‘Healing Tree’ breathes life into the community of Hazard, Kentucky

sculpture of a tree against a brick wall
The Healing Tree in Hazard, Kentucky.

In the Appalachian town of Hazard, Kentucky, a tree stands on Main Street: its trunk as strong as steel, its leaves unchanging. The metal sculpture embodies a complex, multi-layered story of loss, grief, hope, and the unwavering resilience of the people of Perry County.

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were talks of an arts project at Hazard High School that would utilize the new metalworking studio Ms. Joanna Thompson, art teacher at HHS, had recently established for her classroom through funding from Perry Promise Neighborhood. Eventually, the idea evolved into a collaborative effort between Hazard and Perry County schools, Partners for Rural Impact, and others. As the community faced tremendous grief along with the rest of the world, what began as one school’s art project became a county-wide opportunity for solidarity and hope: the Healing Tree began to take root.

Jill Robertson came on board as Project Coordinator, leading students alongside local metalworkers and other artists to create a beautiful metal sculpture adorned with leaves formed into unique shapes as participants hammered the hot steel on a blacksmith’s anvil.

“Working on the Healing Tree has been one of the single most extraordinary projects of my career,” Robertson said. “It is the embodiment of our community: heart, resilience, strength, and beauty. The circumstances surrounding its creation are heavy, more than heavy but its existence is multi-functional and necessary, a memorial, a talisman, a story, a starting line and I was honored to play a part.”

A student and a blacksmith hammer metal on an anvil
A hammer hitting a piece of steel shaped into a leaf on an anvil

The Healing Tree would stand as a memorial to those lost to COVID-19. As they shaped the leaves, students held in mind the faces and names of the people they wished to honor. This, however, was only the beginning of the story.

As the pandemic rode on and life slowly started to return to normal, disaster struck again. In July 2022, Eastern Kentucky suffered a devastating flood that took the lives of 40 people and left thousands without homes. In the aftermath, the leaves of the Healing Tree were expanded to include victims of the natural disaster; one of many ways the community came together to rebuild and restore.

As the Healing Tree grew, students also chose to honor people who gave them hope, immortalizing them along with the ones who were lost. Sarah Campbell, program manager for arts and humanities at PRI, helped coordinate efforts to make the project possible through convening and providing guidance to artists, coordinators, and other partners. 

“As I worked with the artists to plan school visits, I was touched by their intent focus on students’ wellbeing,” Campbell said. “Sure, they wanted to build an attractive sculpture, but more importantly, they wanted to hold space for students to reflect on hard topics like loss, grief, and isolation, and they wanted to center hope and healing.” 

In 2023, the Healing Tree was unveiled, commemorating the lasting impact of COVID-19 and the flood along with the strength and resiliency of a strong mountain community. Built by the hands, hearts and minds of Perry County youth, the Healing Tree is dually a tribute to the past and a beacon for the future.

As Eastern Kentucky continues to rebuild and move forward, the Healing Tree will be a field trip destination for hundreds of students who will visit the project each year. The Healing Tree is located at Art Station, 612 Main Street in Hazard, Kentucky.

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