Op-Ed: When my fingers stopped cooperating, I had to rethink making art

A self-portrait illustration of Amy Goldman Koss
An undated self-portrait by the writer when she could still do detailed drawings.
(Amy Goldman Koss)

My hands were such good sports for so many decades that I didn’t even know they were unhappy until they quit working. At first I was affronted by their betrayal. But in spite of my indignation, the chopsticks rattled to the floor, the coffee cup smashed. Sleeping in any position but corpse-at-a-viewing woke me with sizzling pain.

I feel a little sheepish, remembering all I’d demanded of my hands. Filling sketch pads and walls with intricate drawings, gripping a hair-thin pen, a tiny paintbrush. Illustrating entire books in minuscule stippled dots. But I’d thought we were in it together, body and soul. All for one.

When my fingers began twisting in odd directions, and the joints bulged and throbbed, and my own signature became unrecognizable, I figured it was temporary. After being young for so long, I assumed my hands would heal, as other injuries and illnesses had until then. I was annoyed by the pain and inconvenience, but tried to wait patiently for my hands to return to their former selves, willing and able to comfortably do as I wished without complaint. Hold things, pick things up, open containers, turn pages, button shirts, write longhand.



When it sunk in that my life with easy hands was over, I fell into mourning. Morbid lasts were everywhere. Had I sewn on my last button? How soon will I tie my last shoe? I thought about the last time my dad played with the symphony, the night his violin fell from his hand during a concert. I don’t think it ever left its velvet-lined case again.

Every few years for decades, I painted new murals on my kitchen and bathroom walls. Now, looking at them, I wonder what I would have done differently if I’d known these would be my final murals. Would knowing have stifled me, put too much pressure on each brushstroke and color choice?

Had I known my hands weren’t going to last as long as my will, would I have paced myself and pampered them? Would I still have been able to happily lose myself in days spreading tiny ink dots across a page? Knitting into the night? Pulling weeds? Typing? Making mosaics?

I grieved over ideas for new art projects, over the mobile I couldn’t construct for my new grandson and the sweater I couldn’t knit him. During the Marie Kondo neatening rage, I longed to tear my joyless old clothes and weary tablecloths into strips to braid into a rag rug. But that would have required hands, so I didn’t. When I inherited my mother-in-law’s enormous bead collection, I shoved it into a cupboard and closed the door.

Self pity, too, gets old. Eventually I realized I still have hands, and as crappy and arthritic as they are, they’re better than they’ll be tomorrow. The mourning broke.

If my childhood spent coloring was Act 1 of my life in art, this is Act 3. In this one I’m learning that hands play a bigger part in drawing and painting than I knew. When they were painless extensions of my brain, the decision to paint a line, and the painting of that line, were one and the same. Now, I load a brush with red paint for a mouth, and my hand applies it approximately where and how I’d intended it. Close enough.

Is this what it was like for kids who couldn’t color inside the lines? Was it their hands that didn’t cooperate?

To compromise with my aging body, I’ve had to acknowledge the balance of power has shifted. My hands and my will have a different relationship now. It’s my hands’ turn to call the shots after all those eons of it being the other way around. I wish they still wanted to do what I want, but they don’t. Can’t.

I’m not the first artist to adjust my art to changing circumstances. When Matisse could no longer stand at his easel he switched to producing his marvelous cutouts. Ignoring the impulse to create is not an acceptable way to spend however much life remains.

Turns out there’s something to be said for a change in tempo. Historically, I began projects impulsively and worked frantically until they were done. Now I work only as long and often as my hands allow. When my hands insist that I stop, I have time to think about my next step. The pauses make for artistic decisions I wouldn’t have made otherwise. Being forced to stand and move away from the project to let the pain subside allows me to return to the work with fresh eyes.

The experience of creating in the third act is not the same, but it’s not all bad — and it’s better than it will ever be again.

Amy Goldman Koss is a contributing writer to Opinion.