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Rebecca 'Bucky' Willis, Creator of Bleeding Heart Design

How she turned her college thesis idea into a real organization where local architects and artists give back to the Detroit community through their work

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It all started off as just an idea for a master's degree thesis. Rebecca "Bucky" Willis, an architecture student at the University of Detroit Mercy, posed the question, "Can design begin to make people more altruistic? More selfless?" she says.

She researched this for a year by coming up with a theoretical organization, Bleeding Heart Design. The thinking was that artists of all types should design for the greater good.

Forming an organization

"It didn't really involve architecture that much. It was more about the idea of designers being activists and having a really huge responsibility to design well—to design beyond just for money or for a client," Willis, now 24, says.

The name came from Willis' favorite flowers, bleeding hearts, and the term for somebody who is very compassionate. Her first project was set up at school and was based on emotional contagion theory. "Like the cold or flu are easily caught between people," she explains, "I could catch your emotions."

She put pieces of paper in a metal cage on which people could write comments. People could read the comments, too. Some people would remark on another statement.

"It was a really nice way to remind people that the things that we say, they don't just stop where they're said," Willis explains.

After her research, Willis found "when you remind people that they belong to each other, then the altruistic characters just come up out of them."

Knowing this, Willis started to bring Bleeding Heart Design to life as a real organization after she graduated in summer 2012. She teamed up with Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC, now the fiduciary for Bleeding Heart Design. The team works around Willis' neighborhood, which is in the 7 Mile, John R and State Fair area, painting murals and building structures with the goal of bringing the community together and inspiring them.

It starts with any type of designer "realizing their responsibility," she says. They set a goal, like an artist, to evoke a certain emotion in the viewer, Willis explains. In two years, she's done about eight major projects.

"We always think about how can we do things inexpensively and fast and make a big impact," she explains.

Getting involved in the community

For the "We Need" project on State Fair, Bleeding Heart Design painted an entire wall in chalkboard paint and wrote, "We need…" with blank spaces for residents to write down thoughts.

"Most of the responses pertained to unity in the end. Most people wrote things like, 'we need to come together more,' or, 'we need to be more friendly,' or, 'we need to be a better community' and things like that," Willis says.

A year later, Bleeding Heart Design mowed an overgrown field in the area and asked the neighbors what they could do to make it a useable space. Many people told the team they'd like a place for gatherings, so Bleeding Heart Design and the DCDC team came up with a stage, which could be used for many different things. With funding from Fetzer Institute, they were able to build it. People have used it for events like jazz concerts and barbeques alike.

The stage has "become a place where people can get together and kind of own as their own a little bit," she says.

Willis says she has a mural project in the works for spring 2014 and plans to do more projects in the summer. Eventually, Willis would like Bleeding Heart Design to become a nonprofit and expand outside of just her neighborhood.

"It's all about sparking different emotions that you know are in people—they just need to be pulled out sometimes," she summarizes, "or just … welcomed into the light."

How does architecture impact community?

"Everything in the world is designed by somebody," Willis says. As an architect, she explains that good architecture can really make a difference for people in the community.

"It's just the profound feeling that people get when they visit great architecture is amazing. That's why people travel all across the world to see buildings that are designed well because it's like art encompasses you," she says.

So, Willis poses, "why can't great architecture be in inner city communities?"

As Bleeding Heart Design expands, Willis hopes to do even more 3-D projects like installations and built structures—beyond the 2-D painted projects they've mostly done thus far.

"I think it's important that everybody get the chance to encounter good architecture, because it's like encountering art—when it's really good, it's like encountering art," she explains. "It's an art form. And just like every other art, it is important to life."

How you can get involved

For her spring project, Willis put a call for entries for muralists to pitch ideas for their next mural on State Fair. She says she's open to collaboration ideas if others are interested in getting involved. Plus, she's always looking for volunteers.

To get involved with Bleeding Heart Design, or to see past and future projects, visit BleedingHeartDesign.org

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