The Birdcage Walk: Feathers and friends, flocking together

Owls and kestrels, gulls and gannets, canaries, sparrows, crows, a dancing chicken and a rainbow dove, fantasy birds and a phoenix, all with one thing in common...

An invitation to create for Birdcage Walk came to us last spring, as the birds in the Woodend gardens were building their nests and we were looking for new projects for our community groups in the gallery.

The new family festival was imagined by Heidi Marston, colleagues and volunteers at CU Scarborough. Heidi told us that she wanted to create a new tradition for Scarborough, something that would bring communities together, creatively. She hoped to create an arts event, which would encourage people to step out into new spaces and an event where people would meet up, year after year.

Our Space to Be groups hopped at the chance to get involved, and the project built on ideas we were exploring – to be reciprocal in our approach, thinking of what we can do in the space and how groups can help and support communities outside of the space.

Heidi’s brief had a real focus on recycling too, thinking ethically about the materials to be used and ensuring the making stage was accessible for groups with little or no funds for materials.

As much as we love to get messy in the gallery, making for the project also gave us an anchor for important discussions, and we embraced the theme for the festival – Freedom!

Firstly, there was freedom in the making and this is important to our participants. Our birds didn’t have to work from a template, look alike or be realistic. Our birds were allowed to have character, to be unique.

The project also felt timely, as we had begun to reflect on our own freedoms after the lockdowns: opportunities to gather as a group in public spaces, freedoms to be with family and friends.

For some of our community groups, who meet in Space to Be, the word ‘freedom’ might be hugely significant, and we had to be mindful of this when we presented the materials to create the bird cages. Our doors here were flung open; our birds given wings to fly freely. Throughout the project, amongst the riot of colour and joy of painting, printing and collaging, we have made time to reflect and be thankful for the freedoms we sometimes take for granted.

Each and every bird and birdcage, created in this project, has its own story. Some have been made collaboratively, with our groups creating feathers for each other, for example. Other artworks have been created over several weeks by one person, our community participants taking great care and love to create something special, whilst knowing that once their bird is on display, there is no guarantee it will ‘come home’. All the birds and birdcages have been given over to the festival and that is a generous gesture that everyone has been ready to adopt.

The project has given us the opportunity to think about the birdlife on the Yorkshire Coast. Some participants have really wanted to create something life-like, and work on the small details, what the birds look like and what habitats we might find them in.

In our own gallery collection, which we used for inspiration, we are aware of the paradox between the nature we hope to protect and the taxidermy seabirds in our diorama of Bempton Cliffs.

Before the festival had even taken place, we were looking at these past relics and wondering how to work with CU next year to learn more and act for a positive and protective future on behalf of real birds.

But first, we need to celebrate all that’s been achieved this year. Eleven groups have taken part, with CU working with schools and care home, and Scarborough Art Gallery working with community groups and hospital wards. We hope that everyone feels super proud of creating something new for Scarborough.

The entrance to Birdcage Walk is parallel to our galleries and throughout the project, we’ve been able to point this out, placing it onto the map, this path that was previously over-grown and relatively unknow.

The project has been resilient, too! The original event was postponed in August, due to extreme weather and then by a fire, forcing the closure of the road. It seems our phoenix knew something we didn’t! Thankfully, the weather this weekend was perfect – must have been because we kept our fingers (and claws) crossed!

Huge thanks to the groups who’ve taken part:

Scarborough Art Gallery Drop in Group

Cross Lane Art Group

Refugee Council

Personalised Learning College

Blueberry Academy

Mencap

Scarborough Hall

Wheatcroft CP

St Martin’s Primary School

Priceholme Care Home

Sparks Project