The Cape Cod Hand Project – A Study in Community Through Preservation and Storytelling

Cape Cod is famous the world over for its talented artists and creativity. You can find incredible pieces from all mediums here, each more inspired than the next. When we got wind of the Cape Cod Hand Project, we had to know more.

Joren Smith, a concrete craftsman by trade, is a native Cape Codder through and through, he said, and mainly specializes in concrete countertops, sinks and other concrete works. And he is also a second-generation artist.

“My artistic gene comes from my mother’s side of the family,” he said. “She’s a local artist (Odin K. Smith) and the granddaughter of the well-known Provincetown artist, the late Charles Kaeselau.” When he, himself, began his artist’s journey, Smith’s artistic medium turned out to be what he already knew – concrete.

“I wanted to do something with concrete as a side project to the business, so I started learning about life casting and dabbled in some sculpture,” he said. “I chose hands for a couple reasons. First, prior to the concrete life, I was a landscape mason. I’ve always been working with my hands. My entire life really. My father is a carpenter, so building and construction was always a part of my life from a young age. My hands are covered in scars and really are just fascinating.

“Second, think about it – everything most of us have done/touched in our lives has been with our hands.” He made casts of a few hands and wasn’t sure what to do with them, or how he could make them into something worthwhile. And he felt as though he was missing something.

“I’m not a strong writer by any means and I had only dabbled in photography a little, but I knew I wanted to link it all together. I just didn’t have the means,” he said, and the project was put by the wayside. “A couple of years later, I was scrolling through Instagram and I came across a black and white photo of some yard guys who worked at a local lumber yard. It was what I was looking for.”

Smith reached out to the photographer, Andrew Fontaine, and pitched his idea. Fontaine had the style of photography Smith was looking for – a raw black and white look.

“I really liked that,” he said. “I told him about my idea. He loved it and instantly wanted to be part of the project. So we loaded up our mold-making material and camera gear and started to travel the Cape in search of people to cast and interview.

The hands, Smith said, aren’t really the focus of this project. The true focus is on the people they interview, and their stories about how they became part of fabric of the Cape. Not just artists and craftsmen, he added, but bakers, police officers, people in recovery, immigrants and so on.

“We really want to encompass every walk of life here because we’re all part of this community” Smith said. “Most people will tell me that they aren’t interesting enough for this project, but the reality is that most people really are interesting if you take the time to sit and listen to what they have to say. We live in such an aggressive political climate these days and we forget that behind every angry Facebook argument are people who really just want to be heard.”

So far, Smith has interviewed 16 people and cast their hands. Their plan, he said, is to cast around 200 people’s hands, ending the project with Smith’s and Fontaine’s own personal interviews and hand castings. But how do they choose whose hands to cast?

“We are normally either approached or do the approaching,” he said. “If someone sparks our interest, we’ll normally reach out and ask if they would like to be part of the project. Most of the time we get a ‘yes.’ People seem to be very receptive to it and I really think that’s great.”

Once they’ve established an interview they either go to the subject’s location or the subject comes to the studio/concrete shop in Chatham for the interview. Smith mixes up a bucket of what’s called alginate, which is meant for life casting, and instructs the person on how to place their hand in the bucket of alginate. While their hand is stuck in the bucket Smith and Fontaine ask them questions about their life – what they do, how they came to call Cape Cod home, and listen to whatever they have to say.

“The casting only takes about 10 minutes, but we normally end up talking for an hour on average,” Smith said. When the interviews over, Fontaine has them pose for portrait shots. After that, the molds are filled with a special concrete. “Basically the same type of concrete my countertops are made from.”

Fontaine takes the recording of the interview and transcribes each one into a story and photographs the completed hands in black and white. The photos and stories are then uploaded to a blog and shared on social media and the concrete hands go into storage.

When all 200 castings have been completed and stories told, there will be a museum show featuring the concrete hands along with a black and white portrait shot of each person with a small paragraph from their blog post, said Smith. “After the exhibit we hope to make a coffee table book featuring everyone’s photos and interviews. At that point, everyone will get back their concrete hands.

While the project is currently being done pro bono, Smith said donations are more than welcome. “This will eventually get expensive for the two of us. It’s about community and the wonderful people we share this sand bar with. Andrew and I really enjoy getting to travel around to meet these people, and consider it a great privilege to spend time with them and look forward to all the other people we’ll meet along the way.”

Smith said concrete was the perfect material for this project. “Concrete isn’t perfect in itself but its imperfections are the very things that give it beauty and its own uniqueness much like people. We cast and interview normally on Saturdays and are generally ready for viewing by the end of the following week. You can find all the stories on Instagram @thecapecodhandproject and on our blog at capecodhandproject.com.”

He also added that he and Fontaine really enjoy getting to travel around to meet these people and consider it a great privilege to spend time with them and look forward to all the other people we’ll meet along the way.

“From a daily job, to renovating a home, creating art, holding your child for the first time or holding a parent’s hand for the last time. Our hands all tell a story.”

About Ann Luongo

Ann Luongo is the Marketing Writer and Lifestyle Reporter for CapeCod.com, and has been writing for Cape Cod and South Shore publications for over 15 years.



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