Superhero lawn chickens inspire courage, tenacity across Petaluma

When Rayne Madison reflects on front-line workers and other members of her community in the current pandemic, she sees ordinary people becoming superheroes. Using that motif, the local graphic designer and conceptual artist has launched Superhero Unfolding, a wide-ranging public-art project to celebrate everyday heroism and encourage people of all ages to discover and release their own inner hero.

“We each have this ability to be heroic in our own unique way,” she said. “What keeps us separate in this world is a fear-based culture and an economy driven by perceived lack. None of it is true.”

Although the project is a near-perfect fit for the times, she started it before the virus emerged. With a grant from Creative Sonoma in November, Madison initiated a series of public art projects exploring themes of identity and self-expression - using the iconography of superheroes because of their status as modern myths - and the effect that these stories have on the collective consciousness of our society.

Some planned features of the project have been delayed by the pandemic, while others have been added in response to the crisis. Walk past the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum on Fourth Street, for example, and you will see three signs Madison has created featuring cartoon birds exhorting the public - Tenacity! Courage! Resilience!

The signs are part of a series called Petaluma Art Chicks, designed in response to the virus.

One of these birds is “Chick P.,” a caped chick meant to evoke Petaluma’s agricultural past, the courage of emerging from one’s shell into an uncertain new world, while whimsically resembling popular emojis. Madison describes Chick P. as a crossover character uniting Petaluma Art chicks and the Superhero Unfolding project.

“Chick P. is Petaluma’s first completely unofficial, unsanctioned, unconventional and unstoppable superhero,” she said.

Other signs are posted at the First Presbyterian Church on B Street and at several private residences in Petaluma. Madison has a half dozen more signs ready and awaiting venues for installation.

“I am looking for places that are accessible and visible to the community,” she said.

The project’s website,, is now up and running, and Madison indicated she constantly adds to it. Built by the artist, the site has something for everyone. For children, there are tutorials on drawing by Martin Bérubé, instructions for making a cape, superhero coloring pages and a gallery for participants’ drawings, with a form for their submission.

For other visitors, there are inspirational tools to help them get in touch with their inner hero.

An activity called “Superhero Virtues & Values” invites you to reflect on the principles of an ideal hero. “Who is your Superhero?” is a page of questions to help identify and define a hero. Both pages can be used for self-reflection or to develop a superhero character.

When Madison initially received her grant, she began building a pop-up public art installation - a stylized replica of a vintage, Superman-era phone booth. Once completed - and once the pandemic is over - the “Superhero Unfolding Inspiration Station” will be popping up around Sonoma County. Making its rounds to public places, the booth will allow the community to engage in self-exploration in an encouraging and playful manner. Participants will be invited to add “comments-stickers” to the booth walls. They will be able to listen to or record messages of support on a mock telephone, as well as draw or leave inspirational messages in the “white pages” or thumb through inspirational quotes in the “yellow pages.”

Capes will also be available for testing.

While the pandemic has delayed the booth, Madison is looking at it philosophically.

“Life always presents you with different opportunities,” she said. “You’ve got to roll with them.”

Madison was born and raised in New York on Long Island. She earned a BFA in graphic design from the New York Institute of Technology. She moved to the Bay Area in 2002. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, she settled in Petaluma, where she has lived for three years.

“Petaluma was perfect for healing,” she said.

Her fascination with inner strength stems from her successful recovery from the disease using non-conventional therapies. This experience, bound up with the many healthcare workers and fellow patients she met, changed her life. First, she discovered her own inner powers of resilience. Then she awoke to the reality that we all have the potential for such power within us.

This experience was the genesis of her project.

As Madison recovered, the artist in her grappled with what she had learned.

“What I didn’t realize was that I had something inside me that was unusual,” she said. “I had a concept but I didn’t know how to get to it. Then the grant opportunity came along.”

In addition to more venues for signs and more visibility of the website, Madison welcomes partners, sponsors, collaborators and volunteers to sustain and enlarge the project.

“I’m not an ‘essential’ worker, but I do have a skill set,” she said. “I’m taking the idea of superheroes and making it for all of us. You don’t need anything other than what you are.”

In other words, she wants people to appreciate themselves better.

“We have a misconceived myth in our culture of the self-made man, but no one is self-made,” she said. “Each of us is essential to others. People often feel that they would like to help in this crisis but that they have no relevant skills. But maybe taking care of yourself and being kind to others is enough. The key thing for our time is for people to wake up to their own power. And it’s happening! It gives me joy to witness the kindness and connection going on now.”

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