle Public Library. Or listen to the audio book version of Shuri: A Black Panther Novel #1, by Nic Stone and be inspired by Shuro as she uses her science and technology skills to create a better future for her homeland of Wakanda.

CHIMATEK: VIRTUAL CHIMERIC SPACE (Installation View), 2015–16, Saya Woolfalk, American, born 1979. Multi-media installation, 15 x 25 x 5 ft. Projection: 3:59 minutes, Purchased with funds from Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman, Alida and Christopher Latham, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.16 Provenance: The artist; [Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects]; acquired March 15, 2017. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

SAM Book Club: Empathy Lives On in Parable of the Sower

We’ve finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler for SAM Book Club and our final reflection takes us inside an immersive installation by Saya Woolfalk at SAM to consider how change and empathy are intertwined. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are also reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and and we will be joining NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

Empathy is a word that can buzz through the air, or be embedded in one’s mind and body. Octavia Butler and Saya Woolfalk make this word come alive in characters who try to keep humanity on track. 

Right now, 2020 is bringing dystopia right to our doorstep every day. If you pick up Parable of the Sower, a 15-year-old girl who has a condition of hyper empathy becomes your guide. Lauren Olamina’s vision of 2024 is not far away, and you join people running from an apocalypse. They follow Olamina, who calls her empathic abilities a disorder. By the end, you realize it is her super power, as she formulates an entirely new vision that ultimately offers hope to all around her. If you haven’t read it, now’s the best time ever. It’s an omen of the future we’ve got to figure out together. 

Unfortunately, Octavia Butler died in Seattle on February 24, 2006.  Four months later, on June 22, a young senator gave a commencement speech at Northwestern University, and said, “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit. . . . it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential”. Barack Obama’s references to empathy kept coming while he was President. So did discoveries in neuroscience, which identified circuits in our brains that are wired to give us an ability to understand what other people are feeling. However, at the same time, the empathic deficit disorder continued to be seen in a rise of Hyper Individualism based on self-absorption, chronic loneliness, and a lack of curiosity about strangers or others. 

Artist Saya Woolfalk steps into this era and establishes an Institute of Empathy.  She cites Octavia Butler’s writings as a source of constant inspiration, helping her take leaps of imagination. In 2010–11, Woolfalk reaches out to biologists and theorists to consider the possibilities of interspecies hybridization as a factor for human improvement. One scholar, Ed Cohen offered a prophetic observation, “Unbeknownst to us, our futures may depend on the ways we learn to live with the viruses that take place within and among us—though the referent of this “us” would then be up for grabs. Yet this coincidence . . . troubles us both physiologically and conceptually.”[1]

Unafraid of complexity and troubling concepts, Woolfalk creates a species of Empathics that are conceived to assist our evolution. By 2012, they are entering museums and offering evidence and research about how human beings can find ways to increase their empathic abilities. This Institute has presented solutions through guided dreams, role playing in cyber space, hybrid cosmologies in planetariums, performances and projections that have gained attention across the planet. 

Only the Seattle Art Museum has offered The Institute of Empathy a permanent home. Three Empathics reside on the fourth floor and offer their suggestions for enhancing self-transformation. Theirs is not an immediate quick fix installation, as becoming empathic is not a sudden pit stop. It takes time to figure out what these alternative beings are about. They invite you to see their virtual chimeric space where healing gases are being downloaded, and you are welcome to walk into their mosaic shower which sends a flow of imagery down into a sacred pond full of insight. The Empathics also selected art from other cultures in the museum’s collection that can help enhance your ethical disposition and state of mind. Just as Octavia Butler’s novel ends with a glimmer of hope for a new philosophy called Earthseed, so these empathics reinforce a conviction that we can create the change we need. 

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Photo: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke. Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Nathaniel Willson.
[1] “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All”, by Ed Cohen, Professor at Rutgers University, published in Social Text 106, Spring 2011, p.27.

Docents Defined: Nina Vichayapai

Are you a fan of the Seattle Asian Art Museum who loves discussing your favorite artworks? Consider volunteering as a docent at the Asian Art Museum when it reopens later this year! SAM is recruiting new docents to start training to lead tours of the newly installed galleries and you have until May 31 to apply.

