The cardboard heart was stapled to the side of the garage door. Its cardinal-red paint was sure to catch an eye and it came bearing a message: Thanks for being a good human. It was a random act of kindness from a party identified only as the S.I.L.K. Sisters. Though plain and simple, the words elicit feelings of warmth, of togetherness. After all, a recurring message over the past eight weeks since the novel coronavirus gripped our nation has been this: We’re all in this together.

The reminders have been constant, with nightly neighborhood howls, teddy bears propped up in windows, and countless works of art in more forms than you can imagine. Works of art often symbolize an artist’s most internalized feelings channeled into a tangible form. As the coronavirus reared its ugly head, it was met with the beauty of selfless acts of kindness and a sense of being stronger together.

One of the most recognizable symbols of support in Truckee has been the brightly-colored rainbows painted on store windows in historic downtown.

“I wanted to send a message to our community that we are here still,” explained Heather River, owner of Bespoke and rainbow originator. “Our shops might be dark, but we are inside working, adapting and reimagining what our town can and will be. I have painted rainbows all around town with this same spirit.”

FINDERS KEEPERS: Nicole Stirling has used local social media outlets to offer free mandala coloring pages to anyone interested, recognizing that coloring therapy is soothing for kids and adults alike. She’s also taken to hiding them around the North Shore to brighten the days of the lucky folks who find them. Courtesy photo

Her simple gesture of painting the town rainbow quickly caught on with folks not on commercial row, too. Soon rainbows were popping up in front of houses from Tahoe Donner to Glenshire, painted on wood and drawn in chalk on asphalt. “I would be so honored if that were the case,” River wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink, when questioned as to whether she perhaps served as the inspiration for the spread. “One thing I know is, this community is made up of some of the most kind, tenacious, and resilient people, and I am so inspired to be part of this group of amazing human beings.”

River has also become involved with an effort called The Frederick Project. Named for Leo Lionni’s character, Frederick the mouse, who radiates his love and joy throughout his community, the project provides bags of art supplies to children who may be struggling with current circumstances associated with the coronavirus or personal trauma situations. To sponsor an art bag, which costs around $20 to fill, Venmo @TheFrederickProject (look for the rainbow!). If you donate and would like updates on the project, email carolyn4hamilton@gmail.com.

The level of art has ranged from novice efforts like the S.I.L.K. Sisters’ cardboard heart and painted rocks to more expert creations like painted scenes in storefront windows and festively colored mandalas left in hiding places throughout the North Shore for someone lucky enough to find them.

“Sharing my art with my community is a huge blessing for me (and maybe others) right now,” said Kings Beach native and mandala artist Nicole Stirling. “If I feel like I can make something or paint something that may bring a small smile to someone’s face, then I am more than happy to make it and share it!”

And share she has. Stirling, whose work is often found at Truckee Thursdays and other art and music festivals throughout the region, has been leaving prints of her mandalas for people to find here and there. Sometimes, they’re out in the open for anyone to see — like at the post office or laundromat; other times, they’re a little more hidden, waiting to catch the eye of a lucky finder’s keeper. Now that her daughters want to get in on the fun, she joked that the hiding spots might become a bit trickier.

“I’m going to keep hiding prints until I run out … I have another few weeks’ worth, for sure,” Stirling said. “I’d love for more locals to find new art, or to have something to look for on their family walks … It’s just as much fun for me as it is for the finder (I hope).”

A longtime preschool teacher, Stirling finds art is a great way for children to express feelings without using words, as color can help express emotions. With her own daughters, ages 9 and 10, she uses a Dr. Seuss book called My Many Colored Days, which talks about how some days you’re feeling more red, or blue, or yellow. The book explains why or how you may feel if you were feeling that color.

“I do heavily rely on my art as a coping mechanism … [I] have always spoken about my art as a meditative way for me to recharge and reboot while I’m painting or beading,” Stirling said. “Creating is very therapeutic for me and right now it’s really the only thing helping me get through.”

