Artist uses handshakes to provoke thinking


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Artist Holly Hanessian of Tallahassee, Fla., has immortalized more than 1,000 handshakes in clay, creating unique casts that bear the imprints of two sets of fingers. Most of the works created for "Touch in Real Time" are now on display at the Society for Contemporary Craft's Downtown gallery on the ground level of the BNY Mellon skyscraper.

A smaller number of artifacts are on display at the society's headquarters on Smallman Street in the Strip District, and you can add to that collection. If you go to the Smallman Street gallery this Saturday or on Jan. 4, you can create a new clay work by shaking hands with one of the society's working artists.

"For every exhibition, we ask an artist to create an art project for the public ... and visitors can then make their own art," said Janet McCall, executive director of the society.

Usually, visitors get to keep the art they make, but these casts will remain with the society and be added to the display, which will be here through Jan. 5.

Ms. Hanessian started gathering the handshakes in the spring of 2011 and believes she'll continue doing so until 2015. She said her primary reason for starting the project was to make people think about the interaction of a handshake.

"I wanted people to slow down and have a complete moment with another person and have a physical connection so you would be touching a person. ... The clay acts as sort of an artifact of the moment. It records that moment.

"For me it's very important when people slow down and have a face-to-face physical moment, especially [people] with cell phones and digital onlines."

Ms. Hanessian said she was surprised at some people's reaction when she asked them to shake hands.

"I had people who are uncomfortable touching," she said. "One man in particular had very heavy sweat. He was uncomfortable because his hands always sweat a lot. He overcame his fear of touch."

That man was in New Orleans, where she also had a surprise dealing with police. "They wouldn't take off their mirror sunglasses."

Pittsburgh is the first stop for Ms. Hanessian's show. In January, her art will move to North Carolina for a show that runs until April at the Western Carolina University Fine Art Museum. "I hope it will go to a couple other museums after that," she said. "There are a couple places that are interested."

She already has done a lot of traveling. "So far I've done 1,015 hands and 18 events in 12 cities, 10 states," she said.

"On the whole people have been very positive. ... I have asked many strangers to do it. Other times people come because they know exactly what's going to happen, and they come because of that."

Last April, she worked with University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist Greg Siegle to record brain imagery that takes place during a handshake. Using MRI and EEG, "We found that the hand-holding was calming. ... As a result of the residency, he's been able to pursue new projects. ... I guess he was looking at hand-touching versus forearm-touching. [They were] stimulating different pathways."

Ms. Hanessian's clay handshakes have provided a connection among more than 2,000 people and between the Society for Contemporary Craft's two sites.

"'Touch in Real Time' provides a wonderful opportunity for us to directly link our Downtown satellite gallery with our primary location in the Strip District," Ms. McCall said.

"Many of our Downtown visitors are only familiar with our Grant Street exhibition space. By featuring Holly's project at BNY Mellon Center and our main gallery, we hope to motivate visitors to see both locations."


Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.

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