During a late September afternoon, artist and Long Beach City College jewelry and metalwork professor Kristin Beeler sat in her studio, sawing and working thin sheets of metal into the shape of a small, open hand. With her laptop recording, students and colleagues in the process of completing the same task “dropped by” through a Zoom call to talk shop, or simply to catch up and say hello.
With a short band of cloth or ribbon attached to each finished token, the hand medals are being distributed to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic to wear as a badge of honor, a thank you for their work and sacrifice during the impossible circumstances of the past nine months.
Beeler is just one artist among thousands giving their time to the international movement, the Hand Medal Project. She is also one of about 30 point people in the U.S. not only making the medals but helping collect, package and coordinate their distribution to workers in their respective regions. Beeler also gave the task as an introductory assignment to some of her LBCC students.
In Long Beach and Los Angeles, more than 130 jewelers, metalsmiths and makers contributed their time. Worldwide, more than 70,000 medals have been made since April.
Beeler said being a part of a project so much larger than herself has helped her feel connected during a time of heightened isolation. But she’s quick to emphasize this isn’t about her, she’s merrily one of a global group of professionals, students, artists and jewelers dedicated to sharing their expertise to making and sending out these tokens as a massive, collective “thank you.”
“It’s about showing gratitude for these healthcare workers,” Beeler said “I think everyone who’s involved is trying to stay connected to gratitude for people that we don’t know, people who are doing jobs that are difficult and in impossible situations.”
After months of making and packaging the medals, coordinators began handing them over to healthcare workers on Nov. 8. Earlier this month, Beeler sent out a congratulatory email to a number of individuals involved, saying “the combined labor of our local group produced an astounding 1,022 hand medals.” On Friday, Nov. 20, Beeler and some of her students arrived at Lakewood Regional Medical Center to personally deliver a package of the medals to healthcare workers.
Beeler is also hoping to give one of the medals to Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia as a tribute to his mother, a healthcare worker, who recently passed due to COVID-19 complications.
The Hand Medal Project was developed at the start of the pandemic by friends and artists Jimena Ríos, founder of Taller Eloi in Buenos Aires, and Iris Eichenberg, Head of Metalsmithing at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, who collaborated on an exhibition in Buenos Aires inspired by exvotos, or votive offerings, and contemporary jewelry.
A letter included with the hand medals, written to the healthcare workers by Ríos and Eichenberg, explains that the small, hand-shaped design is based on a historical Argentinian exvoto, a traditional offering given in gratitude for fulfilling a promise or for a service. Makers around the world used the same template, and whatever metal they had available, to create the hand-shaped pieces.
Organizers said the weight and shape of the hand-shaped medals, inspired by the exvoto from Rios’ own collection, represent “a physical testimony for both the unseen virus and invisible bravery of those who have fought it.” Each medal has a number stamped on its back so recipients can look up the jeweler who made their medal through the website handmedalproject.com.
“They’re votive objects, given either in hopes of a miracle or in thanks for a miracle being done,” Beeler said.
Also included in the heartfelt message is a poem of recognition:
“Your care goes beyond what we can do
You put your life at risk
You worked incredibly long hours
Your work impacted your loved ones
You gave your hands to those in desperate need
Your work touched us in so many ways
There will never be enough medals or words to say thank you.”
Regionally, the medals will be divided between Long Beach Memorial Hospital, Providence Holy Cross, St. Joseph Orange County, College Medical Center Long Beach, Lakewood Regional Medical Center, Loma Linda University Medical Center, Desert Regional Medical Center, the Women’s Shelter of Long Beach, Keck Medical Center USC and Mercy House New Hope Shelter, Bellflower. To keep up with the Hand Medal Project, follow along on Instagram @handmedalproject.