Believing In the Work of Human Hands

Marcella Spruce - Brooklyn, New York
Entered on March 5, 2006

Marcella Spruce learned from her grandmother how to make things with thread, yarn, and wool. From these early lessons with Nana, Ms. Spruce has come to believe in the importance of making something useful or something artistic with her own hands.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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My grandmother took in laundry and cooked other people’s meals. She smoked from the minute her feet hit the floor until the last second before bed. She was an unlikely artist and she would have laughed at the word. Still, she made every little scrap that came her way into something beautiful.

She taught me to make stuff, too. Her small world, no wider than kitchen to rocking chair, reverberated with color, the yarns and threads and wool and cotton remnants that miraculously became scarves and mittens and pillows and rugs. Her hands were like the fingers of a witch, worn, twisted and gnarly, and they wrought magical transformations. She transmitted this mystical knowledge to her daughters and granddaughters. I am always surprised when I begin to work in a new medium, and my hands remember how to do something I’d forgotten I’d been taught.

Making something unique is a unique joy. I found as a teacher that my students always seized the opportunity to create a tangible object. Advanced Latin students were thrilled to make a puppet set for Tela Charlottae. When I suggested making our own santons to a high school French class, I was astounded by the alacrity with which those cool and popular kids rifled through the recycling bin to find materials. In a blink, we had a little village of soda-bottle-and-construction-paper figurines. My students made houses with second-language labels and keychain people and origami animals following second-language directions. On the days we made stuff, nobody fussed, fought or fretted. They were too busy learning to worry about petty problems.

I believe that in making stuff, we invent—and reinvent—ourselves. It’s no accident that even hardened prisoners respond to the opportunity to paint or work with wood. It is a visceral pleasure to hold a painting or a quilt that your own hands made. There is also a primal satisfaction in teaching people to make something. It is a way of passing on the essence of human existence.

Nana’s abilities made her a person with power far beyond her economic means. When I hold her hairpins, I touch her image. When I hold the wedding afghan she made me, knowing she would never live to see me married, I hold the little edges of her soul that she shaped with a needle and embedded in bits of yarn. When I look at the embroidery I made with the skills she taught me, I see my link in a chain of knowledge going back beyond any human comprehension, and I feel like I’m forging a new link when I show my great-niece how to thread a needle.