Bemis Center Explores Empathy in Art


October 19th, 2017

Photo courtesy of Jody Wood and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

Omaha, NE—In addition to serving as a gallery space, The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts engages with the community through their artist-in-residence program, and opportunity for local and international artists to live and work at the downtown facility for about two months. This time the theme is “Art, Empathy and Ethos,” focusing on artists whose work negotiates, understands and communicates themes relating to empathy. Right now 10 artists from all over the United States as well as South Korea and Ukraine are working on filmmaking, writing, music composition, oral storytelling and other media, and the public will have a chance to see their works in progress and studio space this Saturday at Open House/Open Studios. Also presentations, hands on activities and performances including vocals and live drawing.

The current residency’s theme and emphasis on communication has invited artists to explore media outside of the typical fine arts. Resident Christy Chan from Oakland, California is developing a social practice called “Everybody Eats Lunch” an event where people of opposing political affiliations have a chat and a meal.

“Where that idea came from was partially because of what’s happening politically,” Chan said. “You know, there’s a lot of people who say that we’re all living in echo chambers now and that we’re all surrounded by people who are just like ourselves, and it feels like the political and cultural conversation has gotten really oversimplified and very polarized. My family had a restaurant when I was growing up, and it was one of the first Chinese restaurants in their area and it was part of this wave of Chinese restaurants that helped to make going to a Chinese restaurant normal. So I personally grew up seeing the effect of a food as a gateway to someone experiencing a culture and a person they’d never been around before, so the premise behind my idea is twofold. It’s seeing meals and food as a gateway to dialogue with another person.”

Resident Jody Wood also explores personal relationships, but her current work examines empathetic dissonance and the struggle care professions, particularly home care.

“There are real consequences to people working in care professions where, let’s say, you’re seeing patients suffering every single day for eight hours a day, five days a week and getting very little vacation time and not being paid all too well,” Wood said. I think it just wears on people. You can’t produce that much empathy all the time continually. So I’m really looking at the effects of secondary trauma on care workers, and I’ve been interested in a subject for a few years now and I’ve been looking at social workers working in homeless shelters and community centers, and while I’m here I started to think about home care to professionals who go into people’s homes in these unpredictable environments to care for their patients.”

Empathy as a theme and emphasis on communication open the door for certain opportunities Chan explained.

“It allows artists and filmmakers to be first responders in a way to what’s happening culturally, because sometimes the things that are happening culturally and politically are so difficult to address that art gives people a way into the conversation,” Chan said. “It’s like it’s like an access point to talking about it.”

Moving away from the academic side of art also has an appeal for Wood.

“I would be so frustrated to be doing art for art’s sake and just be talking to only artists and only people who have art history backgrounds,” Wood said. “It feels claustrophobic to me to work in that way, so it’s so fulfilling to be able to have expansive conversations and to feel like you’re actually connecting with people outside of the art world and that your work is just as important to people without an art background and that you can find some way to also make it relevant to the art world or to art practice or even challenging the art world and expanding what is expected of art and what art can do in the world.”

If you’re interested in engaging with either these projects, Chan and Wood are both searching for participants with open minds. Chan is actively recruiting for the first of “Everybody Eats Lunch” events, and Wood is looking for home care professionals. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts’ Open House and Open studios is this Saturday, October 21st from 11am to 4pm. For more information about the event or working with the artists, visit

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