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'Pennsylvania Hands' at James V. Brown Library

Hands-on training

April 15, 2012
By MATTHEW PARRISH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

"It's like walking in another person's shoes. You understand what they go through - what the mindset is and how they have to work to achieve the beauty they achieve. It's intense."

Photographer and writer Sally Wiener Grotta wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty for the "Pennsylvania Hands" project. She tried blacksmithing, glass-blowing, spinning and quilting - just to name a few - in order to understand the subjects of her photographs and what they and, more importantly, their hands go through in order to make something useful and beautiful.

"I try all these things - because you have to. How can you resist?," Grotta said. "It's an opportunity to experience something new and watch skilled and talented people working at diverse projects that build our society. It's an opportunity and a privilege. I come out exhausted but so energized."

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For the project, Grotta traveled around the state, taking photographs of artisans whose trades contribute something essential to society.

"With the blacksmith, it isn't what you always think of," she said. "When you go to the movies and see it on TV, you see the massive pounding and the wide swings on the anvil. But in reality, it's precision. The stress is in controlling the heavy hammer - and hitting it precisely."

Grotta said that she had to choke up on the hammer like a kid swinging a heavy baseball bat in order to control it.

"First, you have to put the metal into the fire," she said. "Andrew [Molinaro] gauges the temperature of the metal by the color and he knows by the color what he needs to do and for how long."

Her instructions were to hold the rod in the fire exactly where the flame is the hottest.

"Not into the embers but close to the embers," she said.

When it came time to strike the rod, Molinaro told her to make each hit as close as possible to the one before it.

"The first two hits, I got near each other, but the third was wildly off," she said. "Your muscles are really tense."

Grotta said that she failed at each task she tried, but that just gave her more respect for the masters and made her more eager to tell their stories.

"I am a storyteller," she said. "It's all about storytelling ... the stories also get burned into my mind. It's such an intense experience."

Grotta's intention for the project, which started in late 2008 and now continues to grow as "American Hands," was always to go national.

"It was originally thought of as 'American Hands,' " she said. "But it had to start small; it had to start local."

Pennsylvania is local for the photographer, who lives in the Poconos.

"I am Pa. born and bred," she said. "I love Pa. I have no desire to live anywhere else. I've been on assignment in all seven continents. I've been to Antarctica three times. But I choose to return every time to Pa."

Part of Grotta's motivation is to show people the importance of handwork in the 21st century.

"When we use our hands to experience the world, to change things, it changes who we are. It guides our minds, guides our hands and it affects our hearts. This is one thing that we could potentially lose in the digital age. It's one of the driving missions - driving reasons - behind my 'American Hands' project: to honor these artisans who are keeping these skills alive."

The exhibit has been on display throughout the state. It was first shown in Muhlenberg College in Allentown and has been in the state capitol building in Harrisburg and the Lebanon Valley Mall. Now, it's made its way to the James V. Brown Library, 19 E. Fourth St., where it will be on display until May 2.

Grotta had nothing but kind words for JVB.

"I've seen libraries all over the state and this is one of the best," she said. "It's beautiful - physically beautiful ... and they think of everything the community wants or needs. Any community - including big cities like Philadelphia - would love to have the kind of energy in the teen center that this library has.

Grotta will present a slideshow about "American Hands" at 6 p.m. May 2 at the library. She loves to talk directly to people about the project to see the impact that it has on them.

"One of the best responses I got was from a young girl," she said. "I give talks all over ... and for this one program, I didn't have the best kind of audience. They were kids being kept after school for disciplinary reasons ... and one young girl couldn't keep quiet. She was a cute, pert little blonde girl. I got her involved and said, 'Well, you have nice jeans.' She twisted in her seat, showing me the label. I said, 'I wonder how you would've gotten jeans like that a hundred years ago.' She looked at me."

Grotta told the girl that she would've had to pick the cotton and spin it to get a new pair of pants.

"I told her the process and she said, 'Ewwww! How horrible!,' " Grotta said. "But after that, she listened to the whole talk and afterwards, she came up to me and said, 'It makes you think - not everything comes from the mall.' And I thought, 'I won.' "

Besides being a successful photographer, Grotta also writes fiction and non-fiction. Her and her husband, Daniel Grotta, co-wrote the first book on digital photography, "Digital Imaging," and they have contributed articles to many publications, including Parade, PC Magazine, and Popular Science. Daniel also wrote the first biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, "J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth."

For more information about "American Hands," visit



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