Docents bring their unique interests and backgrounds to each tour they lead and that’s what makes them fun and engaging for SAM’s diverse audiences. A docent like Nina didn’t go to museum growing up but later found them to be an important part of her life and started leading tours with SAM to help others become invested in museum visits early in life. Find about more about Nina in the interview below!

SAM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you decide to become a docent?

Nina: I am an artist and studied at an art school in San Francisco. Since I was young, I loved making art and knew I wanted to become an artist. It wasn’t until I was older that I also learned to love looking at art. A huge part of my college education took place at museums and included wonderful opportunities to meet the people who help these spaces function. Growing up I never really visited museums and by the time I became an adult, I somehow fell into the impression that the museum was a space reserved for people unlike me and the stories being told there did not represent mine.

After seeing many different museums, I was blown away by how much these spaces offer our communities. By the time I finished college and decided to move back to Seattle I knew that as much as I wanted to continue making art, I also wanted to find opportunities which would allow me to tap into the joy I have for museums. Becoming a docent with the Seattle Art Museum was really the perfect outlet for that joy. I was especially compelled to become a docent given my previous background of apprehension toward museums. There are many people who avoid museums out of feeling excluded. Having once been one of those people, I have a lot of patience and understanding when it comes to sharing what I think we can all learn from art.

What’s the best part of being a docent?

The best part of being a docent for me is definitely getting to see all the incredible connections people make to their own lives all just from looking at art. I’ve worked primarily with younger students and whether we are looking at a piece from the Pacific Northwest or from somewhere far away, whether it was made last year or hundreds of years ago, I’m always so thrilled to see how quickly the students will begin to relate the work to their own lived experiences.

Another thing I must mention as being a huge highlight is the wealth of resources we have access to! Through the online database, which docents can access, and the library at SAM, there is so much to learn about the art in SAM’s collections. Docents are always contributing to this wealth as well. For any art lover, it’ s really a dream and very fun to get lost in exploring the archives.

What’s your favorite work of art to tour?

My favorite installation to tour is Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. This installation includes the work of Saya Woofalk along with pieces from many other artists, so there is a lot to work within the gallery for the many different tours we do. But what I love most is seeing how students light up when they step into that space. The whole installation really breaks a lot of preconceived ideas about what art and museums are supposed to look like. And the concept of empathy is always one that generates really deep and often touching conversations.

What’s your most memorable touring experience?

I gave an Elements of Art tour to a particularly enthusiastic class once. They walked in without much prior experience of talking about art, but by the end of our tour they couldn’t contain their excitement at discovering the different elements we had just discussed in every artwork we passed. It was as if I had revealed a magician’s trick to them and their glee was really contagious!

What advice do you have for people applying for the docent program?

Visit museums! Not just art museums too. Seattle has so many great museums. I think it’s important to get a feel for the culture and approach to education unique to each museum. It helped me understand what qualities I felt were important and how I could bring that to my role as a docent.

– Yaoyao Liu, Seattle Asian Art Museum Educator

Object of the Week: Chukwu Okoro Masks

“This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that.” – Emeka Ogboh

Remember when Disguise: Masks and Global African Art was on view in 2015? We’re bringing you a flashback to Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh discussing masks by Chukwu Okoro in SAM’s collection, why he chose them as one of his favorite things in the museum, and their significance in regards to the soundscapes he created for Disguise. Currently, these masks can be viewed in our African art galleries as part of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy where three Empathics have surrounded themselves with works from our African art collection as a way to help visitors awaken their own empathy. The Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation and ask you to consider the other artwork around you. Come see what we mean.

Image: Installation view Chukwu Okoro Masks at Seattle Art Museum, 2016, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Soundsuit

In this special edition of Object of the Week, the three Empathics who have taken up residence at SAM in the installation Lessons from the Institute of Empathy share their thoughts on Nick Cave’s Soundsuit. The Empathics are part of ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space by contemporary artist Saya Woolfalk. They have surrounded themselves with works from our African art collection and are asking questions and sharing information about the art as a way to help visitors awaken their own empathy.

