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    Shaping a Life of Meaning

    Standing tall in one of Chicago’s parks, the striking bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar celebrates the legacy of one of the first Black writers ever to earn international recognition for his art. But, unknown to those who visit the imposing work is that the life of the artist who captured the features and spirit of the famous poet and author of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has an inspiring story of her own.


    Debra Hand—appropriately named for a sculptor— overcame personal challenges and prejudice to carve out a niche for herself as one of America’s leading Black artists. While anyone can get to see her commissioned work in Dunbar Park, other pieces are reserved for the eyes of those invited to see the private collections of the likes of former president Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Smokey Robinson, and Magic Johnson.


    Not bad for a self-taught artist who discovered her creativity almost by accident and never intended for it to become her career.


    A Chicagoan “from the South Side by way of the West Side,” Hand admits to having been a troubled teen. A tragic death in the family as she prepared to enter high school knocked her sideways. “I had nowhere to put the fact that the whole world was nothing like what I had thought. Life itself was not the promise I had in my head, and I didn’t know what to do with that.”


    While not suicidal, she “didn’t care about being here,” had no aspirations—an experience that leaves her tender toward young people today who feel overwhelmed and helpless. She dropped out of school and “made all the mistakes you can” before having a child and realizing “I needed to do something they could be proud of.”

    An unexpected gift
    Motivated by her mother’s example—a teacher who pursued further education—Hand knuckled down and applied herself. Working her way up in the technology world, she secured a spot in a prestigious program at Northwestern University’s Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

    I had to come to a point where I knew why I wanted to be educated.

    DEBRA HAND


    It wasn’t easy. She knew education was the key, but “school was not my thing,” she says. “So I had to come to a point where I knew why I wanted to be educated. Once I understood that, it gave me something to go after… I was not going to be the Black person in the room that didn’t understand my job.”


    She would take manuals home to study. “It was like reading Chinese, but I would read, read, read. And every once in a while, something would repeat enough that I could pick something up from that.” Her diligence and determination paid off, but it still wasn’t easy being a rarity as a Black woman in the white guys’ tech world.


    Art came unexpectedly years later, while helping her son with a school watercolor project. To her surprise, she was still sitting there with a brush the next morning. “I had never been able to paint before,” she recalls, pleased to find that “I managed to put one color next to another and it didn’t turn to mud.”


    Hand encourages people to be open to “aha” moments that may be hidden in the ordinary, like hers. “Every once in a while, we hit upon things in our life and there’s something to it, it sparks a passion,” she says. “There is something there… I couldn’t see a nine-foot statue [of Dunbar] sitting at that table, painting with watercolors, but I knew that first little piece I painted was not nothing. And that was enough for me to go back in and go back in.”


    A beanstalk seed
    In time earning a master’s degree in information technology, Hand continued to explore and develop her artistic gifting but only as a hobby. “You couldn’t even buy a piece from me,” she says. “I wouldn’t sell things. I just gave them away.” Then an unexpected business merger left her without a job, an event that “dumped” her into the art world. “I said, ‘You know, do you have a job? Are you sure you’re not supposed to pick up this art over here and take it to somebody and sell it?’”


    Hand’s emergence as an artist of note was shaped and championed by Dr. Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the influential DuSable Museum of African American History. She viewed some of Hand’s early work: “I don’t think she thought that much of it,” Hand acknowledges, “but she encouraged me, and that’s the key.” Burroughs’ interest was like the magic seed in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, Hand says.


    To start with, she exhibited at galas with other aspiring artists, later graduating to galleries. Today her work can be seen everywhere from the DuSable to the Smithsonian Institute. She was chosen from a list of six artists for the Dunbar commission, unveiled in 2016. Accolades include being named to the Chicago Defender’s Top 50 Women of Excellence and an Egretha Cultural Icon Award from AWBC magazine.


    Commissions aside, Hand creates “what’s in my heart to make.” Dancers are a recurring image in her pictures, wall hangings and standing sculptures, a nod to her lessons as a child.


    A life lesson
    Dancers are “such a metaphor for life,” she explains. “You don’t see the hard work in the struggle, but you do see the results because they’re always very toned. You know, a ballerina has to be as strong as a football player.


    “I was about six or seven the first time I went to the dance school, and the other girls were maybe 14, 15. They looked like superheroes to me; they had all of these muscles and they had all of this command over themselves. I hadn’t seen pictures of people who looked so self-empowered and from that moment, something clicked that was very important and it informed my life.”


    Hand remembers the teens’ confidence and poise. Working on a dancer piece takes her back to that experience, “where I could look up to those girls and find something in me that’s going to empower me into the future. And I go back to that moment often because I want to understand what was in that moment for me, because that’s the moment I want to pass down to young people.”

    We are all gonna make mistakes, but we don’t all have to make the same mistakes.


    The message she wants to share—“that you can change your whole life, change the way you think, change the trajectory of your circumstances.”


    Hand expresses herself not just through mixed mediums but on paper, writing documentaries, books, and screenplays. She aims to pass along what she has learned “from the things I got right or the things I got wrong, because we are all gonna make mistakes, but we don’t all have to make the same mistakes.”


    Part of the reason for her diversity is that, having almost fallen into life as an artist, she didn’t want to be boxed in. “I knew that I wanted nothing to minimize me exploring my creativity,” she says. “Now I’m out here without a job, I don’t want to be like a short-order cook just, you know, making art. I want to really explore what it is I have in me. I want to discover the best of what I have, because I want to have the best to offer my cultural group.”


    From an interview with Louis Carr

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