For this Portland Artist, Hands Tell the Story
Southeast Morrison Street has always been one of the more characteristic drags of Portland, Oregon. Along it, you will find the city’s favorite strip club, a field that used to be managed by working goats, and a large pink house in the middle of an empty lot across from a gay bar. The street is changing, however, and its evolution is emblematic of a bigger transformation of my city. When the housing market began on an upward trend in 2014, change was inevitable. The tech industry took up a burgeoning presence, coveted dives were demolished left and right, and even our beloved goats were relocated, a moment in which our community reacted with a level of mourning reserved for local celebrities. I now drive east and I can’t remember what the goats looked like, or how many of them there were. The metaphor here writes itself: the once idyllic is now industrialized and the cherished monuments of the city are not as immortal as we thought.
But that big pink house has stood its ground. It stayed when other houses didn’t, sticking out proudly with an air of mystery amongst yellow tape and orange cones. It became a veritable microcosm of the city I loved. And so, I was pleasantly surprised to learn an old friend had taken up residence there.
Twenty-five-year-old Tatum Brydges, the woman behind 27 Bones, is the kind of person who mirrors that quality of keeping Portland “weird” that seems to be gospel on our town’s billboards and bumper stickers. Her hair is often the color of a pastel–varying in shade, week after week–her eyes are magnified by big round frames, and black tattoo lines creep out from underneath her shirt sleeves. She loves her motorcycle, plays mother to her shih tzu-bichon, Hank, and pays homage to David Bowie on a regular basis. To me, Tatum is a representation of what my city once was and the promise of what it still can be.
It was Janie’s craft, however, and not her medical background that made her an ideal source for families facing the death of a loved one.
Since last year, Tatum has been working tirelessly in her basement studio to create an artform that follows in her mother’s footsteps. Using dental materials, she creates casts of hands and other body parts, setting them in stone so permanent that they might as well be marble. The casts range from fragile poses to defiant ones–metonymy of the person and idea to which they belong.
The craft is something that the artist learned from her mother, Janie Miller, who made her living as a dental hygienist when Tatum was growing up in the small and insular lakeside town of Big Bear, California. After experimenting with materials found in her office, Janie began making casts with an alginate mixture. It was Janie’s craft, however, and not her medical background that made her an ideal source for families facing the death of a loved one. “When somebody was dying,” Tatum remembers, “they would instantly call my mom. And so she did a lot of families… if the dad was dying, she would do the kids holding [his] hand, the wife holding [his] hand.”
These casts, in their excruciating detail, became unique memorials, meaningful in their uncanny resemblance to the real thing. At the height of her casting days, Janie made a mold of her good friend Mark holding the hand of his daughter, Ali, who had been one of Tatum’s childhood friends. Years later and having since become emotionally exhausted by the process, Janie began to phase out of her casting hobby, citing the sadness and mourning that precluded her work. She stowed her materials away for over a decade and it would not be until Tatum moved into the house on Southeast Morrison that old casts and alginate would find sentimental purpose once again.
“When I moved into this house and saw this basement and all this space,” Tatum says, “I was instantly hassling her to come up here and teach me [to cast].” Within a few days, Janie flew up from California, helped Tatum to purchase materials online, and even brought with her some of the unfinished work from Tatum’s childhood. Mark died in 2011 of a rare blood disease, and it wasn’t until Janie arrived in Portland with casting materials that she remembered making the cast of his hand wrapped around his daughter’s. Janie asked Tatum to finish it and just hours before our interview, the cast was completed and shipped off to Santa Monica, where Ali lives now.
While Janie has provided guidance and support as Tatum develops her craft, she still warns her daughter of the pain inherent in the witness of human suffering. “My mom is one of those people who…she’s an emotional person, but she doesn’t know how to handle it.” Tatum continues, “I know that it is important to feel those emotions. If I am able to give somebody who is losing their loved one this gift of their hand forever and them holding that hand forever, I can get through my emotions to be able to give them that.”
“When somebody was dying,” Tatum remembers, “they would instantly call my mom. And so she did a lot of families… if the dad was dying, she would do the kids holding [his] hand, the wife holding [his] hand.”
