Mystical Hand, FRONT and BACK, Reminding Myself Not to Forget, 2008, www.carolineallen.com
I have just gotten my first art studio. Images are on my website www.carolineallen.com/arthome.html. The studio is in a large textile factory in Lowell, Massachusetts, that housed hundreds of girls, some as young as 13. Some were orphans, others came from impoverished countries in East and West Europe. They came across the Atlantic by themselves to make very little money working long hours doing back and arm aching textile work. They lived by themselves in nearby boarding houses.
Now the old factory has has 140 visual artists. I am one of them. From the second I walked into my 500 square foot space, I could feel the Mill Girls — their hopes, dashed dreams, their love, their pain. I put a bunch of flowers out for them regularly in the studio and thank them.
Now that I’ve been in the space for more than a month, the Mill Girls have appeared even more powerfully. First, someone gave me (lent long term) a sewing machine. I have never owned, wanted or in my wildest dreams thought I’d have a sewing machine. It’s an old sturdy Singer set in a proper table whose stool has a cushion, under which are pinking sheers and proper fabric scissors, tape measurers, buttons, etc etc. All the acroutements of the seamstress at my fingertips (and in fact the machine belonged to a former fashion designer friend). My mother sewed all our family clothes when we were poor growing up. It was such hard work. I learned all the womanly arts from her, how to sew, knit, crochet, cook. The feminist in me rebelled against it; why is that the only work for women, I’d ask? Why not writing books? Why not sailing boats? Why not being president? (The poor are often taught they do not have the luxury of such thoughts, a voice just said to me.)
At any rate, I looked around the mill and realized more than any other building full of artist studios that I’ve visited in the world (and I’ve visited many, in London, Budapest, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco), this group of studios had an inordinate number of women artists working with fabric, with sewing. They aren’t doing craft work; they’re using string, mesh fabric, stuffing to create fine pieces of art, quirky individualistic pieces that come from their soul. (That’s the difference between repetitive work of any kind and art — art expresses the individual’s soul.) I knew, just knew the predominance of fabric was from the Mill Girls. They lend us their support, their knowledge. They are urging us on…taking what they learned in their boring repetitive job and helping us morph it into art. I sat down at the machine and sewed like I’d never wanted to before.
In 1999, I got repetitive strain injury from typing as a journalist, thoracic outlet syndrome, where the nerves at my neck pinched and my arms went so dead I couldn’t pick up a coffee mug for months. It was utterly devastating. As physical therapy gave me some movement and feeling, I still couldn’t work, but I had way too much excess energy to sit around. I began, out of my boredom, tracing my hands on cardboard and collaging them with mythological symbols, alchemical symbols and the like. For some reason, this was profoundly soulfully healing. I displayed the hands at art shows in Seattle and they sold for hundreds of dollars. Apparently, they weren’t just healing for me.
On May 3 and 4, we’re having an open studio called Spring Fling, where apparently lots of Bostonians come up for Mother’s Day gifts. I had a deep inspiration in my studio, make more hands, use cloth and the sewing machine. The factory ladies had the same problem with repetitive strain injury, a voice told me, and you’ll be healing them through your art too. I studied Reiki, and one of the lessons that profoundly affected me is how we can heal the past through energy work, and the future too. This resonated with me — because I see the past, present and future as one, and I certainly do not see it as linnear or chronological. With creating the hands, I’m also working with a theme that affects everyone in modern society — the meaning, beauty, honesty and healing we can do with our hands. I think of massage, energy work. I think of the laying on of hands of Jesus. This is what these hands mean to me.
Besides working on making my own Mystical Hands for sale for the opening, I decided to do a demo. Every mother (and father) and child who comes to visit the studios the first weekend in May, can come up to studio 4.3 for a 1:30 and 3:30 hands-on demo, where they can trace their hand on cardboard, choose from an array of printed Nursery Rhyme stories and pictures and even musical notations, as well as pictures from Fairy Tales and Mythology, and they can collage a hand. What I envision is mother and child, each with their collaged hands side by side. I want people to do the collaging unconsciously, to just randomly pick pictures and see what comes out of it. I did this, and found I picked London Bridges falling down for the wrist and above that birds flying wildly up the fingers, something there about the Phoenix burning and rising from the ashes.
What affects me most about this whole process is this — how much the history of place where you’re sitting right now is affecting you and your healing. The spirits of the past are healing the future in you. So, if you’re in Issaquah, what Native American tribes were before you? What were their spiritual practices? I just bet you’d find some of those spiritual truths affecting your life, rising up through the soil into the framework of your house and emanating your rooms with spirit. When I lived in Seattle, I found this all the time. I’d walk out of my home in Wallingford and for some reason, I’d expect a thick Northwest forest and I’d be surprised to find concrete sidewalks and so many houses…I’d been living in the neighborhood at least a year by then, I knew the houses and sidewalks and such, but still I’d have this strange blip happen again and again, leaving the house and finding myself standing on the sidewalk surprised that the forests were gone. I knew I was feeling that deep connection and love our forebears had felt, and the sadness over seeing rain fall on manmade rock, instead of on soil, seeping down, nurturing roots.
I hope to make more hand art for the factory ladies…stuffed hands dangling from strings, broken hands, healed and bejeweled hands. I hope to have copies of an essay like this one for others to read about my process. (I love that about art; with jouralism if you wrote something you had to include man-made facts, get to the “truth”, with writing about art, you’re expressing your own truth, your own version of history.) Now, I’ve got to go. My hands have lots of work to do.