Celebrating the Americas
Every other year, Denver’s Biennial of the Americas Festival gathers an international mix of artists, musicians, civic and business leaders and academics to celebrate their cultures and identify business, cultural and social opportunities that can bring North and South America closer together.
The 2019 biennial, which runs Sept. 25–28 in venues across the city, has the theme “Empathy in Action.” A series of “clinica” panel discussions will explore the topic of empathy from a variety of different perspectives: education, housing, transportation, sustainability and, at Thursday’s spotlight event featuring Sir Richard Branson, even business.
For a clinica on empathy and art, the biennial turned to the University of Denver for expertise: Erin Willer, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, helped plan a Wednesday program moderated by DU alumnus and Colorado poet laureate Bobby LeFebre and featuring artists from across the Americas.
A nationally recognized expert on empathy and grief, Willer founded the Scraps of the Heart project, in which parents who have lost babies create scrapbooks and other artworks as a way of working through the loss and honoring the life that might have been. Funded in part by a grant from DU’s Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning, the project culminated in a 2017 exhibit at DU’s Museum of Anthropology.
“People don’t often talk about infertility or miscarriage or the loss of babies, so the exhibit became a way to bring the community together and present visually what the experience is like,” Willer says.
“It was incredible for all of us,” she continues. “We expected that the museum would be this nice, quiet place — when we planned for the opening night we thought more people would be in the hallway and the museum would be quiet. But everybody wanted to be inside the tiny museum. For the parents, it was like being with their babies and being with their community. It was really powerful for them.”
Although Willer won’t be on stage at the biennial event, she was featured in July as part of the “Mixed Taste” series at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which invites experts on two unrelated topics to appear together.
“My own experiences with infertility and miscarriage and neonatal loss have been central to my work with parents who are grieving, so I talked a little bit about those and how I combine my work as an artist, teacher, researcher and mother,” Willer says.
Among Willer’s artistic endeavors is “Something to Say,” a series of greeting cards created while she was artist in residence at Montessori Academy of Colorado. A collaboration between Willer and the academy’s elementary school students, the cards are designed for the times when you can’t find the right words to express empathy and compassion to friends or family members going through difficult life events. Net profits from the cards go to Judi’s House, a Denver nonprofit that supports grieving children and their families.
No matter the project, Willer sees artistic expression as an effective way to communicate empathy.
“I loved art as a kid, and then after high school never really did it anymore,” she says. “When I was going through all of my losses, I was writing poetry but I couldn’t get my words around what I was feeling. I had this intense desire to start drawing and painting again. It came back to me, and now I can’t imagine my life or work without it.”
DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts hosts two concerts as part of the Biennial of the Americas Festival: Latin rock group Ozomatli on Friday and the band’s family-friendly offshoot, OzoKids, on Saturday.