Local artists build a 'hall of love' at Napa State Hospital
Written by Tessa Paoli
Tracy Ferron, founder of Life on Earth Art, holds up Papier-mâché hearts for "Unbound." photo credit: Tessa Paoli
When you walk into Life on Earth Art’s temporary gallery in downtown Petaluma, you see hearts with wings everywhere. The first sight is a 15-foot winged heart rotating around a spherical cage.
“Life on Earth Art really utilizes art to shine a spotlight on human suffering and social injustice,” said Life on Earth Art founder Tracy Ferron. “We feel like out of awareness comes compassion.”
Ferron founded the organization in 2018 and the art has brought people together from all walks of life, artists, activists, and therapists, to create large-scale installations with healing at the center. And it’s shown up in protests outside of prisons as well as in museums.
For Life on Earth Art’s first installation, Ferron partnered with Oakland artist Ruben Guzman to install 51 Papier-Mâché hearts flying out of a tall cage at the Museum of Sonoma County. The installation, titled “Los Olvidados Liberados,” was made in honor of children with cerebral palsy who were medically experimented on at Sonoma State Hospital in the 1950’s. And making the winged hearts by hand was a community effort.
“You should have seen my house, we had dozens of people,” Ferron said. “They’d come in the morning, I had friends come after work. And this is where I saw how powerful it was to bring people around the table, working with their hands, telling stories and it was really a platform for social connection.”
That sense of collectivity is at the root of “Unbound,” a third installation in the series Breaking the Spell, that explores themes of imprisonment and liberation with cages and winged hearts.
“And so at the end of the exhibit, you would have hundreds and hundreds of hearts, you have this hall filled with love,” Ferron said. “And the hearts inside the cage have been removed.”
A drawing of Life on Earth Art's "Unbound" installation. photo credit: Photo Courtesy of Tracy Ferron
Unbound will be a 60-foot sculpture of paper mache winged hearts, ranging from nine inches to nine feet, escaping an antique birdcage. But these hearts will fly through a 100 foot hall in Napa State Hospital, one of California’s largest psychiatric facilities. The installation inside the hospital will run from November to February.
This project is very personal to Ferron.
“Having had my brother in public psychiatric institutions for most of my childhood, we took the collect calls, and I read the letters, and I felt the loneliness,” Ferron said. “To be able to really create this love in that hall is a tremendous honor and it’s an incredible deep healing for me, of coming full circle.”
Collective healing, liberation and expression is at the heart of Ferron’s mission.
“These men and women are not able to engage in the world but in this instance they will have hundreds of homemade hearts that are made for them, and they together will co-create this sculpture of wonder,” Ferron said.
For this new artwork, instead of Ferron’s house, volunteers have been coming to the Petaluma pop-up gallery for heart-making workshops. And many of them, like Ferron, have a personal connection. Some have experienced this isolation first-hand, like Petaluma resident Daisy Wiener.
“When I’ve been in a facility, you have to be able to see a colored world, you can’t just be in black and white you can’t just leave yourself in that dark place, it’s really scary,” Wiener said. “And if you don’t add color literally to a piece of paper, sometimes you don’t see if there are rainbows.”
The heart-making workshop in the back of Life on Earth Art's temporary gallery in downtown Petaluma. photo credit: Tessa Paoli
Wiener and her husband started volunteering last month and she says the heart-making workshop is therapeutic.
“In the space of the hearts with wings, there is hope and there’s something to look forward to,” Wiener said.
On a Friday afternoon, like many days during the week, the couple sat down at the back of the gallery to make hearts for the patients inside Napa State Hospital.
And at the table beside them, Petaluma resident Karen painted a papier-mâché heart before leaving it out to dry. It was her second day in a row volunteering, and for her, it’s about healing a history of mental health struggle in her family.
“It’s healing me as well, it’s a very emotional project for me,” Karen said. “I feel I’m releasing a lot of my pain as well.”
Meanwhile, Ferron works with staff inside the hospital to prepare for the patient’s role in the installation, to also create winged hearts to expand the artwork.
“I wanted to find an army of art therapists,” Ferron said.
Christine Austin is one of those therapists at Napa State Hospital. Austin said the collaborative project makes patients feel less alone.
“The fact that they’re hearing that people in the community or in our society is willing to learn about their experience and be involved in the healing process with them, really touches a really internal human part of them,” Austin said. “And, you know, gives them that feeling of surprise or feeling of being seen.”
Camille Gentry is the Chief of Rehabilitation Therapy Services at the hospital.
“It really is incredible to have these community groups making papier-mâché hearts for our patients,” Gentry said. “It’s going to be so meaningful for them to receive this heart."
This is the first time the hospital has collaborated with community members on such a big piece of art. Aside from art therapy, other therapists, like ones that focus on movement and writing, will incorporate the installation into their work.
Ferron plans to bring the workshops directly to different neighborhoods and nearby counties, to include a wide range of community members. Since the group is leaving the gallery in downtown Petaluma in November, the new workshop location will be at Barn 5400 in Petaluma as well as the satellite location in Rohnert Park.
“At the heart of this project is my desire for these patients to be honored as human,” Ferron said. “To be included as part of the human family.”