Participatory art project lets us touch hands in a time of COVID-19

By Anne D’Urso-Rose

Hands are designed for touching. You reach out a hand. You lend a helping hand. You create. You greet. You comfort others with your hands. But these days, our hands are viewed more as dangerous carriers of disease.

“Our hands used to be these things that we did everything with and now they’ve become these things that we’re not supposed to do stuff with,” said Karyn Alzayer, an artist currently based in Malden, MA, in an interview with Neighborhood View.

Her new participatory art project “Healing Hands” sets out to change that view, safely, in this era of COVID-19. Anyone from this community or around the globe is invited to trace their hand on a piece of paper, decorate and write words of encouragement on it, scan, and send it electronically to Alzayer.

“I’ll print every hand and message I receive, cut them out, and make a giant interlocking paper chain of all of our hands and all our encouragements,” writes Alzayer in her blog describing the Healing Hands Participatory Art Project. The hands are printed on paper representing a full range of human flesh tones.

“Our hands are not just vessels to carry germs and make ourselves and others sick, but they are vital, powerful parts of ourselves that we use to connect, create, communicate, and console,” she writes.

Alzayer is a henna artist (of Henna Inspired) and, since the onset of the lockdown to slow the spread of the virus, she has reflected on how her profession, along with so many others, has been dramatically impacted, not only in a logistical way, but in an emotional way as well.

“Henna is so personal. You sit with one person. You hold their hand and you create a piece of artwork just for them. It’s deeply intimate and all of this got me thinking. There is so much uncertainty and things have become so scary during this time, you sometimes need someone to just take your hand and hold it,” Alzayer told Neighborhood View.

“I may not be able to physically reach out and hold your hand, but if you send me a tracing of it, I can. And I can connect it to all the others I receive. Because email still doesn’t carry germs.”

Alzayer came up with the concept for the “Healing Hands” art project, created a YouTube video, and wrote a blog on her Henna Inspired website. These got shared on social media and she got an immediate positive response through “likes,” comments, shares and, not too many days later, the hands started coming in.

“In about three to four days after posting it, I had about 30 submissions. They came from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, and California.” At last count, the YouTube video had over 600 views and she has received over 60 hands from eight  different states. Alzayer will accept hands anytime during this period of enforced social distancing.

The artist will then connect the hands into a giant chain. “When this is all over I’ll officially measure it and put it on public display. Let’s make a goal and see how long we can make this thing, while lifting each other up at the same time.” She hopes that Mayor Gary Christenson would consider installing the artwork in the new Malden City Hall. “I have a library in MacArthur, Ohio, where I just did a virtual workshop, and they would like to take the project on loan when all this blows over.”

Alzayer’s art is not the two-dimensional sort that hangs in a gallery. Her artwork can be found on a 5-foot fiberglass rabbit, a “Play Me, I’m Yours” piano on the streets of Boston, a switchbox on Lincoln Common in Malden, a travelling “Wishing Wall” in Everett, and in a giant book created for Malden Reads.

“For me, I think it’s all about entry points,” Alzayer tells Ose Schwab, host of the podcast Culture Matters in Malden. “I always want to create more entry points for people. Henna is an art that becomes a part of (the wearer). It’s in your skin and it’s there until you shed your skin.”

Malden Reads, the “One City, One Book” program that promotes literacy, reading, and community-building in Malden, commissioned Alzayer for their 2020 program to create a public art project that celebrated reading and books.

“I built a giant book sculpture. It’s about 4-feet tall full of blank pages made out of foam core,” Alzayer told Neighborhood View. The artist lavishly decorated it with three-dimensional gold paint reminiscent of filigree and henna art.

She tore out the pages of an old book and invited the public to write the title and author of books that have impacted or influenced them in their lives, in bold magic marker, on each page. These pages are then pasted onto the foam core pages. The book had been travelling to Malden Reads public events until the COVID-19 lockdown halted the physical gatherings offered by the program.

“The pages are slowly filling up with book recommendations. And it’s pretty amazing,” she said. “There is some sort of participatory element in a lot of my art. The giant book I created looks cool but it’s not finished until everyone adds their book title.”

Alzayer’s art has also made national headlines. In an act of guerilla arts activism last summer, Alzayer created internment-type cages for the “Make Way For Ducklings” sculpture on the Boston Common and installed them overnight to call attention to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

This is the only image of the caged ducklings at Boston Common before they were taken down. The image and the story made local and national news.

“The cages were built out of chicken wire and PVC piping that I spray-painted silver. I physically separated the baby ducklings from their mother with the cages, and gave them each little mylar blankets of the same material used at the border,” Alazyer said.  It took two vehicles to transport the cages, two in each vehicle and one strapped to  the car roof.

The installation was a sucker punch symbol of the cruelty being wrought on immigrant families at our nation’s border.

“The ducklings are a beloved piece of artwork in Boston. Everyone knows the story [from Robert McCloskey’s children’s book]. The ducklings came here to Boston looking for a better life. And I was just thinking – if they were an immigrant family in this climate, this is what would happen to them.”

The cages, which were substantially constructed, were removed within hours, but Alzayer made that part of her statement. “The city thought it was inappropriate for those beloved, fictional, baby ducklings to be caged, so they took care of it. So why then can’t we shut it down in real life?”

Alzayer says that sometimes you “need an artist to come in with a wrecking ball” to make a statement.

“We have journalists and reporters that describe what’s happening in our world but sometimes you just need the artist to come up with an image that is so powerful, you see it in a different way.” Alzayer told Neighborhood View.

With regard to the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc with our world today, Alzayer says it’s a time for artists to step up. “For us artists, we have a unique ability, to uplift people, to comfort people, to help people get through this. No matter how we’re feeling in our daily lives, it’s time for us to pull out all the stops, to do what we do best and to do it with ferocity. Because it’s necessary.”

Watch the 3-minute below to learn more about the Helping Hands art project and how you and your family/friends can participate.

You can hear an in-depth interview with the artist by listening to the Culture Matters in Malden episode produced at MATV/UMA. The podcast incorporates music from #songsofcomfort youtube posts initiated by cellist Yo Yo Ma and shared to comfort us all in our collective time of need.

Thank you to Felicia Ryan and Ose Schwab for their interviews with the artist incorporated into this article.

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