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A 'Travel Guide for Talking Hearts': U-M, Yo-Yo Ma collaboration offers a blueprint for healing

By Jennifer Quartararo

ANN ARBOR—Avery Williamson, an Ann Arbor-based interdisciplinary artist, spent lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic drawing the lines of her tropical houseplants again and again—until the leaves became organic, abstract forms.

“There’s so much more meaning to the rhythms of our domestic spaces since the pandemic began,” Williamson said. “I was thinking about the distance to the wall, about the shadows that come at different times of the day, about lines and shapes and forms and destruction and I was looking very closely at the space around me.”

Williamson realized that perhaps she could offer tools for others to also look closely at their own spaces, and in doing so, begin to process the experiences of the past year.

She is one of three Michigan artists working with the University of Michigan Arts Initiative to explore the idea of how others may take in their surroundings and process the experiences of the past year.

The outcome is “A Travel Guide for Talking Hearts,” a project inspired by creative explorations undertaken with longtime U-M collaborator and cellist Yo-Yo Ma that features a virtual event at 7 p.m. Sept. 23. The event is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

Ma began his six-month residency with the Arts Initiative, a partnership with the University Musical Society, at a virtual event in April. The project’s steering committee comprises students from all three U-M campuses, and three regional artists: Williamson, Nour Ballout of Detroit and Tunde Olaniran of Flint.

Through collaborative, informal discussions, the idea of a “heart map” was posed by Olaniran—a visual representation of an emotional journey. This concept deeply resonated with the group.

“During the pandemic relationships combusted, and the way you would normally process grief—whether it’s the passing of a loved one or the end of a relationship—would be in a community, but during the pandemic we couldn’t do that,” said Ballout, a Detroit-based artist, curator and lead artist on the project. “I wanted to create a ritual for this healing.”

The four students working on the project—Alyssa Maria Melani, Ashwin Soorya Prakash, Audrey Banks and Constance Burroughs—met all summer to think of ways to get their peers excited about participating, while also working with the artists to take aspects of it forward.

Launched in 2020 and still in its exploratory pilot phase, the Arts Initiative is testing ways for the arts to advance top priorities of the university and the people it serves, across the domains of research and discovery, teaching and learning, service and public engagement.

“The Travel Guide for Talking Hearts” shows how bringing powerhouse creators to campus can help our community understand how we and others have navigated this exceptionally challenging time,” said Arts Initiative co-chair Jonathan Massey, dean of the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Besides the Sept. 23 event with Ma, “A Travel Guide for Talking Hearts” contains several components including:

  • A virtual Talking Hearts portal, where community members are encouraged to submit their experiences, either through written responses to selected prompts or through audio or video clips.
  • Talking Hearts Drawing Guide: Offers prompts and drawing exercises to help people make their own heart maps.
  • Talking Hearts Conversation Guide: Intended to encourage conversations that build and strengthen relationships and that normalize connecting with—and caring for—the people around us. The guide was crafted in collaboration with Wolverine Wellness.
  • Billboards and bus banners to be displayed throughout Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint featuring “heart map” art by local artists Williamson, Cyrah Dardas and Amanda Edwards, as well as select students from each campus.
  • A series of live, in-person performances with regional artists will kick off with Dani Darling on Sept. 24 at Ingalls Mall. Performances by mBtheLight Blaire and Natasha Thomas will be announced on the Flint and Dearborn campuses soon. They are pop-up events intended to meet students where they are as they walk through campus. 
  • Students working on the project have documented it from their perspective in the Talking Hearts blog.

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