One weekend in May a good chunk of Northeast Minneapolis gives way to an art festival, Art-A-Whirl, the largest open studio tour in the country. Galleries and booths dot city blocks, east to west, north to south, and fill old warehouses and manufacturing plants now converted to working artist studios and business. One of these buildings, the Casket Arts Building, still has the original company’s logo on its facade, The Northwest Casket Company, named for exactly what it used to produce on that site from 1882 through 2006. Its wide hallways and thresholds, and oversized sliding steel doors make it easy to imagine what workers used to roll from one room to the next. Artists work there now, painters, sculptors, tile makers, jewelers, and photographers.
I met Debra Hobbs there, a photographer and writer. Her work caught my eye. Her photographs were of hands. Writers’ hands.
For several years Debra has been taking pictures of writers’ hands, usually at book signings. In some cases the writer’s head or face gets in the picture too, but the body parts of focus are clearly the hands. Walking into her studio I first noticed Anne Lamott framed on the wall, her dreadlocks the giveaway because only the back of her head made it into the field of vision just under her hands lifting up a signed book to a waiting reader. Spread out on a table were collectible photograph postcards sleeved in cellophane. There was Natalie Goldberg, there Garrison Keillor, Louise Erdrich, and so many more. She calls the collection, The Writers Hands Series.
I bought two postcard photographs. Patricia Hampl signing A Romantic Education, her more recent Home Ground just adjacent on the table and Mary Karr signing Lit. In Hampl’s photograph, her profile made it into the shot (gray jacket, white shirt), and Debra added value to my purchase by telling me an insider story about a ring Hampl wears as she rang up my sale. In Karr’s photograph, she is cut off at the top unbottoned button on her fuchsia suit, on her left wrist is a silver watch and on her right, a silver woven bracelet; on her right middle finger, a silver and pearl ring; around her neck a silver Greek cross, which looks exactly like the cross I wear. The title page is open on the book in front of her and she is about to sign her name.
Debra makes no apologies that the photographs aren’t perfect. Some are blurred, some are cut off in ways a photographer wouldn’t choose for aesthetic reasons, the lighting is seldom optimal. Her purpose is not to take a portrait shot but to honor the hands, to catch them in motion, to raise them up for the readers attention.
We talked for awhile, Debra and I, and she told me she’s always been interested in hands and, the series arose from taking photographs at writing retreats with Natalie Goldberg in Taos and her love of going to author readings. What better take-away from the reading than a picture of the hands that wrote the book! The hands that wrote the book. Yes, dear reader, despite all our technological gizmos this is still how books get written. Actual hands laying down one word after another, one sentence after another, one paragraph, one chapter.
A printed four-paragraph statement accompanied the display and explains what she’s trying to do. It’s a tribute to writers who travel around to share their work. “Each photograph is a snapshot of the seconds when writer connects to reader.” It’s a tribute to writers who inspire other writers by their sharing. “Each time I listen to a writer speak about their work, I learn one more way to make writing my own. It is lineage.”
Debra has a website, RedRavine, which is actually a writing and creativity community centered around Writing Practice as taught by Goldberg. As of now she doesn’t sell these photographs online.
“With gratitude and respect to the wordsmiths who leave behind deep tracks on blistering beaches, unsteady cairns, frozen in slush and snow, years of their lives in solitude and on the road. Deep bow.”