After Camp Fire, An Artist Helps Students In Hard-Hit Town Cope Through Color05:33
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Artist Jessie Mercer shines some color at Pine Ridge School. (Courtesy of Jessie Mercer)
Artist Jessie Mercer shines some color at Pine Ridge School. (Courtesy of Jessie Mercer)

Life is far from back to normal in Magalia, California, one of the communities hardest hit by the Camp Fire.

But nearly five months later, some routines are starting to fall back into place — like kids going to school.

Artist Jessie Mercer is helping students at Pine Ridge School remember the ridge in a colorful way.

Mercer is known by many for her Key Project Tribute, where she collected house keys from Camp Fire survivors that will be used to create a memorial sculpture for the town once it's rebuilt.

But on this day, she is guiding some of the seventh graders as they paint a detachable mural that will ultimately hang at the school.

"Another day a little bit above Paradise — that's what they call Magalia, a little bit above Paradise," Mercer says.

As she walks onto the campus one recent gray, crisp morning, the sound of students buzzing is a welcome bit of normalcy.

"I love it, it sounds like school," she says.

Students display their mural that will eventually hang at the school. (Ashley Bailey/Here & Now)
Students display their mural that will eventually hang at the school. (Ashley Bailey/Here & Now)

Pine Ridge is one of 11 schools where Mercer is painting murals with kids as part of her Butte County Art on Wheels program.

Mercer lost her art studio in the Camp Fire. Her dad also lost his home. And the kids at Pine Ridge can relate.

"We're on our property still, but everything's gone so it's kind of sad,” says 12-year-old Aleina Ringel of Magalia.

Since her house burned down, she, her mom, stepdad and 7-year-old brother have been living in a trailer inside her stepdad's shop.

"All the tools are still in there 'cause my stepdad works on cars, so it's kinda tough," Ringel says. "Cause you have all the tools, and then you have all your living stuff, and if you rub up against something, you can get everything all dirty because it's covered in grease."

Ringel and her classmate, Judah Mecham, are painting a blue sky on the mural.

"When you're driving on the road along old Skyway [Road], it kind of looks like that. You have the sky and mountains and hot air balloons on the top, you have blue, red, orange and yellow, brown mountains," he says.

Mecham also lost his house in the Camp Fire.

He's staying in Magalia with his grandparents so he can be close to Pine Ridge. He said he initially had to stay in Yuba City for a while and do school online.

"It's awful and you don't learn anything, you just answer questions that they give you," he says. "But yeah, this is fun."

Fun is clearly part of Mercer's mission as an artist. She's not just giving these kids paint brushes and walking away. She wants to engage in this classroom.

Students at Pine Ridge forget the Camp Fire and put their paint brushes to work. (Ashley Bailey/Here & Now)
Students at Pine Ridge forget the Camp Fire and put their paint brushes to work. (Ashley Bailey/Here & Now)

"Do I talk a lot? Alright — well I need people to talk back to me, right? If I'm talking to you, it helps me because we need to communicate," she says.

For a while Mercer says she was buying the materials for the murals with just her own money. But recently, she won a grant for the project for $15,000 from the North Valley Community Foundation.

Pine Ridge School Principal Talin Tamzarian is thankful for the support for the arts, but says she realizes the help that the school has been getting is just temporary.

"So right now we have an abundance of resources. We're OK, but now we're locking resources to keep going," she says. "What we need is continual support, so come check on us next year and the year after that."

This segment aired on April 3, 2019.

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Ashley Locke Twitter Associate Producer, Here & Now
Ashley Locke is an associate producer for Here & Now. She was formerly with Southern California Public Radio, where she started as a news intern, before moving to the Boston suburbs in 2016.

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