Curlews by candlelight: Sean Harris and Ysgol Y Llan at Whitford Church

Elizabeth Edwards

It’s the end of a grey June afternoon, but Whitford Church – St Mary’s and St Beuno’s – is getting ready for a special event. The Llangynog-based artist and animator Sean Harris has rigged up a series of gauze projection panels in front of the altar, community engagement officer Sarah Baylis has installed a flock of bird illustrations on the west wall, and a selection of stuffed birds peep out from their display boxes. At the centre, a majestic curlew perches above the font, above the activity unfolding in the church, which glimmers with a hundred tealights.

We’re here to celebrate the culmination of a collaboration between Curious Travellers, Sean Harris, and pupils at Ysgol Y Llan, the primary school opposite Whitford Church. Since March 2024, Sean has been working with pupils in years 5 and 6 on an art project focusing on the work of Thomas Pennant. The church is familiar to the schoolchildren, who regularly visit, and so (to a point) is Pennant, whose house Downing Hall was located just a few hundred metres along the valley. A commemorative plaque for Pennant sits outside the school; Pennant himself is buried within the church, whose south side features marble memorials to the man himself and members of his family. It’s the ideal place for a Pennant-themed event.

A stuffed black-and-white bird in a wooden and plastic display case, with two tea lights.

Sean’s own artform is animation, which he uses to make work that explores the diverse and complex relationships between people and landscapes in Wales and beyond. Sean has also long been interested in Thomas Pennant as a naturalist, as an illustrator of birdlife in images and in prose. These images, along with Pennant’s British Zoology, formed the basis for Sean’s project with Ysgol Y Llan, which focused on drawing and animation. Over the weeks, Sean teaches the children that a single second of animation might require 25 separate hand-drawn frames, and the importance in this field of skills in Focus, Imagination and Teamwork (aka getting FIT) – the superpowers of an animator. But through drawing and discussion, he teaches them much more than this too. How to look (really look) at an object. The contested nature of history. The meanings of taxonomy, diversity, symbiosis and migration. How to read a long S in eighteenth-century print. How and why we name things, with what effects, in English and in Welsh.

A bearded man in a black "Jurrassic Park" hoodie addresses a class of school children at desks on blue chairs.

It’s fascinating to watch the children’s responses develop over time. A session looking at Pennant as a geologist and conchologist features Sean’s collection of fossil and bone specimens – a hyena tooth, a lynx mandible – carefully handled by the class. As Sean explains that ‘when you’re touching these, you’re feeling the teeth of an animal that … disappeared from our landscape 35000 years ago’, the kids are completely silent, riveted by the presence of the distant past. Teaching the class how to look, Sean challenges the children to come up with increasingly sophisticated responses to what they see. The bones are white, yellow, black, grey, they suggest. You can do better than that, Sean replies, and they are soon finding more poetic descriptions: rust, dark golden yellow, mustard brown, sandy orange, clay, dark stone grey, quartz white, shadow black. Another week, the question ‘what would it look like if we took a page of Pennant’s writing and blew it up?’ results in drawings that bring together words and images, ‘curlew’/‘gylfinir’, ‘auk’ and ‘taxonomy’ popping around the pages of birds and feathers.

A sketch of a bird with a long beak, surrounded by semi-legible words, with "Taxonomy" written above it

The June event at Whitford Church brings together these drawings, with the work of Thomas Pennant (and his artist Moses Griffith), and Sean’s own animations. First, the children have the chance to show their parents and guardians their work at the rear of the church, along with the taxidermy bird specimens and Pennant illustrations they’ve been using as sources.

Three people bend over something on a table near a stone church font with a stuffed bird on it, lit by soft candle-light

Then Sean introduces a slideshow of the class’s work – a really lovely set of pencil drawings, birds looking this way and that, each one different and full of character. There are some really talented budding artists in this group, Sean notes. The slideshow is meant to be set to music, but for some reason the tech doesn’t play it. At first it feels like there’s been a mistake, but collectively we go with it and the absolute hush in the church as the slideshow runs feels more memorable than any soundtrack. (Just to be sure, we then play the musical version, which is also beautiful!)

A half-lit man stands holding a lamp in front of a white screen, with pews in front and a stained glass church window behind.

We finish with two of Sean’s own artworks on the great auk and the curlew. The auk film is an emotional and elegiac piece, featuring the now-extinct (as Year 5 and 6 well know) great auk, and based on the concept of making the bird’s heart – now preserved at the Natural History Museum – beat once again through animation.

The last word goes to the curlew, still peering out across the church. As the children also know, the curlew is becoming gravely endangered in Wales due to habitat loss, and this sense of fragility underpins the second animation. It’s getting dark by now, the perfect environment in which to watch Sean’s film, and the space fills with curlew calls, fluttering long grasses, looping projections of eggs, and curlews stepping in circles around a cutout of Wales. In the church, the films look striking against the east window, colours and images overlapping unpredictably. But perhaps the most magical and unexpected moment belongs to the curlew, as the projections reach the real bird at the back, surrounded by widening, fading rings of shadow black curlews in flight.

Grateful thanks to Sean Harris, the staff and pupils of Ysgol Y Llan, especially Steve Thomas, Rev. Kathryn Evans and Peter Stutchfield. All images save one credited to Martin Crampin.

A stuffed curlew in close-up and in profile, in front of an out-of-focus background containing dim images of other birds.