Personally I have never been involved in any community art projects and so when I was asked by Blacksmith, Matt Coe of Dingle Designs, to join the WingSmith project I wasn’t really sure what my role would be. The brief at the time was something like ‘we’re going to get people involved in making copper feathers to make a winged sculpture - a sense of the community coming together to make something that was bigger than themselves. You work with Birds of Prey, do you want to get involved?’. Initially the project was aimed at the armed forces, then NHS staff, then we realised the greater need of this project. The project is bigger than everyone, let me tell you why…..
WingSmith has had a few false starts, and lockdown actually gave us the biggest and strongest push forward. Bringing the community together to make copper feathers (learning the traditional art of copper smithing), and bringing my Birds of Prey in to teach people the value and importance of feathers and Animal Assisted Therapy (connection with nature). With a big emphasis on improving mental health through the interaction within a community project and with the natural world. But it always felt like we were missing something…..we moved from just allowing the adult public to get involved to realising the biggest influence we could have would be to get children involved too. To allow the younger children in primary schools the focus of becoming involved in a project far bigger than themselves, to help with the mental health and wellbeing and connect them into nature. We found our focus!
During lockdown children’s mental health has seriously been affected, and for some this impact will have longer term implications. Back into the furore of school and children still need to have an outlet where they can share their stories of how they have been affected during this time. Yes children are resilient, but are they resilient after a year of disruption? So Matt and I started working with a primary school that was local to him - Haywards School, Crediton. Seeing each class in turn Matt would get the children involved in individually making a copper feather; that feather would be placed on the big winged sculpture. Allowing the children to work in pairs Matt could see the impact this work was having on the children; engagement, laughter, joy in their faces at doing something they would never normally do. We left cardboard feathers for every child to complete with the brief that they draw or write down their emotions, feelings from lockdown, onto these cardboard feathers. The feedback from his sessions has been amazing. Children as young as 6 have mentioned how amazed and proud they were of themselves for completing a feather - they thought it would be too hard for them to do!
From my role, I have attended 2 full days so far, and will complete the rest of the school in June. My brief has been to bring the natural world into the children’s classroom and actively engage and enthuse them through the interaction of feathers, and Birds of Prey. Feathers hold wonder, magic and mystery to anyone that beholds them. Give a child a feather and they immediately touch, play, try and fly with that feather. There is so much awe and wonderment in a simple feather. So as well as bringing different feathers for them to experience I also brought in my Birds of Prey too. On both days my Barn Owl George would come with me and I would get the children to engage in the delights of being a Barn Owl for that session - how good was their eyesight, how good was their hearing, how far round could they turn their heads? All actively engaged with the activity. And then for me the best part - allowing the children to come close to George, one by one. Asking them to introduce themselves first to the bird and then come and see, touch, hear, smell, feel the Barn Owl, and most importantly how did George make them feel? Each child had 3-5 mins each (some longer) with George, a chance for them to engage with the natural world.
When people talk about ‘awe’ we think about having an experience that makes us feel the wonder of the world we are in. Every child that came to visit George close up all experienced that ‘awe and wonderment’. Put that together with the copper smithing and you have a child that has an amazing boost to their wellbeing and mental health.
The finished sculpture will be displayed in Exeter Library at the end of this year and will have 2 sections - the first a beautiful copper feathered winged sculpture allowing people to walk into the wings and feel held; held by all those feathers individually made by the community. Second, the backdrop of the sculpture will display all the children’s cardboard feathers for everyone to read, to really feel and understand what our children went though, and are still going through today. Some of the cardboard feathers are wonderful to read - family time, playing with my mum, gardening with my family - all happy stories. However the majority of those feathers display the real impact of lockdown - hungry all the time, lonely as my parents are working, scared I’m going to die, frightened that my gran will die. How do we help them overcome these types of feelings? Engagement in community art projects like WingSmith is hopefully one way that will help.
How do we sustain that ‘awe and wonder’? WingSmith will go back at the end of the term to see all the children again - I will take George and see how many children recognise him. My biggest concern is Matt and I have started the children at this school on a path to engagement and hopefully improvement in mental health and wellbeing, but this needs to be sustained. Are our schools equipped to do this, or do we need more projects like WingSmith to actively come into schools on a regular basis and offer that support?
WingSmith are hopefully going into another 2 primary schools before term ends for this year, and after the project is finished we have plenty of ‘nature and art’ projects that we need to get up and running. Our main problem is funding. At the moment Matt and I are going into schools on a voluntary basis - materials for the feathers have had small donations from organisations, and starting May 2021 we began our paid forge days again so members of the public could come and make bigger feathers that will go onto the winged sculpture. But we can’t keep running this venture on purely our own backing - we need your support.
If you are an organisation and want to get actively involved in our project, e.g. team building - we can facilitate group sessions for copper smithing, or would like to give a donation to help us reach more children then please do get in touch. This is an ideal opportunity for local mental health and wellbeing groups to come and be part of a community project. Please get in touch!
Thanks for reading!
Dr Karen Stead-Dexter