photos: Linda Laino
"I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of Nature is revealed to me."
~ Helen Keller
I had my hands in a fair amount of glue today when it occurred to me for about the millionth time how amazing it is to be able feel things with my fingers. I have always been a toucher, dependent on that tactile sense to give me a better understanding of something. Didn't we all as kids, think it was the height of wonderful to have our hands in some kind of goo? I did. Whether gooey, natural or industrial, texture makes the world interesting and lights up a happy place in my brain when my receptors make contact.
Texture thrills me so much that over 35 years ago, I landed in the fibers department at my university when I needed to declare a focus in art school. Love of color, pattern and structure are up there as well, but the sheer variety of texture found in fabric is a quality not often matched in a single material. Consider this list: scratchy, silky, nubby, coarse, smooth, hairy, curly, lacey, satiny, woven, knit, twilled. So many ways a fabric can FEEL! My life-long love of textiles is rooted in this particular characteristic, and early in life seemed to alert me to texture in other areas.
One semester I took a wheel-throwing ceramics class as an elective. As it turned out, I was miserable in this endeavor. Much like that first bicycle ride, I could not for the life of me get that lump of potential soup bowl centered in order to pull up a freakin' pot. BUT, what I discovered as a preferable alternative, and a salve to my frustration was how amazing the clay felt squishing and oozing through my fingers! I could sit for quite awhile dreamily caressing that wet, pulsating mound going around and around...
What is it about running our hands over something (or someone) that we are curious about or enthralled with? I always have some sense of energy being transferred with this initial encounter, like the first electric contact with the skin of a new love.
Aside from the thrill of skin on skin, there is no greater production show of texture than nature. The chocolate, nutty feel of tree bark, sappy and fuzzy leaves, silky petals, and reedy grasses all serve to remind us of nature's hold on every one of our senses. Every gardener understands the satisfying feeling of digging in the dirt. There is a wonderful bond created, co-mingling with the mother we call our ground on a daily basis. In fact, according to researchers, by allowing us to nurture something and also stay in the present moment, communing with nature in this intimate way can make us feel happier.
Neuroscience claims that women tend to have a finer sense of touch than men. This seems to be because women, in general have smaller hands. Like lips, our fingertips have more receptor cells in them than the rest of our body. I have often marvelled at women who keep their fingernails super long. Aside from the myriad other ways in which they might get in the way, I wonder how they feel anything?
Like most kids, I was often told to "Look, don't touch". Because they are natural touchers and don't discriminate too terribly much, kids generally have something sticky or dirty on their hands, so that is probably a good general rule. Although, this lack of discrimination implies that children have more curiosity, and understand in their innocent way that the world is most definitely here for their touching pleasure.
When my son was three and a bit of a wild toddler, I took him to the Virginia museum one day where we viewed an exhibition of 19th century lifesize stone and steel animal sculptures. My always curious little guy decided that even touching was not enough and took the leap of trying to ride them. Really. After a few warnings from the guard we were (naturally) asked to leave. Despite the embarrassment over my child's behavior, I completely understood his need! Like mother like son, I suppose.
I confess right here to the art police that in certain situations, I touch in museums. It is almost an involuntary compulsion. I truly feel like something in that transaction remains not just on my skin, but part of me somehow. You might think, that as an artist, I would have more regard for this "rule", but some art simply BEGS to be touched. To be fair, I have always encouraged the curious to touch my own paintings.
As humans, being touched seems essential to our health and well-being. Those of us who are massage junkies can't seem to get enough and lucky for everyone, mainstream medical practitioners are now discovering and touting the health benefits we always knew. It is a well documented medical fact for example that premie babies thrive faster the more they are touched and held. Making contact with other seems to be quite beneficial. Materials and objects can provide this as well.
How I begin my paintings: a combination of cotton paper base with many layer of rice paper and ink.
I am convinced that my own health and well-being in the studio stems not just from the visual excitement of making things, but also how the materials I use feel in my hands. Making conscious contact with texture in the studio reminds me to approach the world with the same desire: To marvel at the benefit and infinite variety of texture everywhere, available at our fingertips.
If you have enjoyed any of my writing or artwork, please consider sharing and I would love to hear from you :-)