Material: What are the hands made of?


The hands are sculpted from the earth of Niujiatan, fortified with hair from their cows. I use the same soil used to build the kang (炕) in village homes. Cow hair acts as fiber; strong and resilient, it represents the Nius, whose surname means "Cow". Combined with other materials they form a hybrid adobe that is solid and durable yet, like the lives the hands represent, not indestructible. Susceptible to injury, affected by the elements, the hands express the vulnerability and uncertainty of a farmer's life in China.




In northern China the kang or "bed-stove" is the heart of a traditional Chinese home. The kang is a raised heated platform running the length of one wall where the family gathers for every indoor activity: eating, sleeping, working, entertaining… Construction varies by region. In Niujiatan the kang is made from a sandy yellow loam, dug from a pit below the village, that forms a heat-conducting adobe.



Process: Working together


To do this work, I needed the whole village. I was the first Westerner to cross their threshold, and by proposing this project, I was asking the farmers to stretch their minds beyond their experience or vision. The gulf was huge - from insular village mindset to global perspective, from pre-modern subsistence farming to conceptual visual art. 

Acceptance and support grew in ever-widening circles. Starting with the younger families, endorsement of the project spread to nearby neighbors, outward to more distant neighbors, and lastly into the homes of village elders. The key was finding connection with their lives and the language to describe these strange ideas. By defining the hands, not as art, but as artifacts that exist into eternity, and by naming the project their history, the farmers of Niujiatan grew proud of our work and claimed it as their own.

We work together. Every step - from collecting the soil to storing the finished hands - is a joint effort. 



In this portrait of completed hands, the B&W photos indicate hands yet to be made. Click on a photo to bring up the light box.