What Could Be Sew Hard?

I and three dear friends of mine got a rare opportunity this weekend. We got to visit an artist’s studio and work under her direction in her medium and style. Irmgard Geul is from the Netherlands where she was born and raised not far from Amsterdam.  Her art is both abstract and impressionistic and much of her recent work involves stitching over mixed media collages and acrylic painted backgrounds. The finished work has amazing depth of visual layers and materials.
We began the project by painting our card stock base with acrylic paint to both provide the background for our stitching and to give the paper flexibility and make it almost like fabric to hold our stitches. Then the “fun” part began—creating hundreds of stitches by shoving a needle through thick painted paper. It was difficult to sew at all, much less to get the stitches to look like something. After an evening of work, most of us were less than half through.
Irmgard’s pieces are significantly more complex than what I created. Starting with her ability to paint with her finished piece in mind, adding subtlety and complexity in the very first layer. Then she starts stitching. Thousands of stitches. Stitches that bring life to the abstraction of the base painting. Flowers, trees, Oklahoma buildings and homes, sunsets and sunrises, her subject matter is what she sees around her and the memories those visions invoke.
I tell you this because I was reminded of a very important lesson that night. Sometimes I don’t know how hard what other people do is until I attempt to do it myself. Without experience I am often prone to underestimate the difficulty of another person’s work, or situation, or life. This can easily cause me to devalue what they do, what they experience, or who they are. However, this potential mistake is easy to avoid (or rectify if already made.)
When I spend time in another person’s world, doing what they do, seeing what they see, experiencing what they experience, it helps me understand them and empathize with them. You have probably heard me say that art appreciation is a form of empathy. When we look at art, we have a chance to ask ourselves what the artist saw, and thought, and felt. That is the basis for empathy—asking ourselves the question, “What would it be like to be that person?”
However, even better than the mental practice of asking, the opportunity to physically experience life from another person’s viewpoint is more meaningful and moving. That night in Irmgard’s studio I got to be the artist for a moment. I felt how connected I was to the piece I could see in my mind and how frustrating it could be when it didn’t appear on the paper. I realized how much painstaking work goes into every piece created, the thought, the effort, the time (and in my case the painful fingers.) I think I am able to appreciate what Irmgard does in a way I was not able to before.
Then I started thinking about all the people I know, work with and do life with. I realized I don’t know much about what it is like to do what they do and see the world from where they are. How could I change that? What would it take?
I could start by actually doing some of the things the people around me do. At work I could ask to spend part of a day in another department or area, working alongside the people in that group. I could look for opportunities to serve where I could spend time with people I don’t usually see, in places I don’t usually go. I could take a class or attend a seminar or even learn online about another discipline different than my own.
In short, I could spend some time living out the question of what it is like to be someone else, not just asking it. The experiences I gain would open my eyes to all the ways the people around me bring their very best effort to our community. I would learn that what I may have taken for granted or thought little of is actually very difficult and skilled work. Maybe I would learn that the burdens of others are just as heavy as any I have lifted.
What could be sew hard about what another person does, or experiences, or lives? I will never know if I stay in my comfort zone. If I want to have empathy and real appreciation for the people around me, I need to pull up a chair and start stitching along with them. Understanding and appreciating each other is easier when we have experienced life from other people’s views, and it is The Kimray Way.