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  • Jennifer Gillen

Artist's Hand: Proof of Presence

Updated: Jul 21, 2022


Here's my hand making tiny brushstrokes on a painting.

I’m watching the television series:

“Alone - Grizzly Mountain”. It’s a survival reality show and pretty addictive. The contestants must build, by hand, a campsite and tools while also figuring out a way to survive in the wild in British Columbia as winter sets in. A recurring theme in the series is human encounters with nature. There are lots of scenes of the campers looking at tracks that animals have left around their camps. Mostly these are bear tracks. This got me thinking about how cool it is to find tracks. To see artifacts of life that you don’t really recognize creates a feeling of wonder.


It’s interesting to consider the tracks left by others. I like to look for them in art. These are referred to as “hand” when it comes to art. Hand is the trace left by the artist that lets you know it was crafted by a human. Sometimes these are imperfections but most of them appear as specific marks. You can see the artist’s hand in museum paintings where the brush strokes are evident. Or in the softly worn threads of a hand-embroidery piece. Hand helps you imagine the movement the artist made while creating the art. It’s almost an artisan approach to art. I enjoy seeing the signs that a person made the art.


Often artists eliminate traces of their hand. I’ve been noticing this a lot in some of the art exhibitions I attend. It gives me an empty feeling to not be able to identify the artist’s humanity in their art. I recently came across a beautiful painting by a contemporary artist. From across the room, it was magnificently realistic and dramatic. Unfortunately, when I came closer, it looked like it was printed by a computer. It was super slick and lacked any human presence. Probably the artist meant to erase themself from the work. That made me feel weird, disconnected. I really wanted to see the evidence that they existed.


The opposite of seeing the artist's hand is in the manufactured or mass produced item. Our days are inundated with machine produced smooth surfaces and sharp edges. Of course, these items lack hand intentionally. It's the opposite of the natural and hand-made world where fuzzy, jagged edges are the rule. Maybe that's why I crave the interaction with obviously handmade things like artisan breads and hand-carved wood. It is also true that technology sometimes us separates from human reality. So much contact is virtual that face-to-face human interaction is special.


Have you ever looked at an ancient arrowhead or camp tool closely? I really enjoy seeing the carefully chiseled edges. It’s also pretty amazing to see the texture of adobe walls where the mud was smoothed on by the hands of women. In my view, creating art is a way to show others, in years to come, that we too have been here. It’s a way to connect with humanity. Sometimes my paintings turn out surprisingly realistic but if you look closely there is evidence of my hand. Afterall, it was made with human hands.


What's your preference in art? I’d like to challenge you to find traces of the artist’s hand the next time you’re looking at art. Can you imagine the movements of their hand? Can you connect with the art as a human made artifact of existence? Or does it seem machine made and existing without the artist? There is no right answer as to which is better. That’s all a matter of your own preferences.



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