There’s a pop-up art museum downtown that literally lets you walk in another Denverite’s shoes

The Empathy Museum is set up on 16th Street until Sept. 27

Ray Mark Rinaldi, Special to The Denver Post
The Empathy Museum is set up temporarily on 16th Street in Denver.
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I don’t want to give away Andi Todaro’s story. But it’s too good to keep it to myself.

It seems her dog died, though she knew it was coming. He was growing old, getting sick, she could tell by the way he peed. The vet said it was time for him to go.

So she dug him a grave on his final day, in the yard of her old family home in Aurora, deep and wide enough that the coyotes couldn’t sniff him out. Guido — that’s the dog — watched her work. She fed him treats. “He seems unaware of what’s going on, even happy,” she recalls in the true-life tale she recorded for the interactive art exhibit “A Mile in My Shoes.”

If you go

Empathy Museum’s “A Mile in My Shoes” is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Sept. 27 at Tail Tracks Plaza, on 16th Street between Wewatta and Wynkoop streets. Info on all 2019 Biennial of the Americas events and attractions is at biennialoftheamericas.org.

I won’t tell you what happens next, since Andi tells it better, but don’t expect a happy ending.

Instead, lose yourself in the drama, while wearing a portable headset and strolling through LoDo in a pair of the knee-high rubber boots (with red laces) that the exhibit hands out to folks who pick Todaro from a list of real-life Denverites who have made some story from their lives available for public consumption.

That’s the concept behind “A Mile in My Shoes,” housed in the one-room, shoebox-shaped Empathy Museum, set up temporarily at the bottom of the 16th Street Mall near Union Station. The exhibit is a manifestation of the familiar saying, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” that goes back in one form or another for more than a century.

The attraction was conceived by British artist Clare Patey in collaboration with philosopher and author Roman Krznaric, and it’s a preliminary event of Denver’s Biennial of the Americas, which celebrates culture up and down the Western Hemisphere every two years.

“A Mile in My Shoes” can be quite moving, if you give in to it, though it is unusual, and it can be slightly uncomfortable.

Art, for the most part, works the other way around. Artists take true-life objects and ideas and make them abstract. A real daisy, for example, is rendered by a painter as a two-dimensional picture meant to evoke the beauty and essence of the flower.

This exhibit starts with the abstract metaphor, or colloquialism, and works backwards. The aphorism becomes flesh and blood, so to speak.

Among the nearly 30 voices featured in the exhibit are poets Franklin Cruz and Suzi Q. Smith, politician Polly Baca, drag performer Scottie Carlyle, artist Ryan Foo and Dr. Kimberly D. Warner.  Visitors don’t wear their actual shoes, but one of several models of a shoe the speakers like to wear. Yes, you put your feet in communal shoes. And yes, it gets a little sweaty.

Practically speaking, there aren’t that many pairs or that many sizes available, so the shoes don’t fit everyone, and for that reason, there can be some non-metaphorical pain involved in trouncing around in them. Still, there’s plenty of adventure in trying, and the exhibit, to its credit, isn’t hung up on gender. Anyone can wear anything, which means Carlyle’s silver, bejeweled sky-high pumps are up for anyone willing to give them a go.

While Todaro’s story is small and personal, others are grand and universal, even though they’re only about 10 minutes long.

Denverite Sarah Kessler spins her story of coming out as a lesbian to friends and family. In a clear and confident voice, she talks about growing up in a conservative Christian family in the South “with a secret that I carried for a very long time.” She confesses to “trying to pray the gay away.”

But a missionary stint in Africa taught her to see that the world was vast and that people held various notions about how to live. She moved to Denver and found other gay Christians and decided to speak her truth. After that: “I barely talked to my family for a year, and friends cast me off.”

This story does have a happy ending, however.

“I became so much more than my sexuality, so much more than my faith. I became fully me.” Acceptance, relationships, community followed.

So did some cute shoes. The audio is accompanied by a pair of liquid-blue, Etnies brand sneakers; white-laced slip-ons with a multicolored geometric pattern sewn in right below the ankle.

The audio for “A Mile in My Shoes” is well-crafted. I actually thought for a minute that a professional voice actor was performing Kessler’s story. I had to ask.

And while it’s a roving, plug-and-play exhibit that “originated in the United Kingdom and has traveled throughout Europe and to Australia, Brazil and Siberia,” it’s customized neatly using home-grown voices. Denver’s Office of Storytelling, which was created just last year, is among the local partners for the effort.

“A Mile in My Shoes” bodes well for the Biennial of the Americas, which holds its big weekend of events Sept. 25-28. The event is a little different than in past years, when it was held in the middle of summer.

The Biennial’s “clinicas,” which bring together activists from the Americas to share strategies on various social efforts, are open to the public in 2019, In past editions, they’ve been private.

There’s also an interesting and diverse lineup of artists and speakers on the roster, including Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic airlines.

The action culminates with a public festival, called Cósmico Americas, on Sept. 28 at Civic Center park.

Many events are free, though some are ticketed or require a reservation via the Biennial’s website. A few are likely to fill up fast.

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