PHOTO/EMPATHY CO-OP: Glowing pillars containing humanoid sculptures will greet participants at the interactive exhibit.

An empathy factory, made of art, is rising in downtown Reno. It will open to free, in-person interaction later this month and stretch its hands-on supply chain throughout the Burning Man Multiverse.

You are invited.

The Empathy Co-op project, created by local artist Sharon DeMattia and Thomas Kohler, consists of three interactive elements using curiosity, art, and play as tools to foster empathy. The physical parts of the project are at the Civic Plaza in downtown Reno and will be open to the public from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6.  Simultaneously, the Empathy Co-op will launch online in the Burning Man Multiverse, inviting global participation.

“I’m in awe of the response from the people I’ve been seeing as we’re building this. I believe the community is really thirsty for something like this,” said DeMattia, who with Kohler has been assembling the exhibits at the plaza this month. “One thing I like about Reno is it’s a really grassroots-type place with the deep community ties; there’s openness here and a willingness of people to try something new.”

The project is informed by academic research which underscores the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on loneliness. Even before the contagion, loneliness was epidemic in the U.S. Recent studies indicate that the social isolation prompted by the pandemic can result in dire mental and physical harm that spreads across social networks.

DeMattia said the physical portion of the empathy project is designed to help people overcome loneliness and develop empathy through a safe, but in-person experience. Empathy is the internal connection with other human beings that enables us to understand and share their feelings and perceptions.

“So great is our desire to connect that we are becoming reckless,” she said. “(With the project) we are providing closeness without that recklessness. We can be together and do that safely. We can be socially close while being physically distant.”

Here’s how the three immersive art experiences work:

A collaborative wall mural

A local artist created an original mural on paper that was sliced up into irregular pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. Participants can draw on those pieces, adding their own ideas and artwork. The pieces are then treated with wheat, water and paper and put up on a wall. As people participate, a large image emerges.

It’s like “if you’ve ever experienced one of those images where from far away you see one image but when you get closer you see there are people in the image, like pixels,” DeMattia said. “In the end, when it’s on the wall, suddenly you are the artist and you are the art.”

An interactive empathy gallery

In this part of the experience, participants are guided by volunteers who encourage them to create self-portraits of their inner dialogue. “It’s a discovery of truth,” DeMattia said. “A recognition of the stories that people carry around with them.”

She said previous empathy galleries have proven to be a cathartic experience for those who take part.  “They see themselves without their skin; they see their stories told in all these different ways… People often say that ‘nobody knows how I feel’ but then they see others’ anonymous art in the gallery and realize, ‘oh my gosh, you mean everybody feels this way?’ It happens across the board, with all ages. And it’s fun.”

An interactive sculpture exhibition

In this phase, participants are allowed to draw on life-size  humanoid sculptures, becoming storytellers in the process. The exhibit consists of a circle of light pillars, which are 8-feet tall by 4-feet-wide rectangles that each hold a humanoid sculpture upon which others have already drawn and inscribed.

Inside the circle are humanoid sculptures that await visitors’ interactions. The idea is for participants to draw on the statues, to “allow people to express feelings and emotions that are often difficult to express,” DeMattia said.

The experiences lead to the potential for action, she said. The Empathy Co-op has teamed up with local and global organizations that will have representatives or information on hand that will point people to ways they can help create societal changes for the better. The options include an anti-poaching group working in Africa, activists raising awareness about climate change, Reno‘s Karma Box organizers, One Truckee River, gardening groups and other organizations.

“We want to point people toward what they like to do, what they want to do, and direct them toward resources. The question is often, ‘how do I connect with the community?’ and that’s what empathy is all about: seeing ourselves as another is very important for what we’re all going through right now. What are we here to do in the world? We want to help provide an internal compass to navigate this chaos.” — Sharon DeMattia, co-creator of the Empathy Co-op.

A YouTube video provides more details about the project and donations are accepted on the group’s website. DeMattia said the Reno City Arts Commission, the Regional Alliance for Downtown and the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada have endorsed the project. The co-op can be reached at

The quarantine led to collaboration

The Empathy Co-op is only as old as the pandemic itself. When the crisis began, DeMattia was traveling with the humanoids as part of an art project connected to the University of Nevada, Reno, but was turned around in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when the quarantine hit. Kohler, who began his career in advertising and marketing and became an art consultant, was at the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. Someone asked him if he had heard “what the Chinese delegation was talking about.”

PHOTO/EMPATHY CO-OP: Co-founders Thomas Kohler and Sharon DeMattia.

“I thought (the questioner) meant something about trade or economics,” Kohler said. “But when I was told (the Chinese delegates) were talking about the virus, I said, ‘what virus?’” Kohler, and the rest of the world, soon found out. His scheduled trips to Hong Kong and Taiwan were cancelled.

Several weeks later, Kohler and DeMattia met on a Zoom conference, and discovered they shared an interest in art as a pathway to self-awareness and empathy. The Empathy Co-op was born. After the exhibition’s Reno run, they plan to take the project on the road, perhaps even abroad, although those plans are fluid. So much is up to the virus, they said, but that’s also why the project is important right now.

They said that COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of what we considered to be safe and normal. “We’re on the tip of the spear right now, we can decide to do things differently,” DeMattia said. “We can be thoughtful, safe, and create different models that are better than before.”

Everyone is invited to get involved in the Reno project as participants or volunteers. “Every voice is welcome,” DeMattia said. She said the project also can be applied to schools, businesses and other groups.

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1 Comment

  1. I love it. This gives me hope. resonates with the speech from our prior First Lady yesterday. Empathy is the key, empathy is an action, empathy is a choice, empathy is a skill!

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