On a recent afternoon at the Phoenix Club—a new addition to the Chico location of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the North Valley—artist Jess Mercer sat patiently as several giggling students used eyeliner pencils and makeup brushes to turn her into a tiger with four eyebrows, rosy cheeks and a mustache.
Mercer explained that this was their reward for being so dedicated during the creation of the mural now hanging on the wall, a product of a program she launched this year.
“This was probably one of the best experiences of my life,” announced student Kaitlyn Wood before running to Mercer and embracing her warmly, a smile on her face.
Since late February, Mercer has driven her mobile studio, Butte County Art on Wheels, to schools with students who were displaced by the Camp Fire. There, she encourages the kids to tap into their creativity, process their emotions and connect with one another by designing and painting a massive colorful mural.
So far, she estimates working with more than 1,500 kids across nine campuses, plus the Phoenix Club, which recently opened on Wall Street to help serve children of the Ridge after the Camp Fire. Mercer told the CN&R she feels honored to have collaborated with so many “brilliant … creative and honest” student artists. She plans to visit three more campuses before the end of this school year.
Given all that, it might come as a surprise that she only recently started considering herself an artist—her background is in youth counseling. In January 2017, she suffered a stroke and then many intermittent seizures. For nearly two years, she was unable to work and spent all her time either in the hospital or undergoing physical therapy, learning how to reuse the left side of her body. That’s when she began drawing abstract portraits of her nurses.
Once Mercer recovered, she began working in her father’s art studio in Paradise, her hometown. Two months later, the studio and her parents’ home were in ashes.
That didn’t stop Mercer from creating. She immediately began collecting house and car keys for the Key Project Tribute, a phoenix sculpture she is creating and will donate to Paradise. And, starting in January, she began signing schools up for mural-making.
When Mercer arrives at a new site, she brings fresh water, wood to paint on (the murals are movable) and art supplies into the makeshift classrooms in warehouses and portables, and even one campus that survived the fire, Pine Ridge School in Magalia.
The students then begin designing, drawing and painting—the sky’s the limit. Mercer is there to encourage, support and guide, leaving the creative process up to the kids.
The projects have provoked plenty of upbeat moments as well as many emotional responses. At Achieve Charter, for example, the sixth- through ninth-graders and staff members created a puzzle-piece mosaic. There are bright, colorful patterns along with smoky, fiery ones; a path leading through empty hills; and new growth emerging from the ashes.
“When it was finally finished and we set it up,” art teacher Susan Gasaway told the CN&R, “I started reminding them how cool this was, that even though the high school is going to be closing, that they have a permanent mark to show their experience at Achieve.
“We were in tears. … I’m so thankful to Jess that she reached out to us.”
The work thus far has largely been funded by two grants totaling $22,500 from the North Valley Community Foundation and Golden Valley Bank Community Foundation.
This summer, Mercer says she will teach art classes at the Phoenix Club and plans to bring her mobile studio to Art in the Park at the City Plaza during the Friday Night Concert series. Mercer said she truly loves this work and is determined to create a sustainable program that is “a resource for repair.”
“My soul is full, and I feel so close to my community since November,” she said. “Being able to showcase that art is healing is a beautiful thing.”