Artist explores human connections through evolving art project

March 26, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The “Do Not Touch” placards will get a rest during Phoenix Savage’s next exhibition. 

Her “Human Touch Project” not only allows touching, it’s a crucial part of an exhibition that will evolve with each showing and build “a sense of humanity,” according to the Philadelphia-born sculptor, who is the 2012-13 Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities Being Humans Postdoctoral Fellow.

The project will involve 5,000 pieces of wax, each molded by a different individual tasked by Savage to sculpt while considering love, jealousy, anger, pride or happiness. Completed “touches” will be displayed in fall 2014 at Edwin W. Zoller Gallery in the Visual Arts Building, where each will await remolding by a new set of hands. 


“I’m no longer the maker, so that’s a very new concept of engagement for me in terms of art,” Savage said. “Everyone who touches one of these dollops becomes the maker, they become the one who puts their mark on something.”

The idea took form in Nigeria, where as a 2010-11 Fulbright Scholar she found inspiration in the fingerprints left by a 3-year-old girl in a glob of wax. Metal sculptures are routinely first created from wax, which became a favorite plaything for the child, who accompanied her mother on visits to Savage's studio. 

“I just began pondering,” she said, “‘What could become artistically from this concept? How could you take this further, this human touch?’”

To create her “dollops,” Savage melts microcrystalline wax and mixes it with petroleum jelly to make it more malleable after it becomes firm. The mixture is poured into a cookie mold, where the dollops cool 24 at a time. Afterward she sprinkles arrowroot powder over the dollops so they’re easier to handle. So far nearly 900 people in the University community have participated; some mold the clay into ornate flowers, others smash it into rough clumps. The process leaves a bit of residue; Savage tells participants to rub their hands to “feel like you're at a spa.” She’ll coat each touch with baby oil so fingerprints are more visible.

“Your touch is not the same as someone else’s touch,” she said. “So even though some of them may begin to have similarities, they're not the same at all.”

Hoping to chart demographics among participants, Savage has each mark their gender, age, hometown and ethnicity. When the touches are remolded during the first exhibition, she’ll ask the new sculptors to offer one descriptor about themselves. After the Zoller show, she hopes to take the touches on the road, and said a gallery in Pittsburgh is interested.  

Born Joy Marie Savage, she started using her artist moniker, Phoenix, while working as a newspaper photographer in the 1980s in Washington, D.C. As the Being Humans Fellow, Savage is also teaching an art course this semester titled “400 plus 1,” centered on the belief among the Yoruba people of West Africa that at least 400 deities have transitioned into the visible realm. “It is also a reference to the act of expansion -- the plus one,” Savage said. “I want students to understand their own capacity for expansion. I used a philosophical humanity that would not be familiar to them, as a way to introduce Yoruba philosophy and offer them an opportunity to locate their own humanity.”

Savage earned a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from Georgia State University and also holds additional graduate-level degrees in medical anthropology from the University of Mississippi and in studio arts from Northwestern State University. Savage also earned bachelor degrees from Mississippi Valley State University and the Art Institute of Philadelphia.

Since 2010-11, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities has offered the Being Humans Fellowship to explore “the question of the human from all angles – and from a different angle each year.”

Savage is grateful toward the hundreds who have helped with her project and said their humanity is evident during the process. “People’s reception to it has been quite fantastic, and I have to say completely humbles me,” she said. “You can see their level of focus when they're doing it.”

The institute is part of the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research under the sponsorship of the College of Arts and Architecture and the College of the Liberal Arts.

For more information on the Human Touch Project, go to

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Last Updated April 30, 2013