Besides the work being emotionally demanding, it poses logistical and physical challenges as well. Tatum has to purchase all of her materials through a dental website that offers wholesale pricing and access to products that would otherwise be costly and hard to find. Using a seaweed-based alginate mixed with water, she works quickly before the mold sets, in five minutes or less. Her subject then has to put his or her hand into the container and remain very still in their pose until the alginate hardens around the wrist and forearm. This part proved to be somewhat claustrophobic, my own tiny hand nearly got stuck in the mold after Tatum asked me to pose for a cast.
And despite the fact that she is paying for all of this out of her own pocket with money she makes as a server and bartender at a local restaurant, Tatum is generous and insistent with her art, counting each friend as a muse and each hand as an opportunity. She often calls a friend who lives down the street to come over on a whim, wanting to cast her hands, her feet, even in one instance, her breasts. Tatum remains fascinated by the nuances of the body: the lines, the texture, the possibility of movement.
I asked her if she considers herself an artist since the language surrounding her craft is often straightforward and utilitarian; there is no air of pretentiousness and no discussion of the abstract. “I didn’t used to [think of myself as an artist],” she says bashfully, “I do now. But it’s still weird for me to tell people that I’m an artist. I don’t say it that much because I never thought of myself as one. On my Instagram for a long time, it just said ‘small business’.” That changed, however, when a client told her, “Your work is beautiful and you need to start taking yourself more seriously as an artist.”
Tatum took the advice, rebranded her approach, and began cultivating the image and aim of 27 Bones. She scaled back on her hours at work, spent more time in the studio, and formed relationships with local artists who helped to expand her audience and creative mindset. One such painter, Micah Hearn, featured Tatum’s work on a series he showcased for the Year of the Monkey. She was able to make three distinct casts of Micha’s hand holding a banana, and the result demonstrates her clear precision and execution of craft. Moreover, there is not a huge presence of cast-makers in Portland or the United States in general, so Tatum has the advantage of specializing in making such molds.
This artist finds catharsis in practice. Often spending nine or ten hours in the studio on a day off, Tatum enjoys the often redundant work of peeling away the mold, using picks and other dental instruments to clear away the crevices and make room for the small and minute details. It helps too that her fiancé, Ryan, works adjacent to Tatum’s studio, fixing motorcycle parts and repurposing antique goods. There is a sense that creativity itself lives in that house, and perhaps that is why I have always been drawn to it.
In the two hours that Tatum and I spoke about 27 Bones, it was clear that her ideas and movement were just beginning. She has visions of continuing in her mother’s footsteps, making casts for children suffering from terminal illness and hospice patients. She constantly works to portray a new idea or feeling different from the last set of fingers. Just a few weeks ago, she realized the potential for sign language’s role in her art and began taking classes in ASL. For Christmas, Tatum gave her mother a cast of her fingers forming the letter T in sign.
There are also big plans to expand 27 Bones on a political level. I interviewed Tatum just days after the Women’s March on Portland and it was clear that she was feeling moved to create in the name of resistance. “On Friday, I was very upset like most people in Portland,” Tatum says, “so I called my friend Andrea and told her I could not be alone. I was like, ‘I know we have the day off. Get over here now and let’s go to breakfast.’” Over brunch, they discussed the election and it sparked an idea for Tatum. “I realized I could cast peoples’ hands in poses indicative of how they were feeling,” she continues.
After gathering some friends later in the evening, made cast after cast of middle fingers, fists, and other powerful gestures. In one night alone, she began quite a collection, but that is only the beginning of this project for her. She wants to continue making casts for people who are looking for an outlet of expression, whether it be feelings of defeat or showing signs of empowerment. For now, she is calling the project All Hands In and she hopes to have written statements from each individual about their gesture and its significance.
By the end of my interview with Tatum, I felt confident in something that I had been doubting for sometime. If you have lived in Portland long enough, you have certainly witnessed the indicators of its decline, seen signs of rapid development that precludes the broke and tortured artistic lifestyle that once dictated the city’s cultural climate. You have driven down Southeast Morrison Street and seen the condominiums, the lone gay bar, the burnt-out neon sign that points you to Sassy’s. But Tatum is still new to town and she doesn’t remember it that way. What she sees instead is her home in the big pink house, a future of exciting moments both personal and professional, and the wild possibility of the human anatomy.