Only three days after the Camp Fire, artist Jess Mercer began asking for keys owned by survivors from the Ridge. Any key: cars, houses, businesses, safes, boats, diaries, etc. were accepted.. After just a year, Mercer had collected upwards of 18,000 keys from items lost in the fire.
Little by little, she built the large, metal frame of a piece of artwork that would bind these artifacts of her community together. She attached each key with purpose and sentiment until the shape of a phoenix emerged.
Exactly one year after the Fire; on Friday, the communities of the Ridge banded together to grieve while also celebrating their resilience during the past year. It was here where Mercer finally unveiled the phoenix from her project “Key Project Tribute: Unlock Possibilities,” comprised of many of the keys she gathered from people who have lost everything.
Before the reveal, Mayor Judy Jones presented Mercer with the key to Paradise in honor of her work for the community and her effort to bring people together after tragedy.
“I thought I had all the keys to Paradise, but now I have the actual key to Paradise,” Mercer said after being surprised with the gift.
Mercer left 13 jars across Chico and Red Bluff for survivors to leave their keys if they wished. Since then, she has been non-stop working to make sure that every person who wanted to pass on their keys could reach her.
She added thousands of miles to her truck by driving to wherever people were, either in tents, evacuee centers, hotels or their new homes. The phoenix was slowly created in her small apartment room in Chico until, eventually, it was able to be moved to a studio space a few months into her project.
Regardless of the outpouring of support from her community, Mercer misses her home.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that it’s so quiet here,” Mercer said during her speech before the unveiling. “I miss hearing garage doors open, kids playing, cars and noise… Today, I am going to be human. I am not going to deny my sadness, my anger. Today, I wanted to come home and you all came home with me.”
Although Mercer has been working since right after the fire started, the phoenix was only officially completed less than a week before the unveiling. She will continue to collect any key that comes her way and, according to the project’s Facebook page, she may create another artwork from the keys she didn’t end up using.
The unveiling drew in thousands of survivors and supporters, nearly all of whom Mercer hugged and greeted. The phoenix is not open to public viewing yet, but will live in Paradise’s new resource center, “The Brick,” at 6295 Skyway in Paradise.
Rayanne Painter can be reached at [email protected]