Artist, Sarah McBrearty, tells BN1 about Wings, a community art project.

I had been attending a one year part-time art foundation course when the whole of the UK went into lockdown due to Covid-19. This led to the last few months of the course being completed remotely. Before that my final project was going to focus on creating sustainable art through found beach objects. However, there were now very few objects to be found on the beach due to people staying at home. My class was informed that our final grade would be determined by the work we had completed prior to lockdown and in learning this, I lost motivation with the project. 

My tutor suggested doing a community art project and, since it was not being graded, I felt excited that I could have some fun with it. It resonated strongly with me due to my former 18 year career as a social worker, a career I left just a month before starting the course. I knew I was able to build connections with people, but I didn’t know that would be an invaluable skill in starting this project.

As I really missed the social interactions I had at college and in the community, the sudden isolation impacted upon my mood and caused me to feel teary. I knew I was not alone in experiencing this so I decided not to place any pressure on myself and began painting positive messages on pebbles to try to lift my mood, as well as leaving pebbles for my friends. They were all thrilled by their pebbles, which in turn, made me feel happy. This led to me painting more pebbles (another 200-300) which I left on my neighbours’ doorsteps with a note to let them know that they were not alone during these challenging times. Then I unexpectedly received messages of thanks through a neighbourhood app which I only became aware of when a friend said he had recognised one of my pebbles on the app. My mood was still fluctuating, but found that I was immediately uplifted with each lovely message I received. 

After researching community artists for ideas I chose a pair of angel wings where each participant could decorate a feather. I live in Brighton and there is an angel statue on the seafront (the Edward VII Peace Memorial) which is well known locally. I wanted it to be something that anyone could get involved in so I chose a pair of wings as I felt they offered hope, freedom and positivity.  The individual feathers could represent people and the wings could represent the community.  Neither could work without the other. The wings could not fly without the feathers and I think it shows how, individually, we are all important and have something to offer. The only requirement was that the base of each feather needed to be made from recycled plastic such as used milk cartons. 

I cut a pair of wings from two salvaged wardrobe doors and drew 50 feathers on each one. I felt optimistic at the challenge of finding 100 participants, managing to find most of the participants through the Next Door app, Facebook, and several art students and tutors from my course. But I still needed more participants so I decided to knock on doors where I had seen colourful rainbows or other artwork in the windows and then, with social distancing in mind, stepping back before anyone answered.  

Once I had recruited all of my participants, I wrote an instruction sheet which included pictures of test samples of plastic feathers and also suggested materials for decorating their plastic feather. I spent many hours tracing around each feather shape from the wings and transferring it onto cartridge paper. I decided to hand-deliver most of the feather templates with printed instructions, posting them through letterboxes. I felt it was important to start to develop relationships at this stage as, to me, a community art project is all about connections and how individually, we can all contribute to something much bigger.   

The finished wings
The finished wings

I felt incredibly excited as the feathers were gradually returned to me so I could glue them onto the wings. I could quickly see that the wings were transforming into a stunning and original piece of art which everyone had contributed to. Then I placed them outside my flat so all the participants could have a look at the finished wings. 

I was bursting with pride at everyone’s hard work and I loved seeing the reactions when they came to see the wings and find their own feathers. I was keen to acknowledge individuals involvement in the project so I typed a list of participants (where permission had been given), and placed it next to the wings.

I gave it some thought that if this story received media attention in any format it would be most pleasing for the participants to also be included as I did not want to take sole credit for this work when we had all worked hard on this project. 

The Wings Team decided that they wanted to donate the wings to a local charity, the Chestnut Children’s Hospice in Arundel. 

Wings Art Project at CTH
Wings Art Project at Chestnut Tree House

Melissa Hancorn, the PR Communications Manager at Chestnut Tree House children’s hospice said: “This is a really lovely gift and we are honoured to be the recipient of the wings. Many of our children love getting involved in arts and crafts so I’m sure this will inspire some new activities. Apart from the wonderful end result, what really struck me about this project is that it is all about community and celebrating coming together and being part of something. We rely so much on our local community, and children’s hospice care simply wouldn’t be possible without people’s support and generosity. For us, these wings symbolise how Chestnut Tree House is part of the local community, and how everyone is important. Thank you to all involved.”

They’re not in situ inside the hospice yet, due to Covid-19, but they are being stored safely and the team are looking forward to finding them a suitable home where everyone can enjoy them in the future. 

I was overwhelmed by the reaction of the local community and I’m now organising another community art project at the request of many of the Wings Team participants. This time the group decided what we will be making and also for us to all share roles and decisions in this next project. I personally wanted to create a large 3D sculpture of a seagull, mermaid or fishes and after taking a vote of all of the members the group have decided they would like to use ‘fishes’ as their inspiration. There will be three sizes of fish sculptures with the only stipulation being that only found and recycled objects are used. 

Sarah McBrearty
Artist