Nail Art

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Photographer Publishes Paint & Polish

Photographer Helen Maurene Cooper recently released her book, Paint & Polish: Cultural Economy and Visual Culture from the West Side. Cooper spent eight years building relationships with nail techs, salon owners, and clients in Chicago to take the photos that appeared in this book. NAILS spoke with the photographer and author about why she found the subject of nails so fascinating.

Cooper


Photograph by Jackie Elizabeth Rivas
<p>Cooper</p>
<p>Photograph by Jackie Elizabeth Rivas</p>

Photographer Helen Maurene Cooper recently released her book, Paint & Polish: Cultural Economy and Visual Culture from the West Side. Cooper spent eight years building relationships with nail techs, salon owners, and clients in Chicago to take the photos that appeared in this book. NAILS spoke with the photographer and author about why she found the subject of nails so fascinating.

NAILS: How did you find the nail technicians you worked with?
HMC: I developed the habit of scanning other women’s hands — of checking out their nails to see what they had going on. I think it was a habit I created while waiting in the salon for my nails to dry. I would get bored and chat with the other clients, and we would flash our nails.

NAILS: What did you learn from them?
HMC: My obsession with Chicago nails really starts with a salon called the Bottom, which is owned by an African American woman named Jackee Blue. Immediately I was in love with the Bottom. The nail art was otherworldly, the brush work was tight and well composed. Each nail was an individual work of art. The designs too had names: stripes, lines, drags, and britto. Language is created and replicated to identify culture across the world, and at the Bottom I saw the indication of this culture. 

NAILS: What do you hope people get from your book?
HMC: This is a story about strong communities. I want to provide a counter point to Sarah Maslin Nir’s New York Times exposé “The Price of Nice Nails.” In Chicago, Hispanic and African American women have been working as nail artists for over 30 years and have used the trade to expand the possibilities of their lives. In each of the five interviews in Paint & Polish, a salon owner tells a different story about being a woman, about their families, and about their ambitions. This is not the story of contemporary slave labor as seen in Nir’s piece, it is about how communities in the inner city thrive.

NAILS: Do you get your nails done? If so, what do you wear?
HMC: Yes! I wear an acrylic overlay either in a coffin or stiletto shape, and I am nuts about colored acrylic. I like something else flashy beyond color, either what I call Chicago-style art, stripes, lines, drag, or more recently, I do chrome. I got married in October, and my two favorite artists, Glynnus Alexander and Yara Fernandez, (who are both interviewed in the book) collaborated on my nails. It was a mix of Puerto Rican floral motif (painted flowers, sculpted acrylic, and some pre-existing flowers) with Chicago-style art.

NAILS: Why Chicago?
HMC: Women-owned shops like the Bottom, Nailicious, and Polished exist because the proprietors were focused on saving money and also had family support. There was no money invested in their businesses that came from outside the community. So it’s a deeply American bootstraps kind of story. The media talks about the crime and poverty in Chicago, but these businesses come from the same neighborhoods. This ingenuity is a far more interesting story. The success of these salons is a testament to strong women, strong families, and faithful clientele.

NAILS: How do feminism, entrepreneurship, and adornment intersect when it comes to nails?
HMC:
Women-owned shops like the Bottom, Nailicious, and Polished exist because the proprietors were focused on saving money, and also had family support. There was no money invested in their businesses that came from outside the community. So it’s a deeply American bootstraps kind of story. The media talks about the crime and poverty in Chicago, but these businesses come from the same neighborhoods. This ingenuity is a far more interesting story. The success of these salons is a testament to strong women, strong families, and faithful clientele.   

See images from Cooper's book by clicking here

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