Painting hope

Artists and Camp Fire survivors come together to remember and heal with community mural

Steve Ferchaud, Corinne Mercer, Jess Mercer (no relation) and Tiffany Russell stand before the mural on the Skyway Antique Mall in Paradise. They have been working on the community project alongside dozens of other artists since the first weekend in May. (Photo by Ashiah Scharaga)

Iris Natividad had never painted before, but she knew that she had to try for her late partner, Andrew Downer.

She picked up a paint brush on June 5, dipped it in yellow paint, and touched it to the wall of the Skyway Antique Mall in Paradise where over 60 artists have left their mark on a massive mural since May 1.

For the organizers and community members taking part, the piece represents not only the town’s history—with its clock faces honoring notable figures, places and traditions—it also signifies how Paradise is trying to forge ahead with hope as it recovers from the devastation of the 2018 Camp Fire. At the center of the mural is a heart shape around a wide view of the Ridge, as well as a timepiece with angelic wings; across the bottom, daffodils to represent the lives lost in the tragedy.

That’s what brought Natividad and other families there that day—a chance to honor their loved ones by painting the colorful flowers across the bottom of the piece. As they painted, they laughed and cried and remembered the people they lost and still love—the community and the creation helping with the healing process.

Natividad and Downer had been together for 28 years. She called him Duck Dynasty because of his long gray beard, she said with a smile. The day of the Camp Fire, he was stranded in Paradise and unable to drive to safety due to a disability. Natividad was over 100 miles away, working in Sonoma County.

The opportunity to honor him that day moved her to tears.

“He always had a saying: ‘Nothing but love,’ and he wanted to spread love,” she said. “He was a giving person; a little silly.”

At the other side of the mural, Marge Nelms and her niece, Denise, and Denise’s 10-year-old daughter, Lexi Lindstrom, added finishing touches to their daffodils. The person on their mind that day was Lolene Rios. Marge and Rios were life-long friends who lived in the region—first in Concow, then in Paradise—for decades. Her friend was one of the most giving people that she knew, she said, always bringing back trinkets or key chains from her trips for her loved ones.

Iris Natividad painted a daffodil on the Skyway Antique Mall mural in honor of her partner, Andrew Downer (pictured on her phone), who perished in the Camp Fire. (photo by Ashiah Scharaga)

Denise said Rios was like an aunt to her, and that she could always count on her. She remembers sitting on top of Rios’ shoulders at her first concert (Billy Ray Cyrus) and going to her as an adult when she needed relationship advice.

Rios would tell Denise to know her worth and stay strong through hard times.

“She was always there for you no matter what you were going through,” she said. “She always had something positive to say to get you through.”

A community project

As the muralists worked through the early afternoon on June 5, drivers would frequently honk and wave as they passed by on the Skyway.

Jess Mercer, a Camp Fire survivor and the artist behind the concept of the mural, said that’s happened every weekend since the community started the project the first weekend in May. The muralists often stop painting to wave in return, smiles spreading across their faces.

There’s been a lot of positive energy and community support surrounding the project, Mercer said. A private donation has helped pay for a majority of the mural’s supplies, for example. Community members and local businesses have also donated drinks and snacks to the muralists.

Mercer first floated the idea at a Paradise Arts Alliance virtual meeting back in January, she said. The alliance is a collective of different organizations in Paradise that are focused on maximizing the quality of life in Paradise, according to its Facebook page.

Mercer has committed herself to trying to help the town of Paradise heal since the fire through multiple creative initiatives—she is the artist behind the Ridge Key Phoenix sculpture made from the keys of survivors’ homes that burned to the ground, installed at the town’s Building Resiliency Center. She has created multiple programs—including a traveling art project, Butte County Art on Wheels—to help the region’s schoolchildren heal through art.

Marge (left) and Denise Nelms put the finishing touches on a daffodil memorializing beloved family friend Lolene Rios. (Photo by Ashiah Scharaga)

She told the CN&R she was itching to do another big project and wanted to include as many people as possible.

“I’ve driven by the Skyway Antique Mall since I was 15,” she said. “It’s a giant white wall. As an artist, you’re just like, ‘I gotta paint that!’”

Mercer received support and encouragement from the alliance, and teamed up with well-known local illustrator Steve Ferchaud, who did the story and artwork for the children’s book My Name is Haley, and I Live in Paradise. He sketched the mural design that has come to life over the past month and a half.

Bille Estrada, owner of the Skyway Antique Mall (6118 Skyway), was approached by Mercer and her team, and said she loved the concept of honoring the town’s history. Her family is from Paradise: Bille Road is named after her great grandfather, and Bille Park after her grandfather.

She and her late husband, Don, opened the mall in 2000, and they closed it for two and a half years after the fire. He died in November 2020.

“We always talked about a mural,” she said. “He would be delighted to see that mural; he would love it.”

The mural doesn’t just honor the past, but captures the hope and resilient spirit of the town, she said. The building itself represents resiliency, as well, Mercer added: It was one of the few left standing after the blaze.

“I think people appreciate that Paradise is going to be here a long time—it’s coming back,” Estrada said. “It’s worth it.”

Healing together

Corinne Mercer (no relation to Jess) said she learned about the mural after seeing open calls online for community members interested in getting involved. She’s an artist, but has never shared her work publicly, she said.

She arrived happy to paint a single leaf, and ended up working closely with Mercer, Ferchaud and Tiffany Russell—an artist who, like Corinne, is also is new to a project like this—for weeks.

The full mural as of June 10. (Photo by Jess Mercer)

Corinne said she was especially honored to help work on the interior of the heart at the center of the mural. She had a heart attack after the Camp Fire. For her, this project symbolizes not only her emotional but her physical recovery in the aftermath of the disaster.

Corinne grew up in Paradise and lived there over 50 years. She lost her home, but her mother’s survived, and that’s where she has since resettled.

“My heart belongs in Paradise. To be able to be part of the inside of the heart, I can’t even describe what it means,” she said. “It’s been extremely healing for me.”

Along those same lines, Ferchaud, a fire refugee, said he comes by to do detail work and shading, but mostly leaves the ownership of the piece to the rest of the community. Like all of the work he’s done since the fire, it’s been therapeutic, he said.

“This is a whole community thing—that’s what’s important,” he said.

Jess Mercer told the CN&R that the mural has been cathartic for many reasons: honoring those who died in the fire, witnessing the community support and kindness the muralists have received, and creating a space for new and experienced artists to laugh, cry and grieve together.

“I know I gave an opportunity for so many people to come and share space at the same time,” she said. “The emotional part of it, which is to thread us all together for a common purpose, was reached the first day we started panting and it’s been blossoming and blossoming.

“I feel very connected to my home.”

A mural celebration will be held at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 3, at the Skyway Antique Mall (6118 Skyway).

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