Katonah Museum of Art

Katonah, NY



Nene Humphrey: Common Touch


Nene Humphrey, Common Touch (detail). Photo: © Harrison Edwards

The last five months, noted sculptor Nene Humphrey traveled weekly to the Katonah Museum of Art to spend entire days molding slabs of clay over hundreds of hands, then shaping that clay into the terra cotta forms that would become the focal point of her sculpture, "Nene Humphrey: Common Touch," a site-specific work which will be on view in the Museum's Sculpture Garden through October 3, 1999. Those hands belonged to people of all ages and interests, from all walks of life, who have played a role in the life of the Museum.

"Because the Museum is such an integral part of the community, I wanted to include the community in the work," says Humphrey.

The work itself is a series of six-foot square copper-clad enclosures that resemble traditional raised garden-bed structures. They are placed strategically in the Sculpture Garden in relation to the existing architecture and trees. The centerpieces of the beds are the terra cotta hand-like forms. From a distance, the beds look uniform. But up close, their organic and individual qualities become evident. All told, there are 1200 terra cotta forms in wonderful colorations, ranging from pale pink to deep red, created from about 260 hands."I tried to incorporate something about the individual in each piece," Humphrey explains. "To me, each hand became a portrait." Also part of the installation are three low trellis-like frames, each holding copper plates inscribed with the names of those whose hands are represented in the sculpture.

Last year, when the Museum approached Humphrey about creating a work for the Museum's Sculpture Garden, she was intrigued. "I was impressed by the large number of people who were intimately connected to the Museum, connected for a long time," she said, "They laid the seeds that led to the building. The building grew. Then they needed to lay seeds for the Endowment." So, Humphrey decided to incorporate hands - lots of hands - in the sculpture, which she decided would be in keeping with the natural beauty of the Garden. The artist made four to five forms of each person's hands, and spent time getting to know her subjects in the forty minutes they were allotted.

Although her work is constantly evolving, Humphrey has always explored the body as the primary vehicle through which one experiences the world both psychologically and physically. She is particularly intrigued by hands. "I think a lot about touch and how we first know the world through touch, and how we know the world through our hands," she wrote in her journal. "I also see the hand as a metaphor for tool, for portrait, for the way we leave our mark in the world." Indeed, the hand can struggle with manual labor; it can build, comfort, express patience, and reveal anger. "And touch represents the fundamental language by which we receive the world. Everything revolves around tactility," she points out.

Humphrey hopes that visitors to the Museum will study the sculpture and view it through the prism of their own experience. "Everyone will bring part of their own story into the work, which will open it up to multiple interpretations." She encourages us to consider not just how memory is stored in the body, but how hands reflect our souls, our creativity, our labor, our relationships, and our history, and to see the hand as a way of physically connecting to the world. "You express yourself with your hands," she says.

Nene Humphrey lives and works in New York City. Her work has been included in dozens of prestigious group and solo shows here and abroad. She has been written about extensively. In 1998, Humphrey was the recipient of a prestigious $25,000 grant from the "Anonymous Was A Woman" program.

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Text and images courtesy of Katonah Museum of Art.

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This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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