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Sand, aluminum and fire: 4-H’ers learn about the importance of public art and its relationship to community development through a sculpting project

A group of 4-H'ers and their leaders stand in front of a mural they made for New Martinsville, West Virginia.

A grant from the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History will instill community pride through public art in New Martinsville, West Virginia.

The collaborative idea was sparked by two local artists and colleagues, who are friends of Mollie Toppe, a 4-H youth development agent for West Virginia University Extension Service in Wetzel County.

“They proposed the idea of the project to me in January. We have worked together through summer camps over the past several years, so a collaboration with Wetzel 4-H seemed like a natural fit and a great opportunity for our 4-H’ers to pursue a unique project for their community,” Toppe said.

From building forts out of scrap wood to becoming an associate professor and sculpture program coordinator for the School of Art and Design in the WVU College of Creative Arts, Dylan Collins has facilitated STEM and STEAM art lessons for 4-H’ers over the past decade.

Collins said he wanted the community art to bring a sense of history to the present-day community, while also allowing youths to reflect on what makes Wetzel County a great place to live.

“We encouraged them to bring in folklore and fantasy, while also being equally quirky, funny and serious as they pondered these big ideas,” Collins said. “The resulting project is rooted in the language of maps, but it's more of a symbolic marker of our collaboration with the kids, rather than a serious tool for navigating the area.”

An expert in community-based art and a recent transplant to West Virginia, Jo Nelson, who also happens to be Collins’ wife, co-authored the grant with Toppe and Collins. With her experience in creating participatory public art, working with youth enrichment programs and community organizing in New York City, she was excited to work with the students.

Nelson said she learned about using public art as a community organizing tool during a project that was part of her artist residency in rural Denmark.

“We can use art as an ‘excuse’ to get people together to talk about and get involved with local projects,” Nelson said.  

The goal of the project was to beautify the public space of the town while simultaneously introducing Wetzel County 4-H’ers to art and design skills and techniques. And, most importantly, it gives youths the experience of collaboratively working to make their community a better place, something that has been built into WVU Extension Service’s “My Hometown is Cool” curriculum. Wetzel County 4-H’ers had an opportunity to learn more about community development, which in turn helped them deepen their appreciation for these types of projects. Students were tasked with creating a collaborative sculptural relief mural that shows what matters to them in their community.  

The 4-H’ers also used their newfound cartography skills to brainstorm images that would best represent Wetzel County.  

As a multi-day project, the 4-H’ers made their way to WVU’s campus to work in the sculpture studio. Youths carved their individual drawings into sand tile molds. Once completed, Collins and Nelson casted the molds in melted aluminum and then cooled them off in water. From there, the tiles were placed on a surface to form the big picture.

Several students were wowed and in awe at the metal pouring in the studio. As the molten red aluminum suddenly turned gray when it cooled, students were shocked and sweating over their creations.

For one student, her favorite part of the project was getting to adventure into the sculpting studio.

“It was a really cool experience. I’ve been to WVU before, but I have never gotten to work in there, especially not being a college student, so I think that was really awesome,” Callie Briggs said. “It was crazy how fast the melted metal hardens.”

On June 24, 2021, the project was unveiled for the community to see. The final mural was placed on a wood and steel framework attached to the outside of the Wetzel County Center for Children and Families building (also home to the Wetzel County Extension Office) at 128 Main St. in New Martinsville.

The 4-H’ers, artists and community leaders were beaming with excitement as the unveiling showcased hard work, community pride and team efforts.

From drawings of rivers and flowers to a ghost with a sombrero, the creativity of young minds will be beautifully displayed for years to come. 4-H’er Allison Hawkins said she was excited to be a part of this legacy project.

“I put a coffee shop and pool on there from my hometown in hopes that even after that stuff isn’t there anymore, people will still come here and remember the history,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins also came up with a social media hashtag for visitors to use as they visit the sculpture, as well as the other beautiful murals and art in the community. Visitors can use the hashtag #WallsOfWetzel to highlight local artists’ work and encourage others to visit the area.

Toppe said that we don’t always take pride in where we live, especially in smaller communities, and this project was an opportunity to change that mindset.

“They have learned the importance of public art and are more likely to not only notice it, but to appreciate the craftmanship behind it,” Toppe said. “They have also had to worked together to develop a large-scale project, which we hope will encourage them to take on other projects in the community.”

Collins echoed Toppe’s sentiment in finding appreciation for small places.

“One of the challenges of living anywhere is feeling like the place is special. Some of this is inevitable, as familiarity breeds contempt, and it's hard for us to see familiar places for the hidden gems that they are,” Collins said.

From discussions of graffiti to civic engagement, the students learned many lessons along the way. A few 4-H’ers reminded us that the program is more than animals, fairs and camps. Briggs said as an artist herself, she’s excited to showcase this piece of work in her hometown. 

“People tend to think that 4-H is just livestock and animals, and that’s just not the case,” said Briggs. “We do a lot of outside activities and activities with the community. This is definitely one of my favorite projects that we have worked on.”

Nelson said public art is more of a mainstream idea that showcases civic pride and historic memories.

“I hope the students who were involved come back to visit over the years and share their contribution with others,” Nelson said. “I hope others who come across the mural use it as a kind of ‘You are Here’ point to share stories about the town.”  

There’s a blanket of excitement for those who saw the project from the beginning stages through its completion. Toppe said she was proud of her group for their dedication and passion for the project.

“We are excited to expand the public art in New Martinsville and represent the entire county. We are especially glad the sculpture will be on view for summer events that bring visitors to our town,” said Toppe. “It was wonderful to see the community come out to see the students’ work and support the work we are doing.”  

To learn more about new opportunities in the 4-H program, visit  extension.wvu.edu or contact your local WVU Extension Service office. Keep up with the latest in WVU Extension Service news on Facebook and Twitter by following @WVUExtension.    

-WVU- 

hrm/06/28/21

CONTACT: Haley Moore 

Communications Specialist 

WVU Extension Service 

304-293-8986 (office) or 304-612-6359 (cell);  hrmoore@mail.wvu.edu   

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