Hand in Hand

In her latest work, prolific Naples artist Lynn Davison shows that hands are windows to the soul.

BY March 9, 2022
Lynn Davison
(Photo by Omar Cruz)

Watching artist Lynn Davison’s hands while she works is like watching a stone skip across the water; her fingers flit across panel and paper, lifting and landing, with a quiet and controlled confidence that comes from years of building muscle memory.

Davison’s hands themselves are a sight: small, but not fragile; expressive, but measured. Unlike stones that are buffed and softened by water over time, her etched and angled appendages reveal her nearly eight decades of life—much of that time spent as an artist. Often, her hands are her subject matter, celebrating the inevitable progress of time. “As the hands around me have gotten older, they have also gotten more interesting to depict,” she says. “When my daughter was younger, I would complain because her hands were too smooth and perfect. They’re much better now.”

The Naples-based artist has been nationally recognized for her complex oil paintings and drawings of the human figure, in which she explores shadows—both external (like sun-dappled effects on her subjects’ bodies) and internal (reflecting the figures’ private emotional states). Over the last few years, in addition to exploring digital art as a medium, she began a new series of oil paintings centered around a subject that’s long fascinated her: hands and what they reveal about a person.

Without a portrait to convey emotion or limbs to convey body language, the hands’ expressions seem more concentrated, deliberate and intense. The calculated flexing of a finger or the contraction of joints in her paintings convey a range of emotions, from fervor and anguish to contemplation and redemption. “The crook of a finger can be an expression of a whole person,” Davison says. Her painted hands pull various ribbons and strings, grasp at each others’ wrists and sometimes simply relax with palms exposed and open.

In I Can Prevail, Maybe, painted in 2020, two hyperrealistic hands grip each other, tendons taut, amidst a dark web of frenetic, abstract scribbles. Another pair of roughly drawn hands, childlike and clumsy, frame the realistic figures at the center and a gaping mouth above them. In 2019’s Hands with Blue Sleeves and Plastic, hands enfold a thin, transparent piece of plastic; the cool blues in the painted sheen are echoed in the suggestion of a blue sleeve. If I Can Prevail, Maybe speaks to raw, primordial pain trapped inside one’s head, Hands with Blue Sleeves almost recalls the maternal tenderness in religious artworks, with hints of blue that have long been associated with Renaissance Madonnas.

Like many of her recent oil paintings, the hands are painted on thin, sanded aluminum panels instead of more ubiquitous canvas: “I can be more precise with the painting and not have the weave of the canvas get in the way,” she says. The nubbly texture of canvas—unavoidable in even its finest weaves—can be a nuisance to a meticulous painter like Davison, as the tiniest nooks and crannies can disrupt the delicacy of her brushstrokes. “I’m finding precision and detail to be my current priority rather than the looser, more expressive work of my earlier years,” she says. “I see so much more, like colors, that I just didn’t see when I was working loosely.”

In taking the time to paint more precisely, she can examine what’s going on beneath the skin. “These things make me think about our own finite life,” she says. Given the luminosity with which Davison paints the skin over the pebble-shaped bones, it’s clear these ruminations aren’t always dark or jaded.

“They are very much self-portraits,” Davison explains of the works. She prefers not to portray her own face as she “finds it rather bland.” But painting her hands, she gets the best of both worlds: She can share more private, sensitive emotions, but they don’t have to be resolutely associated with her as an individual. “They can be universal hands,” she says. “A hand doesn’t always translate to a particular person. And as feelings are universal, anyone can look at hands and project their own feelings onto them.”