Connecting through Creativity: The Power of Stories

Connecting through Creativity: The Power of Stories

Ann O’Sullivan and Jackie Reynolds (Staffordshire University)

“Art and literature have been taking human beings on empathic journeys ever since the citizens of ancient Athens wept for the characters on stage during the festival of Dionysus. Theatre, film, fiction, painting and photography have all played a role in generating what the Greeks called ekstasis, or ecstasy, where we temporarily step outside of ourselves and are transported into other lives and cultures.” (Krznaric 2014: 166)

We know that arts and cultural activities can evoke empathy, compassion and understanding – to the extent that perhaps we just take it for granted. In 2014, a small team of researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies at Staffordshire University undertook a Cultural Value research project, with the aim of better understanding and capturing the value of arts and culture in relation to empathy, compassion and understanding. The project drew on a unique case study: that of the relationship between Stoke-on-Trent and the tiny village of Lidice in the Czech Republic.

Following the destruction of Lidice by the Nazis in 1942, Stoke-on-Trent Doctor and Councillor Barnett Stross launched the ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaign, rallying local working miners and pottery workers to contribute to a fund that eventually contributed to re-building the village after the war. Many people demonstrated tremendous empathy and compassion in donating up to a week’s wages, despite the hardships of the time. In recent years, the links between Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice have been refreshed and are explored, expressed and celebrated almost exclusively through the medium of arts and culture.

This leads us to the key question at the heart of our research: Why would we choose the medium of arts and culture to link distant geographical communities in ways that foster empathy, compassion and understanding?

As an inter-disciplinary research project, we drew on a range of literature, including from the fields of sociology, psychology and philosophy, examining what is meant by empathy, compassion and understanding. Our research focused specifically on storytelling approaches in the context of community and participatory arts and exhibitions, and we therefore also examined what narratives mean and why we feel that they are of central importance in understanding cultural value in terms of empathy, compassion and understanding. Ochs and Capps (1996) suggest that artists and healers alike use narrative, that seeing is more than just an act of perception – it is a form of human relationship. They also describe theatre productions as co-creations between those who create and those who view. The audience, confronted with narratives that lay bare imaginary – perhaps even shocking – realities, are moved to confront the experience of another (the very definition of empathy).

We examined some of the specific ways in which empathy may develop, for example through re-humanising the ‘other’. We also see within the community and participatory arts literature a conceptualisation of art as a bridge or a means of connecting communities or people: “Here the artist creates the bridge that joins people otherwise alone. Art gives us a means to create community, to connect to each other. It allows us freedom to imagine things as they could be otherwise.” (Phillips 2003:48)

As well as engaging with the literature on the topic, we also sought the views and experiences of multi-disciplinary academics and of community artists and creative practitioners. In particular, we wanted to know the ways in which artists apply their understandings of the key concepts in the planning and evaluation of their work. We held interviews and focus groups, some of which were filmed, and a working group of participants and researchers was formed to explore new ways of identifying and expressing cultural value in terms of empathy, compassion and understanding. An important part of the design of our project was a research visit to Lidice by some of the working group to attend the annual commemoration of the Tragedy, and to take part in the arts and cultural events that take place at this time. It was an opportunity for the group to consider the emerging findings from the research in relation to our case study and to exchange ideas with creative practitioners in Prague and Lidice. The visit was recorded and reflected upon through writing, film and photographs.
In analysing our findings, we identified a narrative that demonstrates the potential cultural value of an arts project: the narrative is that the art is a catalyst, that enables the telling of a story, that connects people in the immediate area and across the world. The themes of art as a catalyst; connecting people; sharing stories and crossing geographical divides are inter-connecting rather than linear, but we feel that these four themes are highly significant in terms of cultural value, and that they run strongly through our research.

Art as a Catalyst
We found that the potential of the arts to act as a catalyst to individual and collective action is an important dimension of cultural value: “I think it’s imperative that art is a catalyst especially out in the public realm or else it’s just an object or a monument. It needs to demonstrate either an ideal or just demonstrate how a community feels and be a sort of totem in a way.” (Public artist)

Many of the definitions of an empathic response emphasise the importance of it leading to action rather than a passive reaction that leads to momentary recognition but no real social transformation: the artists and creative practitioners who took part in the research were clearly motivated in their work by a desire to contribute to social change.

Sharing stories
Having identified the idea of art as a catalyst, we were curious to discover more about how this actually happens. How does a particular art object or art/cultural event act as a catalyst to connect people and hence bring about some kind of understanding empathy or compassionate response? A strong theme that has emerged within our analysis is the idea of the ‘story’. Participants often talked about particular physical objects (in museums for example), as being a means of creating that connection, which is then operationalised through the notion of voice or story: “…it’s about making sure that every time you are talking about something physical you are always connecting it to those voices…so when you see a picture or a tile from the gas chamber for example you have a witness description that accompanies it….its not just about objects and things and buried stuff, it’s about people…” (Lecturer & Research lead, Holocaust Archaeology)

We included storytelling approaches as part of our research methodology, and our findings also suggest their value in relation to evaluating arts and cultural activities. We thus feel that stories and storytelling are crucial dimensions of cultural value.

Connecting people
One of our key findings in terms of cultural value is the potential of arts and culture to make connections and ‘build bridges’ between people: “….at its heart is the idea that people connect through creativity, connect through art…” (Theatre education practitioner)

Our research findings support the importance of social capital as a dimension of cultural value, and they offer some new insights into the deeper emotional aspects of the connections between people, thus adding to our understanding of the nature of arts-generated social capital.

Crossing geographical divides
Our findings suggest that the idea of the arts as a universal language is significant in terms of cultural value. It can be related to psychological concepts and neuro-scientific research. The idea of emotional connections is crucial, whereby people experience interactions that transcend verbal communication, and we suggest that such interactions have a particular value that warrants greater recognition.

Our research resulted in number of resources that are designed to support the design and evaluation of participatory arts activities in ways that better demonstrates their value in relation to empathy, compassion and understanding. Full details of the research including short documentaries, photographs, case studies and research reports are available from the project blog.


Krznaric, R. (2014) Empathy: A Handbook for a Revolution. London, Rider.
Ochs, E. & Capps, L. (1996) ‘Narrating The Self’. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 25 pp. 19-34.
Phillips, L.C. (2003) ‘Nurturing Empathy’. Art Education Vol. 56, No. 4 pp. 45-50


Ann O’Sullivan is a Sociology Lecturer and Research Associate and Jackie Reynolds is a Senior Researcher, both in the Faculty of Arts & Creative Technologies at Staffordshire University. The research team also included Janet Hetherington, Kelvin Clayton and John Holmes. We are grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the research and to participants in the UK and the Czech Republic for generously contributing their time and expertise to the project.