PARADISE — The Building Resilience Center is home to a sculpture made up of 18,000 keys that would otherwise have no use, for the objects they once unlocked were destroyed on Nov. 8, 2018.
Artist Jess Mercer revealed the 800-pound phoenix on the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire. It symbolically gathered a scattered community. It illustrated that, like the mythical creature, Paradise would rise from the ashes.
To commemorate the two-year anniversary, Mercer constructed a wishing well as part of her Ridge Wellness Project. It will be at the Paradise Community Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Anyone affected by the historic blaze is welcome to drop a letter or drawing into the Wellness Well.
“My hope is to get such a spectrum of people’s truths,” Mercer said.
With those truths, she will bind a book full of stories, advice, sketches, whatever survivors want to share.
“The best way that I can ever tell anybody about my experiences and my community is to get everyone to speak with me, to author this with everyone,” she said.
The first project required keys. This one requires voices. With the profits of the book, she hopes to establish something new.
“I am determined to open a family center up here in Paradise to give people a safe gathering spot,” she said.
Not long after Paradise was leveled, she began making regular trips up to the burn scar to work with school kids.
“All of a sudden, there were these beaming lights of yellow daffodils everywhere. I mean everywhere,” Mercer said. “It’s the first thing that typically blooms after winter. And we had our winter. We had our emotional, physical, mental winter in November.”
They called to her, “Please, look at me. I’m here to remind you that growth happens.”
Since the reveal of the phoenix, the artist has continued to receive keys from community members. With them, she’s constructing a daffodil sculpture for the new Magalia Community Center. She chose that flower before she knew that the daffodil would become the official flower of Paradise.
It’s the phoenix all over again. Before the Camp Fire sparked, Mercer had phoenix tattoos etched into her skin, a foreshadowing of her first golden creation.
The flower will end her work with keys.
“I realized that I’m not moving on by continuously building the same project. I need to build other things,” Mercer said.
The Wellness Well is just one alternative art project forged through fire.
She pondered, “How do I bring people together when we can’t come together? How do I tell you that, no matter where you are, whatever you’re doing, you’re still part of the fabric of this community?”
The way forward was obvious. Mercer gave each kindergarten through eighth grade student and faculty of Achieve Charter School two quilt squares. On one, they can draw whatever they want. On the other, they can write a word of gratitude. She will sew the squares together into one large quilt.
While the key sculptures are standing pieces, the 6-foot well will be a one-day installation. It’s made completely of recyclable, local materials. In appearance, it’s fitting for a cottage. The cylindrical piece took Mercer 40 hours to construct, but not without challenges.
In June, she underwent shoulder surgery. She was only 85% percent healed and had movement in just three of the five fingers on her left hand when she laid the first brick of the well.
She spent 2017 in and out of the hospital because of various illnesses. Her health has not been the same since. That alone is keeping her from coming back home. Physically, at least.
“I can’t move back to Paradise. There’s no hospital. If anything bad were to happen, I’m not sure I can make the 45-minute drive,” she said. “There’s this hug, this orb that exists on the ridge. There’s always a tether.”
Each person who stops by the Wellness Well will receive free daffodils. There will be crisis counselors on site for support. Those who can’t physically drop a letter or drawing into the well can email them to [email protected] to be included in the book.
“I don’t want anybody to write anything that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with a larger group,” she said. “That book, I hope to spread all over because every book sold goes toward the biggest goal, which is bringing my people into a safe space.”