Avery Williamson creating her heart map. Courtesy of the U-M Arts Initiative.

To put it lightly, a lot has gone down since March 2020. We’ve adjusted to ever-changing daily realities, traversed immeasurable grief and negotiated ordinary expectations in extraordinary times. Transitioning to remote and hybrid work, reimagining what it means to gather, protecting our own health and advocating for the collective health of others: It’s been up to us to navigate it all. In the middle of all this, it’s likely you’ve felt totally and terrifyingly lost. But how do you find your way again? 

“A Travel Guide for Talking Hearts,” a livestream event presented by the University of Michigan’s relatively new Arts Initiative, offered at least one approach forward.

The event showcased the summer-long collaboration between Detroit, Flint and Ann Arbor-based artists Nour Ballout, Tunde Olaniran and Avery Williamson; students Audrey Banks, Alyssa Melani, Ashwin Prakash and Constance Burroughs, from all three U-M campuses; and Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned cellist and current resident artist at the University of Michigan.

The committee’s summer task was to create a guide for the many who have lost their way during the COVID-19 pandemic. “To facilitate a form of collective processing,” as Williamson, a visual artist in Ann Arbor, put it. To “map” the emotional experience of the pandemic.

In fact, the committee introduced us to a certain kind of map: a heart map. As I’ve come to understand it, “heart map” is an abstract term referring to a way of checking in with your internal emotional geography to process your experience of the current moment and everything leading up to it, through various modes of expression. 

Over the summer, the committee came up with two guides to heart mapping — one via talking, the other via drawing.

“Maps can tell us where we belong,” Williamson said. “To draw your own heart map is to define your own territories, directions, desires … A way of declaring your belonging to yourself on your own terms.”

I accessed the committee’s Talking Hearts Drawing Guide online. Sure enough, the second page is a blank sheet of paper, headed with the following prompt: “Draw the territories, colors, pathways, temperatures, boundaries, topographies, edges, patterns, longings and climate of your heart.” 

Banks, passionate photographer and Art & Design student at the U-M Flint campus, shared her own heart map with us — an abstract image she’d constructed using Adobe Illustrator. It was a visual compilation of “the little things that were special to me,” Banks explained. I noticed a camera in the piece’s foreground. 

Then, there’s the Talking Hearts Conversation Guide. Olaniran, a Flint-based musical and performing artist on the committee, explained the goal of this guide: “How could we provide a tool for any two people, whether they’re strangers, or loved ones, or friends, or classmates, to sit down, and go through this guide, and by the end of it you would’ve taken a journey that allowed you to see someone in their full self, and really understand them on an emotional level?”

Throughout the event, the committee emphasized the importance of “conversation spaces” in which you can allow yourself and others to engage with your emotional core. In a way I didn’t expect, the event offered an active conversation space by means of the live chat accompanying the stream.  

It all started when one user shared a vulnerable response to a Conversation Guide question. One might expect, as I did, a chat like this to be a one-way stream of consciousness from viewer to the presenter, as live commenting features like these often are. However, moments later, and after a few other unrelated comments, came: “[First user name], I hope you find some peace.” There it was — online strangers, listening to one another. That first vulnerable audience member thanked her supporter, and then a dialogue emerged, a pattern of call and response.

And then something really incredible happened — those same users who had named their pain offered support to others naming their own. That first vulnerable audience member? They contributed again, much later, in response to another user’s call: “[User name] — I totally understand what you mean. That weight seems to come from so many sources. Hope you find some relief.” 

What was happening in the chat was so moving that I wish the committee members gave us a bit more space to process all that processing. The main conversation among committee members was heavy, divulging and complex, too; it felt strange and difficult to multitask between such intimate exchanges. I would’ve preferred a more leisurely pace to it all, with breaks between transitions and maybe even some intentional moments of silence.

To close out the evening, we witnessed a live, collaborative heart mapping. The screen was split: one half a time-lapse of Williamson drawing and painting her own heart map, the other half Ma providing a cello accompaniment, improvising as she did. They joined together in multi-sensory dialogue; Williamson’s heart under construction, Ma responding to the process, synthesizing it sonically.

We saw Williamson’s heart evolve as an abstract scene. In her illustration, I saw plants, waves, birds, bugs, wind and sweet breeze. Ma inched further and further down his cello’s fingerboard, producing sounds as complicated as the topography of Williamson’s heart map, which was transforming before our eyes.

After a few minutes, Williamson’s time-lapse came to an end, her heart map complete. A few bars later, Ma ended his accompaniment with a single pluck of the strings. He let the sound fade before lowering his arm, opening his eyes and looking again into the camera.

“Wow,” Ma said, smiling. “That was a beautiful map.”

Daily Arts Writer Gigi Guida can be reached at gguida@umich.edu.