Healing through art: WE RISE takes over LA for Mental Health Awareness Month


Art installations with a unifying theme have popped up throughout LA this month. 

Maybe you’ve seen balloons of the words “bidi bidi bom bom” and colorful paper lanterns and animals at Grand Park, representing a joyful replacement for celebrations missed during the pandemic. 

Perhaps you’ve come across a dome filled with plants, dubbed an abolitionist pod, in front of the Barbara Kruger mural at the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

These wide-ranging works are part of WE RISE, a month-long art event that happens each year. The project is from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, focusing on healing through art, connection, and community engagement. These are all things sorely missed throughout the pandemic. 

WE RISE includes 21 art experiences, pop-ups, and more throughout Los Angeles. 

Paper parasols hang in “Celebration Spectrum” at downtown LA’s Grand Park. Photo by Amy Ta. 

A paper lantern hangs in “Celebration Spectrum” at downtown LA’s Grand Park. Photo by Amy Ta. 

KCRW hears from a few artists who are part of this year’s event: 

Sed (Thirst) - REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles

Sed (Thirst) contains 16 sound pieces by artists Dorian Wood and Carmina Escobar. The compositions start as vocal drones — some sound like Gregorian chants, others sound more primal — that are then fed into an algorithm prompting more vocals by the duo. 

The theme of the piece is connection. 

“The voice is such a powerful tool for connection,” Escobar says. “If there's a voice, you will always turn around. It doesn't matter which way it’s performed. There's this thing that just draws you to it. … It's also this idea of reaching out to someone. The voice connects and travels.”

“As the title of the piece, ‘Sed,’ which is Spanish for thirst, can attest to, we have all been coming out of this pandemic with a thirst for life, for each other, for experiences outside of our own intimate and nurturing bubbles that have gotten us through this incredibly difficult experience,” Wood adds.  

Creating Our Next LA, 2021 - Exposition Park, Hyde Park, Leimert Park, Willowbrook 

Artist Dominique Moody stands next to two “Creating Our Next LA, 2021” pieces. Photo courtesy of LA Commons. 

“Creating Our Next LA, 2021” is a series of pandemic stories made in collaboration with LA Commons, artists, poets, and students. Local high school and college students’ pandemic-era stories are turned into four-foot and eight-foot tall collage-type media pieces.

The theme of the murals: self-healing. 

“These are kind of like mini murals,” lead artist Dominique Moody tells KCRW. “I call them story portraits because they are the portraits of the people who have shared their story with us. And these are all stories that are really grounded in exploring for people, and how they have dealt with this past year.”

She adds, “One of the things that people discussed quite a bit was their sense and feeling that their voices weren't heard, that their concerns were not heard, that they, in a sense … didn't feel necessarily that they had a lot of power to make the decisions about their own community.”

Karen Mack, executive director of LA Commons, agrees. She finds WE RISE to be therapeutic for both creators and viewers.   

“Even though the pandemic has been very difficult for us, it is a moment of opportunity. And I think that opportunity is to recognize that we have creative power and that our creative power is our greatest resource. I think that's really embodied in WE RISE.”

Vendedores en Accion - Self Help Graphics in Boyle Heights / online

A mural on the side of Self Help Graphics’ building depicts vendors in LA. Photo by Angel Carreras

Dominating the west side of Self Help Graphics’ building is a wheat paste mural that shows masked faces of vendors throughout LA. 

Scanning a giant QR code next to the mural leads you to a documentary from filmmaker Alvaro Parra (in association with Self Help Graphics, with music by Quetzal), who looks at the mental health and plight of six vendors in the city during the pandemic. 

The vendors are all organizers who pushed for street vending decriminalization and got that victory in 2018. They were permitted for one year, and then the pandemic struck. 

“There are over 50,000 street vendors operating in Los Angeles, 10,000 of them sell food, 80% are women of color, many are undocumented and unable to receive unemployment benefits,” Parra says. 

The theme of the piece is community — how it makes us who we are, and what happens when it’s gone. 

“What I heard was stories [sic] from a very vulnerable population in our city that were ready to talk about what they felt had been a severe time on their mental wellness. Street vendors have a connection with the public. People are coming and going, you're making sales, you're feeling this energy. To suddenly lose all of that connection with the public was very detrimental to a lot of the mental health of the street vendors.”