Driving in Asheville isn’t always relaxing. But in these stressful moments, seeing a painted sign that encourages drivers to “Take a deep breath” might just, well, encourage drivers to take a deep breath.
At least that’s the hope for Elle Erickson, founder of the local nonprofit The Booth Fairy Project. Since 2012, Erickson has plastered positive messages across her many endeavors, including the Free Advice Booth, a vintage clothing pop-up shop, Free Hug Happy Hours, and Bliss Mobs — faux protests where people hold positive signs.
But at the onset of COVID-19, when interactions with the public shifted to “air hugs” and “air high-fives,” Erickson saw an even greater potential for her painted signs campaign.
“Once the pandemic hit, I said, ‘Oh my gosh! We need to raise the happiness level or just spread love and positivity and uplift people,’” she says.
A contagious thing
With help from a few friends and what she calls “a mini sign-making station,” Erickson is able to paint numerous wooden signs in a relatively short amount of time. She then places them at “stressful intersections” and in front of potentially challenging interior spaces, including grocery stores and Planned Parenthood.
Perhaps none of these projects have been more impressive than the “Take a Deep Breath” billboard on Interstate 240, which was installed May 24. The rare bit of outdoor advertising without a commercial message was made possible by a GoFundMe campaign that raised nearly $4,500, along with The Booth Fairy Project’s monthly Patreon supporters and Roots Hummus. Erickson aims to raise more funds to keep the billboard up and add others. She notes that if 5,000 people donate $1 each month, her uplifting phrase could adorn the billboard indefinitely.
“‘Take a Deep Breath’ is really effective,” says Erickson. “It’s kind of a magical action phrase where you read or hear it, and it makes you do it. It’s a contagious thing.”
Erickson is also particularly fond of her “This Is a Positive Sign,” slogan. “I use humor to get people’s guards down, to get people to smile and remind them that it’s OK to be silly and have fun,” she explains.
Asheville and beyond
Spreading similar cheer throughout Asheville is the Positive Signs of Love project, whose anonymous founder largely offers single-word messages, including “Love,” “Unity,” “Equality” and “Peace.” Consistent with Erickson’s strategy, yet operating independently, the PSL project distills its messages in high-traffic areas.
Though vandalism does occur, both projects’ founders have been encouraged by the community’s overall positive response. Separately, each is exploring ways to establish chapters in other cities. And though the signs can feel like a distinctly Asheville-centric phenomenon, Erickson is optimistic that others will carry on her mission.
“I feel like there should be a Bliss Mob at least once a month in every city. It makes so many people smile and feel like things are going to be OK,” she says. “I really do get that feedback. Like, ‘You have restored my faith in humanity.’”