Once more with feeling

"It may seem flippant to declare that the world needs art. But it does. More than ever."

In an increasingly bleak landscape of political turmoil and social division, where even in our privileged Western society people’s primary needs are hard-fought for (and sometimes lost), it may seem flippant to declare that the world needs art.

But it does. More than ever. The world and its people need art. Art that is emotionally stirring; art that is intellectually motivating; and art that is joyful. Art that revels in its unique ability to unite people with a sense of wonder, a sense of belonging and a sense of hope.

This summer NOW Gallery has managed to bring together work by artists who are driven by a sense of community, and a need to use their craft and creativity to bring people together.

From the immersive storytelling of The Empathy Museum’s ‘A Mile In My Shoes’, to the hands-on, collaborative production line of ‘The People’s Brick Company’, and the jubilant world of ‘In the Heart of a Whale’, discover how art can play a role in making the world a better place.

The Empathy Museum: A Mile in My Shoes & A Thousand and One Books, In conversation with artist Clare Patey

A visitor takes a peek through one of 1001 books donated to the Empathy Museum.

What prompted you to create this interactive piece?

I’ve been making participatory work for more than 25 years. Work that involves people coming together in order to create it, that requires the participation of the audience.

How is the work received in the art world?

I’ve never exhibited in galleries. I’m more interested in creating site-specific work for public spaces. I’ve created work in allotments, on bridges, in fact my work quite often takes place outdoors.

Working in this way broadens the appeal to people who wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable going inside a gallery.

I like that my work draws a different type of audience to the one that would happily go into a gallery.

In looking at the subject of empathy specifically, one of the most important things is that we engage a very diverse set of people – both in the people who share their stories but also in terms of an audience who comes to experience it. Hence why it needs to be delivered outside the conventional realm of art galleries.

Why empathy?

There are a lot of global challenges right now that could do with us having more of an empathetic attitude. Empathy has been in decline in the UK and USA over the last 50 years, especially with the rise of the narcissism brought on by social media. We increasingly surround ourselves with people who share our values and our opinions, so there’s very little to challenge our sense of our own values and righteousness.

Very often what tends to happen is we group people together, becoming blind to the individual. For instance at the moment we talk about ‘the refugees’, ‘the migrants’ like they’re some sort of entity. But it can be about anyone really: prisoners, old people, children, students and so on. This has a numbing effect on empathy; it’s harder to empathise with a whole group of people.

When you engage with an individual story however, then you get to the common humanity that we all share: we all feel hope, we all feel love, we all feel fear and grief. These are the things we all have in common. If someone shares their story we feel touched by that and see them as a person, an individual. Even if their values and experiences are different from ours; at our core we share these common things. And hopefully we develop our sense of empathy as a result.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes as you listen to their story through a pair of headphones.

What sort of response has A Mile in My Shoes had?

In short, amazing. If ever I’m having a bad day I take a minute to read the visitors’ book because it makes it all worthwhile.

There’s something quite magical about the experience because you’re going on a physical journey and you’re on your own; so it’s like the person you’re listening to on the mp3 is talking to you directly.

You’re totally immersed and all you know is that you share the same shoe size as the person whose story you’re about to hear. The stories are from people who you wouldn’t necessarily meet in your everyday life. A shark attack victim. A person who served in the military. A London sewer worker. Yet people feel like they develop a relationship with the person they’ve just heard. It’s very powerful.

James Franco donates book 0138, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

What do you think people get out of the experience?

‘Walk a mile in someone’s shoes’ is such a common phrase, and actually for a few minutes you have actually done that. The hope is that you can then project the experience to other situations in your life. Hopefully it also prompts people to listen to each other. Listening is a very important part of the piece and the act of listening, paying attention is a dying art; we’re all so busy talking on social media, texts, emails and blogs, that we’re listening less and less.

How does A Thousand and One Books fit into The Empathy Museum? The Empathy Museum is a concept. We’re young, only a year old, but the vision is of an alternative high street that counters the perceived universal panacea of consumerism. So we started with a shoe shop (i.e. A Mile In My Shoes), and now we’re adding a library — A Thousand and One Books — and eventually we might have a hairdresser’s and a grocery shop and so on.

A Thousand and One Books is about journeying through stories and characters, the empathy that arises from that, but also the empathy between readers who will never meet one another.

The Milkshake Tree

The Milkshake Tree is a unique garden that blends sounds, smells, movement, reflections and varying surfaces.

Continuing with the theme of empathy, NOW Gallery is proud to host The Milkshake Tree — a collaboration between the London Centre for Children with Cerebral Palsy and pH+ Architects — as part of the London Festival of Architecture.

The Milkshake Tree is an experiential installation for stimulating and encouraging play through sounds, smells, movement, reflections and varying surfaces.

This ‘secret garden’ will be at the heart of the inclusive sensory space on Peninsula Square. The London Centre for Children with Cerebral Palsy uses Conductive Education techniques, to inspire children with Cerebral Palsy to develop independence, confidence and self-esteem, so that ultimately they can achieve their full potential.

The secret garden is tucked away on Peninsula Square, Greenwich Peninsula and open to the public.

As well as providing a space for the public to enjoy during London Festival of Architecture, the installation is a test-bed for the Centre’s new facilities. pH+ Architects, who are creating both

the installation and the new Centre facilities say: “The Milkshake Tree has allowed us to play and explore some of the elements of the design for the Centre. Afterwards, the installation will be taken to the Centre’s playground to be reinstalled as play equipment. We are very proud that it will be a space designed with them for them, although we are still working on the ‘milkshake trees’ as requested by one of the children!”

Supersize me: Big Dreamer by Matt Blease

Matt Blease_Big Dreamer
Matt Blease’s playful illustration ‘Big Dreamer’ lays on Millennial Way, Greenwich Peninsula.


Illustrator and designer, Matt Blease has created work for high-profile brands including Nike, Coca Cola, Penguin Books, Barbour and the BBC. He also has a weekly spot in The Guardian, but in spite of his clearly crammed schedule, Matt still found the time to create Big Dreamer: a striking, supersized mural of a recumbent man gazing up at the sky on Millennium Way. He also managed to squeeze in a quick chat with The Peninsulist:

This is your largest work to date, what was it like scaling up to this level?

It was a much bigger challenge than I had originally anticipated. It lead to a few late nights in the studio trying to figure out the best way of transferring the design onto the wall. The original illustration was 20cm long and I had to scale up to 24m! Once I’d figured out the scale I gridded it all out in 1m square sections and started from there. It was much easier to build it up in smaller pieces, as it made the whole task a little less overwhelming.

You’ve worked on everything from posters, clothes, shop interiors, skateboards and now construction site hoardings. Got a favourite? This [Big Dreamer] has been my favourite piece of work to date. I very rarely work bigger than A2 so seeing one of my drawings in this context has really opened my eyes to how I could apply my work in different ways.

British creativity is…

For me it’s our eccentricity, inventiveness and humour that sets us apart from the rest of the world.

What’s your big dream?

Being a much better skateboarder than I actually am. I often wake up and have a few blissful moments convinced that I can skate like my heroes… reality can be crushing! In regards to my work, my big dream is to do more large scale pieces. I’ve loved the challenge of making something that worked in a tricky space and I’m on the look-out for more.