I was asked to participate in this event which was planned to coincide with the opening of “Paul Laffoley: Premonitions of the Bauharoque,” a new exhibit on display at the Henry Art Gallery through Sept. 29. If you are not familiar with Laffoley’s work it is concerned with all things esoteric; Eastern and Western philosophy, astrology, alchemy and astral projection are explored in his colourful diagrammatic mandalas. It made perfect sense to perform Psychic Nail Parlour in this context.
Behind Psychic Nail Parlour is a desire to explore the nature and meaning of beauty parlour interactions, particularly for women. These interactions can be cathartic, a chance to unburden problems to a non judgmental stranger. They can also be excruciating and tedious, filled with listless small talk about holidays taken or meals prepared. Occasionally, but perhaps more often than you would expect, they can be downright bizarre, like the leg wax that devolved into conspiracy theorist paranoia or the massage that ended with me comforting the tearful masseuse. Like many ‘feminine’ pursuits, beauty parlour appointments are widely considered frivolous, narcissistic and indulgent, but I can’t help wondering if they might have a deeper function below their surface.
I’m also interested in psychic interactions. Are all psychics sadistic frauds, selling false dreams to grieving victims? Is psychic communication possible and what does it feel like? Could some psychics be helping to alleviate ordinary suffering rather than causing it? Many people find everyday life hard and they need comfort. Do these types of therapeutic, non medical interactions offer that comfort? People like to have their hands held, to be listened to, to feel noticed and special. People like hope and talking about the loved ones they miss. A modern solution to these problems is often anti depressants of course. A lot of people find that therapy helps them cope, but not everyone has access to therapy or counseling. Psychic Nail Parlour is my attempt to explore some of these issues.
Throughout the night at the Henry a constant stream of people lined up to get their nail (I only offered one per person) done and I was extremely thankful for my assistant Patricia, who was brilliant at organizing the chaos. It felt very strange to sit face to face with a complete stranger and simply hold their hands for a minute and look at them very directly. When I felt that I had some sort of vision for their nail art I began to paint their nail without telling them what I had planned. I didn’t discourage conversation, but I didn’t instigate it either. Some people wanted to chat, or ask quite intense questions or tell me something specific, and others were content to sit and be painted in silence. Some people I felt an immediate connection with and it was very easy to know what to paint. Others I struggled to ‘get’ anything from and I took more superficial cues from their clothing or jewelry.
The most interesting thing to come out of Psychic Nail Parlour was how the participants interpreted it. Some people felt that the nail paintings reminded them of Aboriginal dream time paintings and described journeys that they felt they were on. Others seemed to view the paintings as abstract expressionism. Morris Graves was mentioned. Some treated it as a bit of a joke and others took it quite seriously. One woman told me exactly what she thought her nail art referred to. I had painted a silver circle next to a red line. She told me that she had recently had a mastectomy and that she was convinced it had been unnecessary. She had interpreted the silver circle to represent her healthy breast and the red slash to represent the other, removed breast. She said she was very angry about the procedure and was finding it hard to adapt to her altered body. She knew that she needed to move on in order to be happy but was finding it difficult. She felt like the painting was a reiteration of this knowledge. Perhaps she is right to be angry and she should be suing her doctors rather than getting her nail painted in an art gallery. I don’t know. But she seemed to want to talk about it in order to think it through. It wasn’t about what I was seeing in her, it was about what she wanted someone to see and understand in her. I was very happy that I had the opportunity to talk with her and hear her experience.
I was also amazed by how warm and open people can be. We can be so isolated in the city and so used to the media narrative that everyone is a prospective murderer that we forget how beautiful and comforting simple interactions like holding hands can be. I believe that creativity and communication are always worthwhile and can happen in many different forms. Psychic Nail Parlour was a very moving and exhilarating experience for me and I hope that the participants got as much out of it as I did. I look forward to having the opportunity to repeat the experience.
I also painted Paul Lafolley’s thumb nail and he read my palm! But that’s another story…