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Symbols of hope grow from guns

A sculpture made from dismantled weapons has inspired children to create their own symbolic messages to G8 leaders to help African countries, writes Miranda Fettes

Six teenage girls are sitting around a table spelling out words in magnetic lettering. War, death, violence, anger, kill, children, poverty, G8 and 300,000 kids are some of words and phrases they have formed.

The S3 girls are arts and modern studies pupils at Craigmount High in Edinburgh and the words are for a tree of life sculpture they are making out of toy guns and other items as part of the city council's programme of arts events relating to the G8 summit this week. It will be displayed in St Giles' Cathedral until the end of the month.

"It was inspired by the Tree of Life," says Edinburgh artist Martin Ayres, who has worked with the pupils on the project. The Tree of Life, a half-tonne sculpture made out of weapons decommissioned since Mozambique's civil war from 1976 to 1992, was commissioned by the British Museum with the help of Christian Aid and is now on show in London.

It is easy to see why the Mozambican artists - (below, from left) Adelino Serafim Mate, Fiel dos Santos, Hilario Nhatugueja and Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) - chose a tree to represent regeneration and hope after civil war.

It provides a strong visual representation of life, with all its diverse paths branching out in different directions from a single trunk.

"I read an article about the Tree of Life and thought it was an extraordinary piece," says Stevi Manning, principal officer in Edinburgh's arts and learning department. "Claire Soper, the international service manager in the children and families department, had read the same article.

It was the two of us that came up with the concept of making imitations and invited schools to take part. St John's Primary and Craigmount High came forward."

Mr Ayres presented an introductory session about the Tree of Life at the two schools and built the basic structures out of wood, but left the detail to the pupils.

"We've been careful to let them interpret things, come up with their own ideas," he explains. "This is asking young people to give us their interpretation and it's been very interesting to see how the different age groups have responded.

"There's been quite a bit of discussion about issues such as war, poverty, debt relief and Africa, but it's also been about how to develop images in order to make a statement and the power of visual symbolism."

The tree made by P6 and 7 children at St John's Primary, which also is being displayed in St Giles' Cathedral, features imitation hand grenades with felt petals attached to transform them into flowers, representing the peace that is emerging from decommissioning weapons. As well as toy guns, magnetic lettering spells out peace, faith, love, fix it and Africa.

The S3 pupils seem to be more disillusioned. The Craigmount High tree features assorted toy guns, bullets arranged like teeth and lines of toy soldiers, some hanging. Grenades hanging off the branches are meant to look like fruit, says Kirsty McIntosh, 14, highlighting the destructive potential of something so innocuous looking: you reach up to take something natural and sweet and you get blown to pieces. And those words evoking war are spiralled up the trunk, intertwined with a vine of barbed wire.

The girls say their sculpture makes the statement that war is destructive and unnecessary and that the G8 nations must wake up and address Africa's poverty.

They also want to emphasise the part of children as conscripted soldiers as well as victims. They were particularly struck by the Amnesty International figure that at any one time up to 300,000 children around the world are actively fighting as soldiers with government forces. "I hadn't really thought about it before," says Emma Newton, 14.

They acknowledge their tree is more pessimistic than the primary children's equivalent. "They're too young to really understand," says Lara Wierzoch, also 14.

Mr Ayres believes projects such as this are essential to developing a social conscience.

"It has a recycle element to it too - toys into art," says Ms Manning.

The final stage is to spray paint both schools' trees gun metal grey. "It will help to unify the sculptures visually," says Mr Ayres.

"It should be a pretty powerful visual symbol."

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