Helen Maurene Cooper got into nails while working on her graduate photo thesis, playing glamorized female characters “based on the women of Dynasty, Dallas and American country music of the 1970s,” she writes in the introduction to Paint & Polish: Cultural Economy and Visual Culture from the West Side, published this week by Onomatopee. As a part of her method acting, she began wearing long acrylic nails. “During those months getting my nails done, I developed the habit of scanning other women’s hands,” she writes in the book. “This habit persisted beyond my thesis project; I just kept looking at women’s hands. Around Chicago, I began to notice long acrylic nails where the design would vary from finger to finger but the color palette would remain the same. The detail on each nail was precise, crisp, clean; flawless.” Cooper was intrigued by these nails and by the women who wore them, and eventually she found out where they came from—a cluster of salons on the city’s Northwest Side—and then befriended the owners and nail technicians who made them. The book is a record of the culture she encountered and her collaborations with the women at its center. The images range from close-up shots of hands and nails paired with bright confections and toys to stylized or straightforward portraits of women with elaborate nails, some made to hang on the walls of the salons, along with nail-themed wall paper that Cooper designed. Along with these images are several essays and interviews with five salon owners, who talk about how they built their businesses, what first drew them to nail art and how they view their role in the community around them.
As well as recording the look of these particular designs, Paint & Polish explores the social and economic meaning of nail art as a cultural and artistic practice developed by and for African American and Latina women. In an essay, Ryan Kenneth Blocker writes,”Women who wear nail art do so as acts of leisure and self-care in a culture that provides limited space for both…. Cooper’s photography and oral histories of the black and Latina nail artists on the West Side of Chicago invite audiences to reexamine—or examine for the first time—this creative labor and to investigate their fundamental definitions of art. Crucial to Cooper’s project is a desire to represent nail artists as they wish to be seen.”