Note: This story was updated Feb. 7, 2022 to correctly identify New Mexico Potters and Clay Artists.
LAS CRUCES – Artists are offering a creative way to remember and honor those lost during the COVID-19 pandemic as many traditional rituals have been interrupted.
Kathy Baker, member of the Potters’ Guild of Las Cruces and a retired mental health counselor, explained that conversations began in March 2021 over how the organization could help the community grieve the year of loss. She said it seemed that the pandemic was coming to an end — “wishful thinking” — and a public sculpture seemed appropriate to recognize what everyone had been through the past year and the resilience of the community.
“I have spent most of my career dealing with traumatic loss,” Baker said. “It's really important to recognize and to acknowledge loss. And because of the social isolation and the fear and anxiety people had, our normal rituals of doing that were disrupted.”
The project served as a “signature” event for the guild’s 40th anniversary in 2021.
Mesilla artist Josh Switzer was approached to create a metal tree that was installed in the courtyard at the Agave Artist Cooperative at 2250 Calle de San Albino in Mesilla. With the tree in place, potters began creating wings out of clay to hang on the tree's limbs.
The Healing Wings project was officially dedicated in August with local healthcare and government representatives as well as members of Tortugas Pueblo in attendance. Tortugas has been hit especially hard by the pandemic.
The idea is to invite people in the community to paint the wings and come together in their shared experiences. Wings and supplies are provided free to anyone who needs an artistic outlet. Artists fire the wings a second time before they are hung on the tree sculpture.
Baker said about 20 wings are on the tree so far, but there are another roughly 35 that will soon find their place on the tree.
Another part of the project is a sculpture that includes metal boxes, which is located near the tree sculpture. People are welcome to write on a piece of paper about their experiences or their grief and drop the paper into one of the boxes. Half of the boxes are locked and are the ones most people use.
Baker said the plan is to burn the notes once the boxes are full — a symbolic gesture of letting go.
Plans are in the works to make tiles honoring the donors and partners of the project. These tiles will eventually connect the two sculptures.
The project has been funded and supplied by local artists, donors and a $1,000 grant from New Mexico Potters and Clay Artists. The Bill Armstrong Grant is distributed annually in support of a ceramic art or education program.
Baker said because COVID-19 case numbers have gone up with the delta and omicron variants, the group has had to cancel wing-painting dates. They have instead scheduled smaller groups and have gone to nursing homes and other facilities to meet people interested in taking part.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Healing Wings project helps residents process COVID-19 grief through art