My hands are not like most people’s. They are double-jointed, and, due to an autoimmune condition, they swell and contract, resulting in squishiness and more wrinkles than is fair for my age. For decades, I’ve been ashamed of my hands. I literally kept them out of the picture.
Then, two years ago, my brother became ill, and I began to think about the body’s contradictions. It is a miracle machine, capable of healing itself. It is also a destroyer, determined to break down or attack itself.
My hands, which I had hidden, became the focus of my art making. They are my subject, even my muse. In the past year, I’ve created hundreds of casts of my hands. They break, (or I break them) and they become fragments that recall classical Greek and Roman antiquity. They are a perverse version of idealized beauty.
Like most artists, I make work, and later, if I’m lucky, I begin to understand it. I know that these fragments allude to my brothers’ advancing disease, and to my inability to protect him (and to protect myself).
In the days after the inauguration in January, much of my attention was pulled from personal matters to the news of the country. The familiar emails in my inbox were crowded out by calls for political action. In my studio, I was listening to insistent internal voices, and I began to make casts that were satirical references: Trump’s tiny hands!
But I soon realized that this effort—an attempt to be “relevant”—was actually a betrayal, to myself and to my art. It was like a one-night stand, looking for meaning when, in fact, the real meaning was growing in the work already.
A month has passed, and as heavy news pours in from all parts of my life, I see how my work is changing.
In my studio, I survey the fragments—replicas of my hands that I have come to love—and I choose one to place at the bottom of a pre-made 8” by 17” box. My colleague pours hydrostone— the same material as the casts—into the box, and I watch as it slowly rises around this fragment. It creeps up my wrist onto my fingers and then into the crevices of my palm. I watch the hand, my hand, being submerged, daring myself to let the pouring continue. Then I say, “Stop!” The fragment is partially immersed, frozen in a moment of sinking.
I’ve made many of these slabs, and I keep making more. At first I was timid, allowing the hydrostone to cover only a half inch or so. But that left too much exposed. Now, sometimes, I let it go too far, and that makes me think about what I love, and how it can disappear.
This work is about my brother. It is also about my life and my country. With every new piece I make, I learn that my loyalty is long and deep.
text and images © 2017 W. Richmond