Last fall, after hearing #metoo story after story from friends, and strangers, and remembering some of my own (thankfully mild) experiences of sexual harassment, I found myself thinking about hands: first the hands perpetrating unwelcome contact with unwilling victims, and then, more powerfully, the hands of those victims—and survivors—raised in protest and defiance.
In early January, I started cutting out silhouettes of hands, different sizes, some childlike, some more mature, fingers splayed or together. Pairs of hands.
I had a piece of cloth in mind, a vintage table linen, slightly rectangular and a little wonky with age. I lay the hands out on the cloth and traced the outlines.
I knew the hands had to represent all women, so I chose six threads representing six shades of skin--from palest nordic pink-white to deep almost-black brown--and stitched the outlines of each hand.
I filled in the hands using tiny, close running stitches following the contours of the fingers and palm.
Though I hadn't anticipated this, I found that this stitching gave the impression of fingerprints, and lent depth to the palms. It also reminded me of complex henna tattoos! One down side: this fine stitching required so much control and tension to execute, and to constantly shift and manipulate the fabric, that it almost did in my own hands; I had to take several days off from stitching to let my fingers recover, and when I began again I devised a way to mount the fabric to a standing frame and forced myself to stitch two-handed, alternating my right and left hands.
Once I finished the hands, I began the text. Just as the hands needed to represent all women, so, to, I wanted the text--the stories--to represent as well as possible the range of experiences, and perpetrators, and situations, to be both universal and particular. The words are my own, but the stories I tell are drawn from the collective sharing by tens, hundreds, thousands of women, among them friends of mine and others whom I will never meet.
Stitching the text was emotionally gut-wrenching. One of the things I love about stitching text is the connection I have with the words: it is much slower and requires more thought to stitch each letter, each word, each sentence, each paragraph, than it is to type or even to handwrite the same thing. In stitching text, I live with and concentrate on each word for several minutes. I found I could only stitch a bit of this text each day before I became emotionally overwhelmed and had to stop.
Finally, I stitched the background for the hands. The paler hands were hard to see against the creamy color of the cloth, and I wanted them all to stand out. I chose red thread, and began stitching the word "STOP" over and over and over, in all directions, tracing the shapes of the hands, until all the space was filled.
The "STOP" section took days and days and days of stitching. Just over two weeks ago, my frame set up by the woodstove as I watched the Olympics on TV while I stitched, the coverage was suddenly interrupted by breaking news coming out of Parkland, Florida. Before my eyes, I saw terrified students streaming out of their high school, emergency personnel carrying people on stretchers to waiting ambulances, and, unbelievably, police arresting the suspect right before my very eyes, all live and in real time as I wept and continued to stitch: "STOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP". My plea against sexual violence thus has imbedded in it a plea to stop this madness of gun violence as well.
And so, after two months of physically and emotionally intensive work, "Hands Off!" is done:
Yesterday, I hung it, along with my Cloths and Flag of Resistance, in an exhibit called "Women Speak" at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vermont. The show features political and resistance artwork by Vermont artists Sarah Rosedahl and Meta Strick as well as me, and runs through the month of March. The opening reception is Saturday, March 3, from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m.