QUEENS OF HEARTS: On the back of a randomly posted heart was printed, “A random act of loving kindness brought to you by the S.I.L.K. Sisters, please spread the love,” encouraging its recipient to pay forward the kindness. Photo by Mayumi Elegado/Moonshine Ink

Full-time artist and volunteer arts advocate Sara Smith took her artistic expression to a more grandiose scale: She painted a spectacular display on a Tahoe City storefront, depicting a typical Lake Tahoe scene of mountains standing proudly above Big Blue as the state bear strolls the lakeshore. The work is punctuated by the words “Tahoe, We Are Stronger Together.”

“My belief is that art is the lifeblood of any society,” Smith explained. “Art is what we use to express who we are, what we feel and know, what we dream and desire, how we celebrate, how we express both joy and pain, how we communicate, how we connect, and how we recover from tragedy. It is inherent in everything …”

She believes that although art is anything but universal in its individual expression, it still is universally needed.

“Collectively, it really is what makes us what we are as a species, and therefore has tremendous power to heal during times of great stress,” Smith said. She alluded to Truckee’s downtown: “Just look at the joy that Heather’s rainbows are bringing … simple color infused with loving intention.”

THE SUN ALWAYS SHINES: “I hope people feel joy, I hope people feel like smiling, I hope people feel like there is a small rainbow fairy painting the town with her own contagious optimism!” said Heather River of her rainbow-painting mission. “We are all used to big storms here in Tahoe. A rainbow symbolizes the end of a storm and the sun coming out. We can weather this storm, too!” Courtesy photo

While a number of experts have conveyed messages and feelings through art, others have taken the newfound time at home to rekindle an old artistic side of themselves. Although art is a part of daily life for graphic designer Kelly McQuade Conley, it’s been a number of years since she’s taken time to create art for herself.

“It is therapeutic in times like these because my style is more about making layers and just kind of getting lost in the colors and textures and not about recreating something specific,” she told Moonshine Ink. So during these times under stay-at-home orders, and with a huge white wall in her husband’s office, Conley saw it as a blank canvas and seized the opportunity to rekindle her stifled artistry.

Melissa Curley is a board-certified art therapist who believes that art-making is a powerful nurturing and enrichment tool because it provides an intensely personal and symbolic experience for the art maker. The art process and art product, she said, make it possible for the artist to simultaneously identify and objectify a sense of self, which is an empowering event. 

“Creating art engages the whole brain. It integrates emotion, cognition, [and] sensation, which can create new meaning and understanding,” Curley explained. “Art media fosters creativity, which facilitates new insights, healthy expression, and self-awareness … Now, more than ever, art media can be used to articulate that there is more to being human than we can put into words.”

According to Curley, pencils, paints, pastels, clay, collage, and yarn are types of materials that can be used to mobilize creativity and energy. They can be used to experience playfulness, a sense of control, experiment, create a rhythm, stimulate ideas, construct tactile objects, problem-solve, explore limits, or alter relationships. The interactivity between the art materials and the art maker can be transformative because it heightens awareness about decision-making and freedom, two qualities that our lives, impacted by the pandemic, are not offering at the moment, she noted.

“Art can articulate the struggles of this crisis in a way that transcends words,” Curley said. “It is a safe and nonthreatening method for coping with vulnerabilities, frustration, low self-esteem, and stress. If you are looking to get in touch with your mind, body, and spirit, make some art because it is infinitely better than not making art.


Main Image Caption: BEAR IN MIND: Artist Sara Smith said the bear in her mural was created in a process she calls participation painting, using the “audience” as an integral element in the physical making of the art through the use of accessible and interactive materials and processes. The bear represents the concept that even though we currently cannot participate in the same way with one another, the desire to connect is still fundamental to our interconnectedness as a species. Photo by Tsalani Lassiter