Metalsmithing students give an appreciative hand to health care workers

The nation has heavily relied on health care workers’ unrelenting efforts throughout the coronavirus pandemic. To recognize their efforts, UWM Peck School of the Arts students joined in on the Hand Medal Project, a global effort to give a symbolic helping hand to those working in health care on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Through the Hand Medal Project, artists around the world crafted metal brooches in the shape of a hand to thank health care workers for their hard work. Artists presented the workers with these medals worldwide through “hand givers,” who delivered the finished medals to hospitals and care facilities.

An array of medals created by UWM Jewelry & Metalsmithing students sits ready for distribution. (Photo courtesy of Madeleine Jager)

The project, started by German artist Iris Eichenberg and Argentinian artist Jimena Ríos, began last spring when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a worldwide pandemic. By late fall, over 3,100 artists across the globe had created these medals. Nearly 50 people at UWM came together this semester to craft these medals for health care workers in Milwaukee.

“Health care workers right now do feel unappreciated in some ways and that they’re being overworked,” said Madeleine Jager, a Jewelry & Metalsmithing student working on the medals. “It’s stressful, and something like this is a small thing, but it lets them know they’re appreciated.”

UWM’s Jewelry & Metalsmithing students use the template provided by the Hand Medal Project to create small hands out of any metal. The medals range in color and texture according to each artist’s method of working with the metal. Each hand is stamped with a unique number that correlates to the individual that made the pin, and workers who receive a medal can check this number on the Hand Medal Project site to see who made their hand.

“Even though it’s all coming from the template,” said Jager, “each person does things a little different, and it shows in the object: the way you saw, the way you file or sand, your finishes. The hand of the maker is visible in the object.”

Meaning behind the medals

After the UWM artists completed over 170 brooches, the medals went to Andrea Boll, a critical care nurse who serves in the Army Reserve and Jewelry & Metalsmithing student at UWM. As “hand giver”, she distributed the medals at the 452nd Combat Support Hospital and to the Clement J. Zablocki Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee, where some of her peers in her unit work. She said that these facilities hit close to home for her because she knows firsthand how much effort these nurses, doctors, pharmacy workers and facilities management workers have put into their work since the pandemic began.

Last spring, her unit split up and deployed to New Jersey and New York City for two months to care for patients who tested positive for COVID-19. She said they were not sure if they would have access to personal protection equipment or even beds. Many people brought their own masks, gloves and sleeping bags.

“Some people left within 18 hours’ notice. You have to rearrange your life. It’s like you’re leaving your family in enemy hands,” Boll said.

The work did not stop after getting back. That is why Boll wanted to be part of the project.

“It’s nice to know you’re thought of,” she said.

Taking care of the community

Students from all experience levels lent their time to the project, from those in introductory courses to graduate students. Yevgeniya Kaganovich, professor of Jewelry & Metalsmithing at UWM, said that this was some students’ first time working with metal. She said many of these first-semester students liked how meaningful their first project was.

“It (gives) us and the students this capacity to do meaningful work while exercising our skills,” she said.

The Hand Medal Project was a way for the Jewelry & Metalsmithing students and faculty to feel connected. Normally, the Jewelry & Metalsmithing students and faculty spend hours in the studio together, creating a tight-knit community. This semester, students and faculty do not have that option, as many courses moved online. To replicate this time in the studio, Erica Meier, Kaganovich’s Jewlery & Metalsmithing Area colleague, created a weekly virtual hangout for students and faculty in Jewelry & Metalsmithing.

As part of the project, Eichenberg and Ríos gave a presentation at one of these meetings. Hearing from the creators themselves about what the project stands for, Kaganovich said, brought many to tears.

“My favorite part was having students, in the presentation by the founders, realize that this is a real global effort and that this technical exercise becomes something that’s very meaningful,” she said.

Since then, she said, the project has brought her students closer to each other and the health care workers they are honoring through their work.

“It’s become a way in which we’re taking care of our community.”

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