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  • Jennifer Gillen

Curiosity, Creativity, and Empathy


Have you ever really thought about the stories of the people you encounter in life? I find myself constantly curious about people. As much as I love the beauty of the silent world of flowers I’m also interested in the people around me and their stories.


Yesterday, I visited a doctor in a large medical complex. When I left the clinic on the sixth floor of the building, I came across an adorable elderly lady. She was so tiny and used a wheeled walker. She stood in front of a bank of six elevators looking confused. It seemed like she might be lost. Well, I spoke with her about where she needed to go and helped escort her there. She was thankful and so pleasant to speak with. What is it about helping someone that boosts mental health in the best way possible?


It’s easy to forget that everyone we encounter in life has a story. In most cases, the story includes some struggle and pain. The solitude of my studio work makes me more receptive to these stories than I used to be. I don’t come in contact with tons of people on most days. So when I have to be out in public places I’m pretty thought-filled about the people around me and their stories. I listen to the stories of bartenders and waiters, of homeless people I come across and store clerks. I pay attention to the conversations of nearby families. Maybe I’m just nosy but these stories are intriguing.


Once I met a homeless woman in a library who told me a really interesting story about sleeping in a parking garage elevator. She had just settled into the glass elevator when a lightning storm hit. So she took the elevator to the top of the garage and made the most of a beautiful light show. What an amazing mental image this story creates! If I hadn’t taken the time to speak with her, this story would have passed me by. She conveyed so much joy when telling the story. I know our conversation added something to her day as well as mine.


When I go to art exhibitions, I usually try to find that person who is walking around alone. The last time this happened, I had the pleasure of speaking with an artist who immigrated from China. Her English was developing but we had lots of ways to communicate. She told me about her recent exploration of sumi-e painting. She explained how difficult it is to get the dampness of the paper correct and how she felt like a total beginner. I can’t imagine how lonesome it might feel to be a linguistic outsider at a social event. Our conversation brought us both smiles.


There are other times when I meet people who are in situations where I have been before. At a hot outdoor restaurant, I noticed a family having a difficult time finding a table. It was an open seating situation and there were only a few spots with fans. The mother was really young and carried an infant in a carrier. The young dad was taking care of two other children. Eventually, the family chose a spot in the sun as no other tables were available. My husband and I were about to leave. We approached the family and helped them move to our table under a fan and shade. The relief in the mother’s face was such a wonderful thing to see. I don’t know their story, but I can imagine it because it seems like something that I’ve been through.


There’s no question that to be an artist one must be inquisitive and open to everything around. This doesn’t only apply to the subjects one prefers, but reaches out to the world in general. My advice to anyone who wants to be more creative is to pay attention. Notice the little things, listen to the stories and imagine what you might not be able to see. Practice curiosity and empathy with everyone and everything you encounter.



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