Life on Earth Art opens in downtown Petaluma
For more than two months, ever since a large photograph of a winged heart suddenly appeared in the window of a vacant store in downtown Petaluma, scores of curious passersby have stopped on the sidewalk to look, peering through the glass doors past signs promising “Opening Soon.”
Inside the former Bluestone Main space on Petaluma Boulevard, more winged hearts gradually accumulated, one seemingly trapped in a large rotating cage. Another appeared to be caught behind an iron fist of curving metal bars. More were suspended high in the air, as if in flight, while others rested here and there on the floor, artfully arranged into clusters and piles.
Over the weeks, a common question, often posed aloud by those pausing to look was, “What is this?” Well, now we get a chance to find out, because last week, the mysterious pop-up gallery finally began welcoming the public inside.
“We’re so happy to finally have our doors open,” said artist Tracy Ferron, founder of Life on Earth Art, which is sponsored by Petaluma People Services Center, arriving early on Sunday, Aug. 29 to prepare for what would be a very busy day.
“We only have the space temporarily, just until November,” noted Ferron, who lives in PetalumaF. “It’s exciting to think about where we’ll move next, but right now we are just focused on creating hundreds and hundreds of winged, papier-mâché hearts over the next few months.”
Those hearts will be used in an upcoming art installation inside a large recreation room at Napa State Hospital, where the patients will be the primary audience for the massive sculptural display.
Founded in 2018, Life on Earth Art is partly an art project, partly a call to meditate on the connections between art and community, and partly a way to give organized political actions a powerful visual boost through large-scale artworks that promote the ideas of freedom, humanity and healing.
"This is Big Mama,“ said Ferron of the large heart inside the rotating, circular cage, which she demonstrated by turning in a switch that set the enormous art piece into a slow, audibly mechanical, carousel spin. The piece, officially titled ”Spellbound,“ is easily collapsible and transportable, designed for public protests of social actions.
“In the middle of Big Mama is a message, written on her wooden frame. The message is ‘Love. We are all one. Love.’ That message is at the center of all of this.“
As an artist and activist, Ferron’s projects focus on well-known and little-known issues of social injustice. The first of them to use a winged heart was “Los Olvidados Liberados: The Forgotten Ones Set Free,” a 2018 installation at the Museum of Sonoma County, highlighting a little-known story of medical experimentation on children with cerebral palsy in the 1950s at Sonoma State Hospital. That project, created for the museum’s Dia de los Muertos exhibit, was done in collaboration with Oakland artist Ruben Guzman.
“It overlapped with my interest in mental health and hospitals, given my own family’s struggles with mental illness, with both of my brothers living with severe mental illness, and my eldest brother having been in most of the public mental institutions in California for most of his life,” Ferron said. “The idea was to create a sculpture of liberation, of witnessing this historical sadness, symbolically setting those children free by building a 15-foot high cage and having dozens of winged hearts flying to freedom through the gallery.”
To create all of those hearts took a village of people, of course, many who’d never done papier-mâché, an art form in which wet paper is formed into various shapes and then dried and painted.
“It was that time that I saw the power of community art making,” Ferron explained. “My house was taken over by winged hearts. I had people coming over at 8 a.m., I had friends coming to my house after work, and we were making and making and making this papier-mâché.”
Ferron explained that the work coincided with news about migrant children housed in cages at the Mexican border, the grand jury findings regarding pedophile priests in Philadelphia, the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford Supreme Court hearings in Washington, all topics the heart-makers found themselves discussing as they worked.
“What I saw,” Ferron continued, “was people who were craving the experience of making these hearts while talking about all of these issues, sharing their stories, opening their own hearts about everything they were feeling.”
Another of Ferron’s installations, “At the Heart of It All: Righting the World,” also at the Museum of Sonoma County, in 2019, is described on the Life On Earth Art website as “a tribute to human rights and over 500 human and earth rights defenders murdered around the globe, 2018-2019.” Last year, Ferron created hearts to be used in a demonstration at San Quentin Penitentiary, after it was reported that 69 inmates died of COVID-19. At the center of all these activities — including the one in Napa that all these hearts are being created for — is the strikingly iconic image of a heart with wings.