Dellana Kessler, a junior at Bangor High School, places hearts around a heart-shaped Earth as the final part of a semester-long Healing Hearts Project, an art installation that commemorates individuals impacted by gun violence. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

In the four months it took Bangor High School students to complete an art installation meant to honor those affected by gun violence, the U.S. saw 198 mass shootings in which at least four people were shot.

The students introduced the art installation in the school’s library on Wednesday, barely a week after 19 fourth graders and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, were killed in a school shooting.

The installation has about 110 fabric hearts that around 40 students sewed over the course of four months, said Nancy Watson, a Bangor High School librarian. The students placed the hearts around a larger fabric heart designed to look like the Earth, created by the school’s SEED Club.

Notes from Bangor High School students hang on a framed world map as a way for them to express their concerns for others. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Watson said a large poster of the Earth was also hung outside the library, and heart-shaped sticky notes were available for students to place anywhere they felt “the Earth needs healing.” In a matter of days, paper hearts dotted the Earth poster, covering everywhere from Ukraine to the Great Barrier Reef.

Students sewed the fabric hearts as part of the Healing Hearts Project, a nationwide movement artist Nicoelle Cohen started four years ago after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, her alma mater.

Cohen said she launched the Healing Hearts Project to spread love and healing to families and victims of gun violence. Since then, more than 1,700 hearts of various materials have been created and displayed in dozens of installations around the country, she said.  

Bangor High School students Dellana Kessler, Jordan Bragg, Kaileigh Bowen and Kathryn Busko (clockwise from left) look through homemade hearts before presenting a semester-long Healing Hearts Project that commemorates individuals impacted by gun violence. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“When I first started doing it, I didn’t realize the impact it would have on the people making the hearts and seeing the installations,” Cohen told Bangor students via Zoom on Wednesday. “But, just talking to people about it, it’s surprising how many people have been impacted by gun violence in our country.”

Kaelyn Phinney, a Bangor High freshman, said she made about 50 hearts for the installation. She said she wanted to commemorate people who lost family members and friends to gun violence and advocate against people taking their own lives “because they have a life to live.”

In 2020, 54 percent of the more than 45,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Small, hand-stitched hearts lay around a heart-shaped Earth on Wednesday at Bangor High School. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Dellana Kessler, a Bangor High junior and member of the school’s SEED Club, said she participated in the project to “promote better things for planet Earth and for everybody on it.”

“I like to do any small thing I can to promote peace, justice and love around the world, and we need a lot of that around the world, even if no one is listening,” Kessler said.

She said she hopes anyone who sees the Healing Hearts display is inspired to get involved and make positive change in their community.

“Everybody has a chance to make a change, no matter how big or small,” she said. “Being a part of your community and working for the better is all anybody can do.”

Bangor Superintendent James Tager acknowledged that places that should be safe — such as schools, grocery stores and churches — had become places that children look toward with “unspeakable fears” following mass shootings.

“These pillars within every community provide stability and care — particularly during the pandemic — yet we are now faced with navigating impossible thoughts and heartbreaking conversations with our children who look towards everyday buildings with unspeakable fears,” the superintendent wrote in a monthly newsletter he sends to school leadership.

Bangor High School students place small, hand-made hearts around a heart-shaped Earth as the final part of a Healing Hearts Project, an art installation that commemorates individuals impacted by gun violence. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

In response to those shootings, Tager said, Bangor schools will expand mental health services and school leaders will educate themselves on how to recognize and report warning signs.

Tager wrote the school department will also emphasize the importance of tolerance and celebrating diversity, and will communicate with Bangor police about school and community safety.

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...