Six years ago, Kayte Kaminski's mom took her and her sister to an installation while visiting her hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The project featured thousands of pieces by students in kindergarten through high school, each contemplating the nature of compassion through art on 7-inch square canvases. Visitors could take a binder and read about each piece as they explored.  

"I walked around and cried," Kaminski said. "It was so incredibly impactful."

Kaminski contemplated how to bring the idea to Bozeman, but said she didn't have the right job to make the time to bring her idea to light. Then three years ago, while working as the assistant dean of Montana State University's College of Education, Health and Human Development, she thought, "maybe now" and took the idea to her boss, Alison Harmon, the dean of the college.

“Compassion is a core value of this college,” Harmon said in an article from the MSU News Service.

From there, The Compassion Project took off. Kaminski formed a team of educators and artists to create a three-lesson curriculum that would fit into state and national standards. She gathered volunteers to help train the trainers, bringing in teachers to create their own pieces based on that curriculum then sending them back to the schools. She helped facilitate workshops to include the university and community at large. She worked with the local VFW to cut 10,000 wood blocks and found a trio of computer science majors to create an app to replace the binders. She raised over $50,000 from donors and through grants to make it all happen. 

“The project, under Kayte Kaminski’s leadership, has served to grow strong new connections among the university, community organizations, and schools — central and crucial partners for the work we do," Harmon stated in the article. 

The team effort was in itself a show of compassion for Kaminski. In all, The Compassion Project produced 6,000 pieces of art, from both students and community members.

"We thought that it was just as important to teach adults about compassion as it is kids," Kaminski said. "People are just being mean to each other right now. We're in a society where we don't see beyond our own lens, we don't listen to listen."

The workshops asked people to think about about the nature of kindness and empathy and if those are different from compassion and to consider moments in their lives when compassion is easy, or hard. 

Of those pieces, 4,555 are in the Emerson Center, including the main installation of 1,400 in the Weaver Room, around upstairs halls, and in the west wing and its outermost staircase. Others are installed at Fork & Spoon Cafe, Red Tractor Pizza and Sola Cafe. This week, the final pieces will find homes when the exhibit opens at the Bozeman Public Library's Atrium Gallery. 

Artistically, some are rudimentary and others intricately detailed. They create a rainbow of color with images of the earth, with hearts and sunshine, with people and animals, with words and open space. Several blank pieces are also installed so people can "reflect on what compassion looks like in their own life," Kaminski said. 

Kaminski hopes The Compassion Project will create a ripple effect, spreading out from the thousands who participated. Students can bring ideas home to their families, or community members can read the statements and learn about compassion. 

Some of the pieces are permanently installed, such as those in the Emerson's west wing stairwell. Kaminski is seeking out other places in hopes the rest can find permanent homes. Installations are planned for both Bozeman high schools. Soon, she'll step down and hand The Compassion Project organization over to Tia Goebel, who will become the executive director. Kaminski will remain board chair. 

The name will have to change as the organization becomes a non-profit, but both women are determined to continue spreading their message of compassion. 

Goebel, an artist with a background in non-profit management, calls The Compassion Project an "art project with a purpose." The art, she said, is an entry point for meaningful conversations.

Seeing it all come together, Goebel marvels at the scope of the project.

"It's kind of been beyond what I imagined," Goebel said," the diversity of the work, the color of it." 

She is also determined to carry it into the next phase. 

"Unless we talk about (compassion) intentionally, we may not realize it's going on or cultivate it going forward," Goebel said. "We need it... It's that great unifier we need to instill in the next generation. Compassion is for everyone."

Rachel Hergett is the editor of Ruckus, the arts and culture publication of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She can be reached at rhergett@dailychronicle.com or (406) 582-2603.

Rachel Hergett can be reached at rhergett@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2603. Hergett is on Twitter at @hergett.