PICTURED: “Cotton Hoer” (2018) by Hung Liu.

“I’ve always wanted to do something on empathy,” says Lynn Farrand, senior curator of the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (CMATO). “But it’s really important to do it now. It is going to be such a tough time for the community.”

Farrand, of course, is referring to the first anniversary of the twin tragedies that struck Ventura County, especially Thousand Oaks. On Nov. 7, 2018, the horrific Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting was followed hours later by the outbreak of the devastating Woolsey and Hill fires.

But how do you sum up empathy? One has to dive beneath the surface to explore the emotions we all share, from hope, anxiety and resilience to defiance, courage and love. The result is Empathy: Beneath the Surface, on exhibit at CMATO through Feb. 16, featuring the

“Grave Digger” (2018) by Simphiwe Ndzube.

work of artists Hung Liu, John Nava, Simphiwe Ndzube, Ami Vitale, Marisa Caichiolo, Marjorie Salvaterra and Tom Everhart.

“It struck us that we really wanted to do diverse media and artists,” says Farrand. “Anyone would be touched by one of the artists, but [the exhibit] needed to be diverse because of the subject matter. [The exhibit] would reach more people with different voices.” 

The exhibit includes paintings by Hung Liu, “one of the most prominent Chinese-born American artists working in the U.S. today.” Her subjects, many of whom are migrant workers, are depicted with vivid realism and humanity.

Life in post-apartheid South Africa is the subject of South Africa-born Simphiwe Ndzube’s mixed media collages, yet the emotions they convey are universal. The same can be said of the human need to be heard, which is addressed in the striking portraits — some paintings, some tapestries — created by Ojai-based artist John Nava. In them, young adults, some wearing messages of defiance, others exhibiting ennui, lock eyes with the viewer.

The gorgeous nature photography of American filmmaker and National Geographic photographer Ami Vitali asks us to remember that the world is not ours alone. Evocative of Italian black and white cinema, Marjorie Salvaterra’s photographs use glamour and humor to address “the roles women are expected to play and how they cope.”

Tom Everhart, the only artist allowed to use Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts™ characters in his art, utilizes the familiar images “to communicate a new sensibility — one that is at once accessible and exotic.”

The idea of home takes shape in a powerful installation piece by Argentina-born local artist Marisa Caichiolo. A sculpture of a house hangs in the middle of the room, seemingly ripped by its roots. Wrapped around the roots are tufts of Caichiolo’s own hair. Nearby, more charred roots, taken from the Woolsey Fire, jut from the wall, and a recording of Caichiolo’s voice fills the space. 

In the final gallery, like in every CMATO exhibit, there is an opportunity for visitors to contribute to a communal art piece. The work, entitled “Common Threads,” is made up of spools on the wall, labeled with different feelings such as “happy,” “loved,” “fearful,” “lonely,” “worried” and others. Visitors are invited to thread colorful yarn from one emotion

“The Janes” by Marjorie Salvaterra

they are experiencing to another. The result is an ever-changing physical representation of our collective spirit. In commemoration of the anniversary, CMATO will also be re-exhibiting the communal prayer flags created by the community in 2018 in the direct aftermath of the twin tragedies.

The events of last year come into ever more sharp focus as we face the threat of more wildfires. The community rallies once again, proving that the human spirit is made of steely stuffy. The more it is tested, the stronger it becomes. Exponentially so, when we come together. At the heart of what unites us is empathy, and yet it is hard to put into words all the emotions and experiences we share. That is where art comes in, to manifest what we are feeling into works that speak volumes.

Empathy: Beneath the Surface through Feb. 16 at the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks, The Oaks Mall, 350 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 805-405-5240 or visit cmato.org.