We are between artist residency seasons with limited gallery access until June 7, 2018.

Creativity + Empathy: Charles Thomas and Matt Olin in Conversation

This week, we begin Creative + Connected Charlotte—an artist-led, arts-based intervention designed to cultivate creativity, empathy, and collaboration for our city. Fifteen Charlotteans—educators, community activists, city employees, creative and nonprofit professionals, and corporate leaders—are participating in the five-month program for free thanks to the generosity of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

In anticipation of Creative + Connected Charlotte’s start, we asked two of Charlotte’s foremost creative minds to sit down for a conversation about, among other things, creativity and empathy: Charles Thomas, Charlotte Program Director at Knight Foundation, and Matt Olin, Co-Leader and Host of CreativeMornings/Charlotte.

Matt enthusiastically volunteered to assume the interviewer role on this one, and what transpired was a rich and fascinating exchange about the present and future of creativity in The Queen City.

Matt Olin: Charles, tell me more about your creative journey thus far. You're a photographer. You’ve provided entrepreneurial leadership at Queen City Forward. Now you're Charlotte’s Program Director for Knight Foundation. How has your work as an artist informed your work as a leader?

Charles Thomas: It's been very informative of my work. I was a photographer for several years and it was a great experience getting to know Charlotte, connecting with people, and creating wonderful work. Being an artist has taught me to be more creative with my work, and to think innovatively. It also means that I have a certain level of empathy or connection to people. Overall, I think it helps me to be flexible and creative with what I'm doing and what I'm working on.

"Creativity is crucial in the development of our cities."

MO: Many of the projects and grants that you shepherd at Knight Foundation call upon the creativity in all of us. What do you see the role of creativity being in developing our cities, our communities, and our professions?

CT: Creativity is crucial in the development of our cities. It's great for capturing the essence, culture, and soul of the community. Creatives are great at expressing what is not seen. 

Creativity is also crucial in trying to figure out how to solve some of our most challenging problems. Whether it be around affordable housing or having great schools, having an “artist’s mind” or an “artist’s way” helps you to have empathy towards the problem. It helps you to think outside of the box and to be okay with taking risks and throwing tradition out. That's what's needed sometimes in solving some of these challenges. That's what's so exciting about some of the work that we do at Knight Foundation, which is to focus on fostering innovation as we're developing and advancing our cities.

MO: Yeah, so this idea of creative risk-taking is a mark of leadership.

CT: Yeah, absolutely. What we do as a foundation is that we're able to give “risk capital.” We get to bet on those creative risk-takers, as well as provide money that incentivizes people to take risks.

MO: McColl Center for Art + Innovation's inaugural Creative + Connected Charlotte program embraces this idea of empathetic leadership. You mentioned empathy as a characteristic of creativity. Why is that so important today?

CT: To me, empathetic leadership means developing a real connection to some of the challenges that, as a city, we’re trying to overcome, and to some of the people who are suffering from those challenges. With that connection, you can get into their shoes and understand what is happening for them. 

So many times, we as leaders think about the challenges and suffering that people face, and we think about it from a top-down perspective. We come in to the community with solutions, without consulting them, or without recognizing the assets that they have. If you lead without empathy, then there tends to be judgment – a tendency to judge the way that people are living – without really looking at the system that led them to be in that situation. 

By being empathetic, you begin to understand how the systems have an impact in putting people in situations that are hard to overcome.

MO: I'm seeing this connection between nurturing our creativity and developing our empathy for others. There's a connection there.

CT: Absolutely. When we nurture our own creativity, it's almost like taking care of ourselves and honoring how we feel. When you do that, you can respect how other people feel and honor their creativity. That makes the world so much more harmonious versus polarized.

MO: Do you think creativity is one of the greatest untapped or under-leveraged resources of our society?

CT: Yeah, I think it's one of our most under-leveraged resources in Charlotte. We're a city that has grown up focused on business and corporations. Sometimes those aren’t the most creative places and spaces, and we haven't understood how to support our creatives. If we do, and if we allow our creatives into our boardrooms and our legislative chambers, we will come up with some cool solutions to some of the challenges that we haven’t been able to figure out yet. We should take more time and invest more in supporting our creatives in Charlotte. 

MO: Yes. And when we talk about creatives, I like to think that we’re referring to everyone. Lots of people tend to confuse “artistic” with “creative,” but when we say “Everyone is Creative” at Creative Mornings/Charlotte, we truly mean everyone. The more we can nurture that innate creativity in every Charlottean, the more everyone can get involved in these big dialogues and conversations. 

CT: Absolutely. One of the cool things about entrepreneurs is that they’re risk-takers. They’re creative and they like solving problems. They're able to create value for their companies and for the societies in which they work. So, with good, strong investments in our creatives, we'll be able to grow our city's value and productivity.

"Creativity and entrepreneurship go hand in hand."

MO: What can we do to encourage more creative thinking and more innovative approaches to the issues, challenges, and decisions that are facing us as a community?

CT: One area where we can encourage more creative thinking is through investments in our schools. Not just monetary investments, but also change the way that our school system teaches kids.

If we take some time to tweak our school system to make it so that it really helps people to discover and honor their creative abilities and gifts, then we'll be nurturing people to have stronger self-esteem, who are willing to share more, who will be more empathetic. People who are more creative and more entrepreneurial, because creativity and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. 

I'm lucky because I have a job that I like. But I think there are a lot of people who don't like what they do. If we helped them to unlock their desire for what they want to do in the world, and help guide them toward doing that, then we’ll be making the world a better place.

MO: I think that's beautiful, and I totally agree. I love the idea of going in with the creative conversation early on. With the kids, and with intention. 

Kids have natural access to their creativity, which is then somehow wrung out of them, and all of us, as we get older. So, if we can build sort of a “creative continuum” through the entire educational journey, like you're saying, that then builds up creative confidence and everyone can very naturally grow into creative adults.

CT: Exactly. 

MO: Speaking through the lens of creativity, what advice do you have for Charlotte?

CT: My advice to Charlotte is to get funky. Don't worry and don't be afraid to get dirty and be gritty. Be excited about having paint on the walls, more murals on the wall. I invite our city to open itself up to our creatives and allow them to paint the town. Let’s embrace our creativity. 

One of the things you said that I think is important is that we need to stop thinking that creativity is just about being artistic. We need to recognize that we're all creative. That gives us all an opportunity to have fun and to laugh and to be connected to what most drives all of us. If we do that, if we embrace our creative selves, we will be better connected and more willing to help one another, and more willing to make the investments to help make our city better. Because we will have found a way to love ourselves in a deeper way.

[Conversation edited for length and clarity.]