Community means everything to Jess Mercer. So when the Camp Fire destroyed most of hers, she was driven to help, however she could.

For the Chico State alumna and newfound art advocate, that meant helping the area’s youngest and most impressionable population—children—express themselves through art.

From February to May, Mercer visited the sites of 12 Paradise and Magalia K­–12 schools, providing students (and, in some cases, her former teachers) with an artistic outlet via her mobile art studio, Butte County Art on Wheels. From a vehicle gifted to her by Phoenix Solar Energy, Mercer provided a complete set of art supplies, from brushes and buckets to charcoal and paints, to help guide 2,300 students to process their thoughts into original murals.

Whether classes were held in the backs of warehouses, were moved to unfamiliar schools, or took place in fire-singed portables, Mercer leveraged her blend of high-energy encouragement, self-taught artistic acumen, and affinity for her fire-scarred community to help these budding artists express themselves in powerful and meaningful ways.

“I can’t help or fix, and I can’t put people together,” said Mercer (Political Science and Criminal Justice, ’09). “But I can piece together emotions to create something that people around us can draw from and understand where we are.”

Mercer spent a week at each school, meticulously listening to students’ mural visions. Then, using wood donated by Chico Building, the students drove the art as she facilitated and taught techniques.

A painted mural hangs in front of a school building.
A mural painted by the students at Pardise Charter Middle School hangs on the grounds of the school’s new location.

“If one of them asked, ‘How do I draw a cloud?’ I’d show them how to do it,” she said. “Other than that, they were on their own.”

The young artists emptied their wishes, fears, and emotions onto the wooden canvases. Laughter rang out, tears were shed, anger unleashed.

What the children painted ran the gamut: A vibrant azure phoenix rising skyward. Deep green pine trees beneath a drifting fleet of hot air balloons. And brushed over blue sky and between puffs of white were the words: “I need peace and love.”

“When a 9-year-old writes that,” Mercer said, “that’s when we need to pay attention.”

Once the murals were complete, she framed and sealed them, and readied the art to be hung at their new or renovated school sites. The finished pieces number a dozen.

While sharing her time, energy, and knowledge, Mercer received something in return: connection.

“In a town or a community where you live and thrive and work, you connect with people. When you lose a town, you lose those people,” Mercer said. “I was in desperate need of that feeling of community [after the fire], because I feel like Paradise raised me.”

Born in Sheridan, Wyoming, Mercer and her father sought a place that better aligned with their lives. When she was 15 years old, they looked at a map of California.

“We saw the word Paradise,” she said, “so we rented a U-Haul and drove out.”

After arriving, they stayed at the Motel Lantern Inn on the Skyway until they found a permanent home. Mercer’s teenage years were tumultuous. Battling addiction and anxiety, she struggled to maintain meaningful relationships with peers and adults. She said it took healthy role models at Paradise High School to redirect her behavior.

“With gentle reassurance and validation from my teachers in regards to my emotional turbulence throughout high school,” she said, “I was able to find sanctuary on campus.”

A sign to a hotel sits in front of the hotel that was destroyed by a fire.
The Motel Lantern Inn, Mercer’s first home in Paradise while her father looked for a permanent home, was destroyed in the Camp Fire. (Photo contributed by Jess Mercer)

For college, she chose to stay close to home, and as a Chico State student, Mercer found more community, feeling valued and that her voice was always important. Her professors pushed her to think critically, and when disagreement arose during discussions, Mercer understood her professors just wanted to help her reach her potential.

“I always felt supported at Chico State,” she said. “I always felt heard, I always felt challenged.”

When Mercer was 19 and a college sophomore, she began working as a counselor with troubled and foster youth in Butte County. After completing her degree, she continued that line of work until age 29, when she started working at a day program for adults with disabilities.

Art eventually found Mercer in the most unfortunate of circumstances. On January 16, 2017, she experienced a mini stroke and was transported to Enloe Medical Center for treatment. Soon, the blood clot pushed behind her left eye.

“I wasn’t able to really open my left eye, and I wasn’t able to move the left quadrant of my body,” Mercer said. “I lost a lot of speech and the ability to chew at some points.”

The prognosis was not good: At age 31, she’d likely continue to experience 60 to 100 seizures every day for the rest of her life.

For 10 months, she laid on an air mattress in her apartment to heal. She was told her hand-eye coordination would erode, so she played Tetris and other tactile activities to stay sharp.

“I viciously pushed myself to play my violin even though it was almost impossible to get my brain to connect with my left hand,” she said.

Mercer eventually started tinkering with art, and as time went by, she felt greater healing happen. She moved to Chico, kept an art studio at her father’s house in Paradise, and after doctors cleared her to work in September 2018, she got her driver’s license back and found a retail job in downtown Chico. Life was getting better.

Then the Camp Fire erupted. The blaze devoured the Motel Lantern Inn, her father’s home, and her art studio. It was here—the intersection of the fire’s devastation, her community’s grief, and her art—that Mercer was determined to help the survivors prevail.

Almost immediately after the fire, she began collecting donated keys from those who lost something in the Camp Fire that required them. The donated keys would become part of the Key Project Tribute, a statue constructed completely out of keys in the form of a phoenix.

At first, Mercer was reluctant to publicize the collecting too much. After a while, she placed containers at area stores where residents could deposit their keys. Eventually, people showed up at her home to hand keys over in person. 

Mercer estimates she’s collected about 12,000 keys, which she keeps in dozens of jars until incorporating them into the display. When each individual key is dropped into a Mason jar, the jingle represents a home, a business, a vehicle, a diary, a place of worship. Collectively, the keys are one representation of what was destroyed in the Camp Fire.

“It’s so intimate,” she said. “These jars are filled with love, memories, loss.”

With its base and torso constructed so far, Mercer projects she’ll finish the phoenix by November 8, 2019—the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire—and she plans to gift it to the Gold Nugget Museum.

Meanwhile, Mercer grapples with a newfound diagnosis, that two years of seizures and pain caused the muscles in her left arm to begin deteriorating. Doctors said she’ll likely lose complete function in that arm within 5 to 10 years.

Not one to shy away from an opportunity to grow, the right-handed Mercer has started a project of drawings with her left hand, simply because there may be a point when she can’t use it anymore.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see the students and the staff sitting around at times, working on the same project with their own emotions,” Mercer said of the murals.

“I’m navigating that, and what it means for my future again,” she said. “But if I can overcome hell once, I can overcome it again.”

And she is determined to help others through their challenges as well. She’s writing grant proposals to keep Butte County Art on Wheels sustainable—she recently received her fourth grant for the project—because her experience has proven that education and art are so valuable.

“Art transcends all things,” she said. “I feel like I’m able to tether so many people together through art. My lane is art, and I stay in my lane.”