Public Media Arts Hub

How a sculptor transformed his life's work after accident


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: What happens to an artist when one of the very tools he uses, his hand, is changed in an instant?

Jeffrey Brown visited a sculptor in New York's Hudson Valley who has had to pivot how he does his art and the art itself.

The story is part of our coverage of the intersection of medicine and arts and our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: For John Powers, working in his studio is a process of discovery, as always, but now, as he pieced together a three-dimensional paper drawing, not as always.

It was a year ago May that Powers faced the greatest challenge of his life.

John Powers, Artist: I assumed it was a double tragedy. The people around me assumed it was a double tragedy.

Jeffrey Brown: In the sense like, I have lost my thumb and I'm an artist.

John Powers: And I'm an artist.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Now 51, Powers grew up in and around Chicago. Early on, he had an apprenticeship in a bronze foundry. More formal training came at the Pratt Institute and Hunter College. He became known for shaping multimedia blocks into collages and large-scale installations, works such as Lanchals, a 50-foot tower of welded steel in Bruges, Belgium, Terminal, an eight-foot sphere made from polystyrene blocks, and, in many configurations, a 2014 gallery exhibition called +time.

But last spring at his home in his Hudson Valley community on Oscawana Lake 90 miles north of New York City, he was using a table saw to make a piece for a fence. The saw slipped, and he lost his ring finger and thumb. His index and middle fingers were very badly injured.

John Powers: I have grown up with people with hand injuries. But I have never seen anybody with like this configuration as particularly severe and strange.

His wife, Jennifer Bostic, a graphic designer, heard the scream and call for help.

Jennifer Bostic, Graphic Designer: Even in the 911 call, I said, my husband is a sculptor. He's an artist. He works with his hands. He needs a hand surgeon.

Jeffrey Brown: After nearly a week in the hospital and the multiple surgeries that followed, nerves cut and reattached, a long period of recovery began, along with a rethinking of life, art and his own body.

You're a sculptor. You're an artist. You use your hands, right?

John Powers: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You always used your hands. But how much did you think about your hands?

John Powers: I used to joke that my feet are like dogs. They're loyal. They obey. And I know they will be there for me. My hands are like cats. I have no idea what they do all day.

And they're getting into trouble. They're like -- they're doing stuff without me. They're constantly exploring.

So, I had a sense of my hands as characters in my life. What I didn't have the sense of was how much they shape the way I think.

Jeffrey Brown: How our hands think, especially the hands of an artist. Powers says he's always approached art with what he calls a cultivated naivete, a sense of trying things without knowing where they might lead, without expectation of success.

And that, he's convinced, is helping him navigate his way now. A sense of humor helps. One of the first things he did, bury his thumb in a tiny coffin in his yard, complete with a thumb stone.

Person: Let's get it all the way back.

Jeffrey Brown: But the hard work of mind-body remapping with a new hand, a prosthesis, has involved trial and error and regular sessions at Handspring, a clinic for upper extremity prosthetic rehabilitation in Middletown, New York.

Debra Latour, Occupational Therapist, Handspring Clinical Services: You can't do any in-hand coordination, right?

John Powers: Or very -- very little.

Jeffrey Brown: Debra Latour is an occupational therapist and wears the prosthesis herself.

Debra Latour: Many times, the health care practitioners will talk to people about the very functional aspects, teaching them how to hold the fork and a knife and be able to cut their food, how to be able to complete their fasteners, to zip their jackets, especially if you live in somewhere cold, like where we live.

But we oftentimes don't get to talk to people about the social function and about what they might experience, how to handle people staring at them, how to handle when people ask questions, or even insist on helping us when maybe we don't want to help, we want to do a particular task for ourselves.

Jeffrey Brown: In New York City, Powers is also working with Dr. Jacques Hacquebord the hand surgeon who was with Powers from the early days.

Hacquebord co-directs the Center for Amputation and Reconstruction at NYU Langone. He says the mind-body connection is a particularly delicate balance for someone who uses his hands for a living, but that Powers isn't just any patient.

Dr. Jacques Hacquebord, Co-Director, Center for Amputation and Reconstruction at NYU Langone: Having a very structural sculpting background, he understands anatomy, he understands levers and pulleys.

And that's what fingers are. Fingers are some of the most complex sculptures that there are. They are functional sculptures. And so he just understands the anatomy without even knowing the anatomy. And I think he kind of looks at the finger and just imagines what the anatomy should be, and how it's working, and why it's working, why it's not, and what he can do to make it better.

Jeffrey Brown: There's also the question of the look of this new hand, the aesthetic quality.

If the body is now altered, what should it look like, or even, to put it in Powers' terms, how can it be sculpted? This too has captured his imagination.

He's chosen a prosthesis made by a Washington state company called Naked Prosthetics, which specializes in finger and partial hand amputees, one that clearly isn't a natural hand.

John Powers: I was offered very realistic silicone fingers, and that was really the only prosthetic I would have been offered 10 years ago.

It's just thumb enough alike to be kind of creepy to me. I would rather look at the hand and go through the work and live it. This is a great comfort, but it doesn't hide the hand for me. And I like that.

Jeffrey Brown: Occupational therapist Debra Latour.

Debra Latour: So, what one person thinks is beautiful or attractive, somebody else might not. People should not be afraid to tell their practitioners what they would like included in their device.

I fully expect that John will be even more personalizing his own technology as time goes on, and as he becomes more functional and more adept with it, and even finds himself identifying more and more with it. So, in the rehab process, we may go from seeing these devices as being tools. For many of us who wear and use prosthetic devices, these devices become a part of us.

Jeffrey Brown: The aesthetics of prosthetics is a focus for Dr. Hacquebord too.

Dr. Jacques Hacquebord: What really attracts me to it is recreating function, normal function, but a new aesthetic, a different aesthetic, an appealing aesthetic, not a human aesthetic. We're not trying to recreate what we already have, because we can't.

Jeffrey Brown: Now Powers is tackling the aesthetics question in his own way. He made castes of his hands, and sent digital scans to artists friends, inviting creative solutions for custom prostheses.

He calls the project Open Paw. And, to date, he's received dozens of responses, all of which fascinate him.

John Powers: The idea of having these gaps in my hand and filling them with ideas, I wanted to see what my friends would do, because I know it's an interesting problem.

I mean, if someone were to approach me with that one, I'd have a great time. I think I would.

Jeffrey Brown: Meanwhile, he continues to work on his own art. He's finishing this piece called Reach, a commission by one of his anesthesiologists. And he has bigger things in mind.

John Powers: The idea is to have this be a proposal model for a ludicrously large sculpture. So, imagine that this piece will be eventually 9 feet tall.

Your flowering ones look great.

Jeffrey Brown: Ambitions for a new art with a new hand, including a return to woodwork in the near future.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in the Hudson Valley, New York.

Judy Woodruff: Fascinating, and so inspiring to all of us who are watching it.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.