to stay the grasp

‘Handles, handled. Liking how they feel in hand is justification enough’. Judith Leemann has been collecting old handles for years – this essay examines what makes them a tool.

At one point I make sketches that never materialize, though a title attaches itself: Sappho was a woodworker. The sketches depict two handles connected by the stem of a tool anchored in one but with the functional bit (Phillips? Flathead?) buried deep in the body of the other. Indiscernable to the eye which of the two is the tool, which of the two takes the tool.


You offer us Audre Lorde’s words: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” These live on a postcard in my studio beside another card with Joseph Beuys’ words from around the same time: “One has to use the tools given to change…You cannot wait for an un-guilty tool without blood on it because life is short, one has to use the tool with blood on it to clean it.” [1]

Over time the two bind together, an oscillation of truth and impossibility. Together they wedge open my habitual questions. Not whether or what to teach, but how to teach such that I am cleaning the blood off the tools. Seeking out un-guilty tools reveals itself as distraction. 


I make my way through Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. I find a shape haunting the text, the shape of a spinning top whose axis maintains itself through a constancy of small changes. As I read Kendi’s book, I begin to pull shapes to me that have a strong central axis. I dig out a wooden top and spin it across the floor, watching for the wobble and break. I devise wrapped rollers and soak them in ink to turn them across paper. I want to prove to you that you do in fact recognize when a pattern has gone into repeat.

The spine of my studio is a wall of books and the making that happens here is more often than not a way of pressing into ideas I cannot feel through words alone. I make to make sense. In this instance I use making to slip into the relentless turning, to trick it into letting me feel what it feels like to move as it moves.

I stop inking the rollers, take up wrapped stems and roll them the length of a scanner bed trying to keep time with the scanner’s eye. As I do this my pink fingers come to frame the image, crisp moments alongside that which I am wanting the camera to pick up. I keep these pink fingers in the frame. 

I make other kinds of rollers, objects that do some secret work in their turning. I make them of found wood with nubs of the same clay I used as a child to make myself dolls. The nubs are alert, alive in that before-space when we’ve not yet been asked to declare ourselves a this or a that.

Making these adjunct objects allows me to read the book. Reading alone is too smooth. I need resistance to feel myself and to feel what I have before me. I need something to place between myself and the text. Something that will take and hold the shape of the relation between us, in the way that clay pinched takes and holds the relation of thumb and forefinger. Materializing relation in this way has nothing to do with beating any master at any game, temporarily or permanently, but it locates me on the field and in my body and now I can hear the opening bell.


In the classroom, it is the practice of close reading objects that grounds me.

Close reading here means gathering around an object and asking ourselves to begin to name what is physically, verifiably there before us. We put drag on the accelerations of interpretation by asking again and again How is it that we know what we say we see? [2]

You say it is made of wood, what do you see that makes you interpret this as wood? You say you see fingers. There are no fingers. What is it you see? A soft material pink in color and rounded at the ends. Do we all see that? How do we know it’s soft? The way it doesn’t reflect light but diffuses it, the fine graininess apparent when we look closely. Is pink the only name for this color? What lives in the hesitation to use that other name?

Once we have verified what we see, we build connections among the direct observations. The pink nubs and the fact of there being ten objects, and the way I recognize the wooden parts as handles, makes me feel this in my hands, makes me think of hands…

This collective labor of bringing ourselves humble to an object, and the slow recasting of that object in words does a thing in the room. And it does that thing reliably. Lately I have been introducing close reading by volunteering my own work for practice, without making this fact known. In that way this set of ten has come many times now before eyes. 

Studio critique as habitually practiced is a bloody tool. Ask around and sleeves get pulled up, the story of this or that scar lifting right off the surface. Close reading, in its slowness, in its deliberate formality and its formal deliberations, keeps us operating in good faith.

In an essay by Inhabit published as the Kyle Rittenhouse trial is unfolding, I come across this sentence: “We are losing not only the epistemological foundations to ground our perceptions, but the very ability to ask ourselves nuanced and difficult questions.” [3] I bring the sentence to my students. I ask them whether our practice of close reading might in fact be understood from another angle, as a tool to have at hand in other settings where collective grounding of perceptions has fallen out of favor. What gets produced by asking the question, again and again, in the round, And what do you see that has you draw this conclusion? 



I meet a man, tall, muscular and thickly bearded. I make assumptions. In time he shares with me the story of this beard and this body: I needed a way to make sure I was seen as the threat I am. I deliberately built myself a body that announced me as I understood myself to be. In the other body, slender and without the beard, I was getting away with things. I need you to know from the first who this is, who I potentially am. I need to see that you see this.

For weeks I fold and unfold this story, working out a translation from his body to my own.


In her essay “Waking Up From the Mind of Whiteness,” the Buddhist teacher Reverend angel Kyodo williams writes: “once you recognize that there is something else operating that is beyond your ordinary sight, don’t bother with the content. watch the pattern. the content is a distraction from you being able to see the vastness of the construct because if you could see it, it would begin to fail.” [4]

Wanting to tease apart what this mind of whiteness might be the sum of, I begin to sketch out a crude diagram. Three axes: x, y, and z. Mind of extraction, mind of exclusion, mind of supremacy. At each extreme an absolute. 

I draw back along the axes, from the extreme through zero and on to the far negative end of the line. And the closest word I can find for what lives at the far end of each of those lines is “encounter.” 

Cut through as we are by the mind of extraction, the mind of exclusion, the mind of supremacy, to be even a moment at their mutually shared opposite pole, encounter, is rare gift. 

In its sweetest moments, the practice of close reading, with its stepping forward and drawing back, in iteration, in the round with others, opens a window for encounter with that thing, that object before us. And in the way that encounter is never just encounter with the intended, we meet in that moment more than we meant to. It is this more I suspect that has the eyes so bright when at the end of class we close the practice and leave the room.



If I call these pink fingers more plainly now a white hand, and if I understand that white hand as a bloody tool, what does it mean to use the tool with blood on it to clean it

Are there ways of inhabiting these hands that disinhabit the habit to which they are trained? Are there ways to stay their grasp? Ways to occupy them such that the call to order loses its grip? 

And in the loosening of that grip, what might these hands yet discover of their capacity to hold by way of beholding? 

[1] Beuys, Dialogue with the Public (New York: Cooper Union, 1980),Video courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix, New York cited in Bettina Funcke, “Joseph Beuys: Charlatanism as Media Strategy” Public Issue 37, January 1, 2008, pp 94-95.
[2]  For more on close reading and studio critique: Judith Leemann, “Pragmatics of Studio Critique” in Pamela Fraser and Roger Rothman, editors, Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction  (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). And Judith Leemann, “To Meet in Difference,” Mapping Craft, Warren Wilson MA in Critical Craft Studies vol. 1, 2018-20, pp 38-59.
[3] See:
[4] See:


Judith Leemann is an artist, educator, and writer. She serves as Professor of Fine Arts 3D/Fibers at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and holds an M.F.A. in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Current research centers on the retooling of critique towards vibrant and just classrooms (with Billie Lee) and the transposition of studio art pedagogy to support the cultivation of civic imagination (with the Design Studio for Social Intervention). Leemann’s writings have been included in the anthologies Beyond Critique (Bloomsbury, 2017), Collaboration Through Craft (Bloomsbury, 2013), and The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production (School of the Art Institute of Chicago and MIT Press 2007).

All images from the installation essay arvensis, of the field, 2017. Materials include found objects, doll-making clay, ink on paper, and digitally printed linen yardage.