My ambition is to establish the world’s first Empathy Museum: a creative space where you can explore how to view life from the perspective of other people. It would be the opposite of traditional museums, with objects hidden inside glass cases. Rather it would revive the original meaning of the word ‘muse’ – the Muses of mythology injected a divine spark into everyday life – and be a place of experiential and conversational adventure. The Empathy Museum is a work in progress, and collaborators on this project include the sustainable designer Sophie Thomas, ecological artist Clare Patey, and film maker Rebecca Dobbs. Some ideas for what the museum might contain are available here.
Symbolic garden design
This is an age when we no longer wish to judge people merely by their appearance, yet we still do so with gardens. Most gardeners and garden designers aim to create visual splendour without considering the deeper meanings that a garden can have. For centuries, until around 1700, plants were grown not just for their looks but for their allegorical and metaphorical meanings. I am interested in the revival and reinvention of symbolic garden design, drawing on traditions from Ancient Greece, medieval Persia, the Renaissance and paganism. I have been developing my ideas in my own garden, using plants whose meanings are associated with empathy, compassion and love, and have written a (still to be published) novel on the subject, Message to the Gardeners of England. See some of my thoughts on the history of symbolic gardening.
I worked for several years at The Oxford Muse, a foundation established by the thinker and historian Theodore Zeldin, which has been pioneering a new kind of portraiture that is more than a visual depiction of a person. The portrait is based on a conversation between two people that is a mutual exchange about what they really care about in life – their most important hopes, ambitions, beliefs, thoughts and experiences. The conversation is recorded and transcribed, then the portrait maker edits the text into a written portrait with the subject talking about themselves in their own words. The portraits are more than self-expression: they are a way seeing the world from another person’s perspective, helping to overcome assumptions and prejudices. I continue to be engaged in thinking about how portraiture can be used to forge mutual understanding and empathy across social divides. My favourite portrait I have created is of Alan Human, called ‘What a philosopher, certified insane, thinks about his doctors’. See examples of my other portraits, or my edited book, Guide to an Unknown University.
I am a keen chair maker, specialising in the ancient art of green woodworking, using fresh unseasoned wood and avoiding the use of power tools. After studying hand-crafted furniture making at Colchester Institute, I learned green woodworking from pole-lathe guru Mike Abbott, and have also made Shaker chairs under the watchful eye of Peter Hindle. I have been trying to develop my ideas on creating ‘empathy furniture’, which encourages people to see the world from another person’s viewpoint. Picture a peace conference between Palestinians and Israelis. What kind of furniture might be conducive to a dialogue that resulted in genuine mutual understanding? See an example of one of my chairs, with creation photos.