Clem snaps on the faucet with the flick of her wrist. She washes her hands for approximately the 70,000th time in her life—if my math is right. My math is never quite right though. Her math is always right. She owns three tape measures.
She clasps one palm then the other. She flips and squeezes the soap, rotating it. I told her I noticed that she never buys the same hand soap twice. She says she likes options. I’m better at noticing things than I look. Her digits stretch and contract using the same form every time—an articulating heartbeat.
I want to write about her hands. Watching them work is my meditation; watching them work is like scratching an itch. But scratching begets itching. I want to make something to describe the way she makes something. I want to do it how she would do it.
I want to write about her hands. I’ve been wanting to do it since we met. They are her ablest tools, and Clem has a lot of tools. She has boxes of tools and rooms of tools. She has a workshop like a man or Santa.
You can’t see what she does when she does it, but all of a sudden it’s all around you. Her hands make pancakes and faces and broken things work and pulses quicken and people feel things. Her hands make me feel things.
We drive to the studio in Brooklyn. It is Sunday and rainy. I came because I wanted to be around her while she worked. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed—being inactive around someone who is being active. If you want to put me to sleep, talk on the phone in an adjacent room.
When I was little my mom would sit in the kitchen of our 2-bedroom apartment, smoking and talking to her sisters on the butter-colored wall phone. Then she would type up graduate students’ dissertations on her typewriter for extra cash. It seemed so late at night, but it was probably only 9 p.m.
NBC played its station-identifying chimes at 10, after my dad changed the channel from Mr. Belvedere. I would hear the network chimes from the top bunk in my bedroom. This is back when I told time by television. My lullabies were typewriter keys, C-major chords, and mingling on- and off-air conversation. I was safe in those sounds.
Clem drives a car like a cowboy rides a horse. She finds a spot among the trucks on the industrial Williamsburg side street. The studio building reminds me of an old public school. It feels familiar, but not too familiar. It’s like somewhere I would’ve had to go as a child to take a standardized test or have an indoor soccer tryout.
There is a lot of glass on the street. They are doing renovations on the building. That’s not how she would’ve done it. She would’ve done it a different way.
She likes to analyze projects, or to look at building renovations and think, “Why did they do it like that?” The building on her block was being refaced once and I heard about it for three months. I’m into specificity while she’s into possibility. Clem likes to wonder out loud; it is how she enters the world.
We walk into the building and there is a security guard at the desk. He is awake, but just barely. I get it; it’s Sunday afternoon. It’s raining. There might as well be a white noise machine on next to him. If he has a big lunch it’s over.
On our way to the elevator we pass two Hasidic Jewish men who appear to have been evaluating the building. They seem like management. They have a workday air. When I first came to visit this smallish work studio—which is different from her tiny personal studio—she gave me a recent history of the structure. The short version is that, previously, it was filled with Hasidic businesses and now it is not.
That first visit I snuck a photo of her through a gap in plastic sheeting. She was spray-painting and staining things so that they could become other things. Later, I would look at the photo alone, considering myself lucky for the chance.
The stuff she makes goes everywhere, but she makes it in small groups or alone. A lot of people get to see her work, but few people get to see her work. In the photo I saw concentration in her eyes and the paint-speckled hands of a craftsman.
The same hands that once made a horse-sized horse out of moss, a carousel goat, a golden tree that rises out of a lake, and carved not one, but two over-sized penises. Hands that held, hung, sprayed, bent, fiddled, whittled, fixed, soldered, commandeered, bartered, miniaturized, jammed, set, sculpted, and found the perfect item in a market full of items again and again and again.
Fingers that sketched portraits, sewed pillows, strung lights, took down measurements, and placed just the right thing in just the right place. Arms that lugged furniture into moving trucks and onto theatre sets, palms that smoothed material, wrists that twisted drills, shoulders that lifted walls—to help create ephemeral worlds.
There are a lot of buzzwords people throw around in sarcastic games of verbal catch, like “buzzword”—and other words too heavy and slippery to hold very long. Words permanently air-quoted because sincerity is so dangerous these days. “Artisan,” “maker,” “designer,” “events,” “interactive theater,” and “artist” are just some of the terms giving an immaculate boner to the saints of pretense—the archangels Hipster, Millennial, and Hater—who’ve left them covered in ruinous jizz and spiritually radioactive.
Backlash upon backlash leaves everyone red-faced and silenced by fremdscham. And when the only way to describe what’s happening is in German, you know that English has failed you. Writing is probably the wrong medium to convey your idea when it necessitates multiple languages. But writing is all I’ve got, so I need to learn how to be more dexterous. I’m picking up a few things from her. I think they’ll come in handy.
Still, one word, or one hundred words, or one thousand words isn’t enough to describe her work. I want to make this how she would make this, to examine all the angles and possibilities. I want my math to be right. Clem contributes to the creation of worlds—some for professionals, some for laymen—wherein they can either simply exist or produce further worlds out of their experiences. She makes art and spaces for others to do the same.
I sit in the studio on a Sunday and watch her add clay to the women. Today, she is sculpting three ladies who some might call “witches.” People interact with them, so they have to be strong enough to withstand whatever will be thrown their way. She’s worked with them for a few weeks now. The process has been arduous, but she assures me it’s also rewarding.
The clay dries fast, so she only has small time windows to add to their expressions or musculature. But she knows how to do it: the way that she would do it. She’s only a little nervous about making a mistake. She’s strong enough to withstand whatever will be thrown her way; they’re safe in her hands.
Laura Jayne Martin has performed at Pine Box Rock Shop, Niagara, How I Learned, Tell Your Friends, Powerhouse Arena, and elsewhere. She wrote one book and is writing another one now—both of them are meant to be funny. Her mom thinks they’re just “okay.” She has also written for McSweeney’s, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, The Toast, and elsewhere on the Internet. She tweets @laurajaynemart, but she gets all of her news from actual birds.
Lillian ‘Clem’ Clements is a props artisan and event designer working in New York City. She has worked on interactive theater, events, and projects for PunchDrunk, The Public Theater, Signature Theatre, international brands, and private companies. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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