Love is a Radical Act

The inside story of the ceramic hearts that beckon from trees around campus.

By Josh Cox ’18 | February 10, 2021

Perhaps you’ve seen them around campus: ceramic hearts, bright red, dangling from the arms of trees, glinting in the elusive sunlight. Reminders of love and loved ones that are perhaps more precious than ever right now as the global pandemic continues to disconnect us from one another. 

The secret agents behind this festoonery? President Audrey Bilger and her wife, Cheryl Pawelski.

“Love is a superpower,” Bilger says. “Love connects, inspires, energizes, and comforts. I am fortunate to be able to love what I do, to be in a loving marriage, to be surrounded and supported by a caring community, and, of course, to love Reed.”

Ten years ago, a friend and former student of Bilger’s named Sam Mckenzie embarked on an interactive art installation with her late wife, Kelly Keigwin, titled “Love is a Radical Act.” They created small ceramic hearts which they hung up all around Vancouver, Washington. They called the activity “(he)art bombing” and soon began giving the hearts to friends and encouraging them to do “bombings” of their own. 

When Bilger first learned about the hearts, she ordered some as gifts for friends and liked them so much that she got more. Here at Reed, she has given one to each of her assistants, Dawn Thompson and Sierra Ellis Turpin, and she put one in her office near her desk.

Bilger regards the hearts as cheerful eye-catchers that remind her “of friends, loved ones, and our interconnectedness.” Six months into the pandemic, she had a burst of inspiration. She and Cheryl surreptitiously hung a dozen hearts on trees around campus. She wanted to invoke those feelings of love and connection in the campus community and lift people’s spirits.

So if you spot a heart while walking around campus, take a moment to contemplate the radical act of love—and what it means for you.

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