CONWAY — The dictionary defines empathy simply as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
A new art exhibit at Hendrix College — The Body of Empathy — asks viewers to expand on this definition and ask themselves if they can empathize with characters or personas in paintings. The exhibit is on display in Ellis Hall, the new home of the Hendrix Department of Religious Studies and Department of Philosophy, as well as the Marshall T. Steel Center for the Study of Religion and Philosophy. Ellis Hall, built in 1913 and listed as the President’s House on the National Register
of Historic Places, once housed the admissions office and was home to several of the college’s presidents.
The exhibit is an internationally juried show of environmental portrait paintings by six artists from across the globe — Donna Festa of Bangor, Maine; Karen Fleming of Edinburgh, Scotland; Nina Jordan of New York City; Eva O’Donavan of Dublin, Ireland; Emily McIlroy of Honolulu, Hawaii; and Niamh McGuinne, also of Dublin. The yearlong show is curated by Matthew Lopas, associate professor of art and chairman of the art department, and James Dow, associate professor of philosophy, director of the Marshall T. Steel Center and chairman of the college’s neuroscience program.
“Hendrix College’s mission statement suggests that we aim to cultivate empathy,” Dow said. “Recent discussions in aesthetics have focused on whether art can provide a distinctive opportunity for the cultivation of empathy.
“Since religious studies and philosophy share common ground in thinking about the importance of empathy for values, care and community, we hope the show will provide an opportunity for a conversation about ideas of empathy considered from a variety of perspectives.”
Dow said the idea for the exhibit is a collaboration of the various departments and started from a class project on empathy.
“I asked my students, ‘As you experience art, film, … can you learn anything about empathy?’” Dow said. “This exhibit is a continuation of that class. … Can looking at the human body in a painting be a type of ethical witnessing of sentiments in human life — joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, pride, shame, guilt, resentment?
“We will continue this discussion in classes during the coming year.”
Lopas said that as an artist, he does figure painting.
“I also teach figure painting,” he said. “You do empathize with the person you are painting. You portray that person in his or her environment.”
Lopas said he, too, will use the exhibit as a teaching tool throughout the year.
Dow said the paintings will be the subject of writing in courses on beauty, neuroaesthetics, environmental aesthetics and ontology of art by students. He will write a culminating essay for the show. Dow said he also plans to continue to communicate with the contributing artists throughout the year, reporting on the reactions and comments of students and visitors regarding the exhibit.
The Body of Empathy exhibit is available for viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday during the academic year, then on a limited basis through the summer of 2019.