The Working Hands: Four Washington Artists Bring Intention to Touch and Craft
To touch is to craft an experience and to build a relationship between the body and a material. In many ways intuitive and subconscious, our capacity to touch and be touched, is an intimate path to our emotional selves. Of the hands—the vehicles of touch—to hold and share such physicality, wholistic livelihoods and sensitivities are composed. Well-worn fingers shape subtle messages of the soul. Open in offering, the palms are the gift-givers and gift-receivers. Hearty knuckles bear labors of love and survival. Yes, the hands sustain, nourish, heal, build, craft, and carry. And they have for the extent of our human existence.
In this progressive moment where the intention and practicality of touch seems to be unraveling, I find myself surrounded by craftspeople, artists, makers, and humans of all kind who can’t do anything but. I know that touch, that making things by hand, that building relationships to whom and what we touch is intrinsic to our being. It is an indispensable tool of communication with the deepest part of ourself, with our environment, and with each other.
But it is not only that we must touch. What and how we touch is just as essential. In a conversation I had recently with earth pigment forager and artist Heidi Gustafson, she spoke of the hands’ ability to metabolize materials. When we touch toxins—chemicals, heavy metals, petroleum-based products—we are literally bringing poisons into our bodies. When we touch natural materials that we have an ancestral relationship to—a hand-carved walnut bowl or wool socks—we are inviting sunshine and oxygen and protein into our skin.
Using one’s hands as a livelihood is becoming increasingly difficult, rare, and perhaps even romantic. Hannah, Rebekah, Inca, and Lara are four artists living near Port Townsend, Washington who are resisting the tide of standardization, capitalism-driven hyper efficiency, and lifeless objects. They each craft functional and beautiful homes for the body by hand, and have a focus of building community through their processes. When there is no work for the hands to do, how can we do the work of the soul, of gratitude, and of interconnectedness?
Community-based eco building
Hannah Christine sinks her feet, hands, and heart down deep into community-rich mud. She facilitates and collaborates with natural building projects that bring people together to create artistic and inviting spaces. She began working with natural building materials, like straw-clay insulation, with The City Repair Project in Portland. She has since grown her passion for the simplicity of earth building, empowering others to relate to the raw materials that can and do keep our bodies warm, safe, dry and loved. Currently, Hannah works mostly with clay and lime plasters and straw-clay insulation, and does retrofits to bring natural materials into existing structures. We can build our own homes, Hannah says, and we can do it without toxic chemicals, highly specialized and expensive tools, and excessive construction waste.
While leading a group of friends and neighbors in song during a cob bench-building work party, Hannah describes the bliss of breath being absorbed into the work and forever held in the structure. (In the case of working with lime plaster, this is literally true as lime absorbs CO2 to become stone.) The many hours of many hands smoothing, shaping and sculpting are a meditation on labor, intuition, connectedness, and shelter. Co- creating the spaces we occupy brings us closer to the earth and its gifts, closer to each other, and closer to our own capabilities.
Mending, tailoring and sustainable fashion design
Inka Linn can be found in her light- filled home studio, diligently and attentively repairing the tattered edges of her community’s clothing.
“It’s a very real, tactile thing,” she says of her relationship to mending. “I am an artist, and I love creating my own work, but there is a particular feeling about repairing something that will be worn and loved by someone for years. It feels good.”
Inka grew up with an appreciation of craftsmanship and the skills to upkeep and repair her clothing, values instilled from her Norwegian roots and heritage. Mending is as integral to clothing as is wearing clothes. When a piece is made by hand and of a high quality, it should last for years, Inka says.
Inka believes our contemporary culture around fast fashion and mass-produced, dispensable clothing is completely unsustainable and harmful. Companies no longer make products that are able to be repaired because having to buy a new version is more profitable than upkeep of an existing one. Our grandchildren will suffer from this behavior, Inka says. They will be living with trash everywhere. To keep garments out of the landfill, she mends clothing for people in her community and teaches sewing lessons. When designing and making her own clothes, she utilizes scraps or natural and biodegradable materials.
When Inka releases her line of ethical fashion currently in the works, she hopes to fill a gap she sees for well- made, beautiful and biodegradable garments. Influenced by both Japanese and Norwegian design, the fashion line will take inspiration from the utility, simplicity, and high quality craftsmanship of both cultures.
“I want my designs to last, but I want people to be able to throw them in their compost pile when they are done wearing the clothing.”
Metal and stone jewelry
When jewelry artist Lara Gaasland came across a friend’s old work truck, she took the opportunity to park it in her backyard and convert it into a working metal smithing studio where she crafts her silver and stone adornments. The truck feels like a metaphor for Lara’s ability to see possibility in the overlooked, to recognize the shining, colorful stone in the rough, dull rock, to care for vintage, well-loved tools and put them to good use.
Lara became hooked on metalworking after taking some classes with the Bellingham Metal Arts Guild. She describes a compulsion to work with her hands, and finds the malleability and ductile quality of metal to be intuitive and satisfying. Her fingers navigate intricate tasks well, as she has also spent time carving wood, working with glass, and sailing.
Life in maritime cultures in Maine and the Pacific Northwest have greatly influenced the artist’s work. She describes foraging for sea glass and beach stones as an exciting part of her process over the years. Each of her pieces seems to be an ode to a stone’s
individual curves or a sea glass’s dazzling luster. She finds fulfillment in knowing a person can have a deep relationship to her art by adorning their body with handcrafted jewelry that becomes a part of their everyday life.
When she isn’t shaping metal and cutting stone in her truck, Lara values engaging in her community of artists. She often works with a local group of rock lovers to share skills and ideas, and she also curates an annual craft fair that gathers and supports other local makers.
“I can’t not create,” Lara says. “My hands are always busy.”
Fiber art, the local fiber shed and natural plant dye
Our clothing is a home for our soft and squishy bodies. The materials that hug our skin day and night warm from our heat, tell our stories in wrinkles and weather lovingly into all of our unique shapes and pressure points. We share an intimacy with our clothing, and fiber advocate Rebekah Korenowsky tends to textiles with such sensitivity to gentleness.
The cultivation of fiber from plants and animals has equal ability to sustain and nourish our local environment and economy as does the cultivation of food. Though in both forms of agriculture, there is similar potential to cause irreproachable harm, damage and inequality. To honor the personal relationship a body has with its clothing, Rebekah feels strongly about being involved in the process of locally-based fiber production—known as a fibershed— and she actively exchanges knowledge with her community to inspire the same curiosity in others.
Rebekah explores fiber craft with intuition, reverence, and intention of collaboration. The materials invite these tendencies, she says. Her fiber journey began with knitting, led her to experimenting with plant-based dyes, and holds her more recent
rapture with the processes of working with raw animal fibers. These days, you will most likely find her diving into a deep pile of sheep’s wool and endlessly stirring big pots of dye bath—or more arguably witches’ brew. This artist’s contagious attention to subtle earth colors and dreamy textures will have you touching your clothes with a whole new reactivity, empathy, and gratitude to the earth.