Guest comment: Art can heal us

Co-creating art and community in the wake of trauma

This commentary is part of the Chico News & Review’s 2022 Arts & Music special issue.

To live in a community like Butte County that blossoms with the creativity of many artistic souls as it sprouts back from wildfire devastation is inspirational.

During this time of successive community traumas, I have discovered a platform that can bring individuals from all walks of life together and allow for personal and group healing and growth: “co-creation.” Shortly after the devastating Camp Fire that consumed my hometown and parents’ home, I started to use art in this way in an attempt to tether our shattered community.

When my father tossed his keys on my kitchen table in Chico the night of the fire, he knew he had no home to return to, that its locks no longer existed. In the months that followed, I made a call for art to anyone vulnerable enough to join me. I asked them to relinquish their keys, those tiny precious totems of familiarity, so that I could create a sculpture for us all. I set out glass jars all over the county, provided a mailing address and soon gathered thousands of keys—to homes, schools, workplaces, cars, boats, diaries, even some that once belonged to those whom we lost that day.

Jess Mercer

In a small bedroom in my apartment, I crafted a large phoenix from more than 18,000 keys. Both the project and its social media page united my community, provided a platform for the scattered to communicate and eventually brought many back home one last time during the unveiling of the “Ridge Key Phoenix” on the one-year remembrance of the fire.

After the key project, I’ve refocused my career to use arts education for healing, driving the Butte County Art On Wheels van to schools, companies and public spaces to co-create with the community impacted by disasters.

The arts and the process of creation may be one of the most powerful tools we have as humans. To make what did not previously exist, to recreate what was and to have vision to collaborate and create when we need to heal is essential. To support the arts—especially now in the wake of two years of pandemic-induced trauma—is to support the community.

The author is an arts educator and community activist who implements trauma-informed practices into programs in Butte County.


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