EMPATHIC LESSON: CONSIDER THE CHIMERIC

Nick Cave’s suits mix anatomical features in a perplexing way. Are they human or not? This question is being asked in science as human and nonhuman species can be merged to create new forms of life, known as chimeras. Does this combination show disrespect for human dignity or is it a step toward progress? The Empathics wonder what the potential of crossing species might be.

Using hair collected from barber shops in Chicago is a strategic move that Nick Cave explains: “The hair creates an animal sensibility. You know it’s hair, but you don’t know where it comes from. It’s seductive, but also a bit scary. Animals have so much to teach us. I hope that by merging animal parts with human parts in these Soundsuits, I force people to pay attention to what they are doing to our earth and the animals living here with us. I’m having fun and using whimsical circus imagery to ask people to consider the underlying tragedy we are perpetrating. We have to find ways to live with each other, extend our compassion to other communities and take care of our natural resources.”

Nick Cave goes on to share the history of his Soundsuits, two of which are on view. “My first Soundsuit was made out of twigs. The initial concept came from the Rodney King incident and the Los Angeles riots in 1992; as I was reading about the riots, I was thinking about the feeling that I was dealing with as a black male, feeling smaller, devalued, invalid . . . the incident was larger than life: six policemen bringing Mr. King down. . . . I was in the park one day, sitting, thinking about everything around the riot, and then I looked on the ground and found a twig. I created a sculpture from twigs. . . . When I put it on and started to move in it, I realized that it made a sound and I began to think a lot about protest, that in order to protest you have to be heard, and in order to be heard you have to be aggressive.”

– The Empathics, The Institute of Empathy

Images: Soundsuit, 2006, Nick Cave, fabricated fencing mask, human hair, sweaters, beads, and metal wire, approx. 6 feet tall, on mannequin, Gift of the Vascovitz Family in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.70 © Nick Cave. Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photos: Natali Wiseman.

 

Muse/News: A prescription for art, life-changing DJs, and an epic visit to the Louvre

SAM News

The Seattle Times explores “why art is becoming part of doctors’ education at Virginia Mason in Seattle” with a recent front page feature. The Art & Medicine program at SAM uses art education techniques to teach medical residents skills like visual literacy, empathy, and self-care.

The Stranger’s Charles Mudede visits the Lessons from the Institute of Empathy installation, finding connections to the blockbuster film Black Panther and to Afrofuturism.

“These African masks, African jewelry, African clothes—made to be worn by fictional figures who run a fictional institute that deals with things like Empathy Deficit Disorder, and made to exist in real and virtual spaces—now have, for young and old Americans, a mainstream point of reference.”

Priya Frank, SAM’s Associate Director for Community Programs and co-chair of the museum’s Equity Team, shares her reflections for the NAEA’s Museum Education blog on the work of centering racial equity and creating an institutional culture shift. Priya was also a recent guest on the No Blueprint podcast and profiled in profiled in UW’s alumni magazine Columns.

Local News

Don’t miss this incredible story in the Seattle Times—a collaboration among writer Jerry Large, photographer Bettina Hansen, and videographer Corinne Chin—about a Seattle attorney’s collection of “some ugly, some inspiring” historical artifacts.

To know Riz is to love him: The Stranger’s Charles Mudede with a beautiful and convincing piece for their Queer Issue on “how DJ Riz Rollins changed Seattle.”

I can’t believe it’s almost July. Seattle Magazine has great picks for cultural happenings next month, including an upcoming show at the Henry featuring Figuring History artist Mickalene Thomas as photographer, designer, and curator.

Inter/National News

The New York Times’ Roberta Smith reviews the Met’s exhibition History Refused to Die (great name!); it features work from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, whose focus is self-taught Black artists of the American South.

Hyperallergic’s John Yau takes a look at The Morgan Library & Museum’s show of Wayne Thiebaud’s works on paper.

“I may need to lie down.” Yes, the art world and everyone else recently went—well, you know—when Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a new joint album and a video shot at the Louvre. Artnet has a good round-up on the mania.

And Finally

The art historical and cultural resonances of APES**T will live forever—but this is the reaction I laugh about DAILY.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: Installation view Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.