Since early childhood T Branson has held a fascination (bordering on obsession) with hands; their unique form, expressiveness and individuality. Growing up in a home rich in culture and the arts, she watched her talented, professional artist mother skillfully transfer her creativity onto canvas.
"Hands tell stories, just like the eyes do, or the lines in a face. And there's something about hands that touches everybody, reaches everyone. They touch people in a place that doesn't get accessed very often. My works are an attempt at memorializing working hands, common hands, overlooked hands - in a lasting, and I hope in a moving image."
Starting in the early 00's, T has drawn and created a collection of portraits - all of them pairs of hands. Some of them are from photographs she has seen in various publications or other sources, but most are the hands of people she knows well, or who made an impression on her during chance encounters.
"I believe I was given this gift in order to teach people; to inspire people. If I can help anyone - just one person - to reach down inside for what they have and act on it, that will be my greatest blessing."
Ms. Branson will be attending the 2019 White House Fellows Alumni Association's annual convention as the "Featured Artist" to present various pieces of her artwork for display.
"Spent a wonderful evening at the University President's Gala last night where symphony conductor, Dr. Jacob Chi, was honored by the university with a painting I was commissioned to do by an 'anonymous donor'. "
Ms. Branson was recently invited to hang her original military series paintings at the United States Pentagon. These 5 paintings are on loan to the Pentagon exhibit for the next four years and will not be available for sale until after that time.
STRAIGHT FROM THE SET: You may have spotted paintings hanging up in the Fort Marshall Headquarters' set - well, they're artist T. Branson's reproduction of five paintings that hang in the Pentagon.
Ms. Branson was a guest and featured artist at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for their Veteran's Day ceremonies. They showcased many of her military themed paintings.
T Branson grew up surrounded by art and artists, among them her mother, Bettie Wilson, whose work no doubt hangs in homes around the world.But Branson never even thought of picking up a paintbrush until she was 46 years old and moved to the prairies of Colorado from the deserts of Arizona. She was, at the time, a refugee from places with too many people, and a job that exposed her to the darkest sides of the human spirit and soul.
As her own spirit opened up and began healing beneath Colorado's big skies, she realized she had no interest in continuing in either of her former careers - surgical nurse and forensic investigations.She pondered her future while staring at one of her mother's paintings hanging on a wall across the room, and she asked herself if she, too, might have something to say with color and light and paint.
Something inside her (what she refers to alternately as "the divine voice" and "my little people bringing messages") told her that, yes, of course she could. And she should. She grabbed a sketch pad and pencils and lost herself in that very first effort.
She was very pleased to find that she had some talent.But what would she paint? The answer was easy. She would paint hands.
Since she was a child, Branson said, she has been fascinated with the stories hands tell about the humans they belong to - where they've been, the work they do, whether they have a gentle soul and a kind spirit. Hands, she believes, tell as much about a person as their eyes do, or their smile.
She studied and trained beside her mom, and over the past five years or so has amassed a varied collection of hands on canvas - the delicate hands of her mother atop a Bible; the weather-worn, dirty hands of a cowboy atop a saddle horn; the hands of a monk holding a string of red prayer beads, and many more.
Her own hands flying as she tells the story during an interview last week, Branson explained that it was a painting inspired by a family photo that set her onto a journey which, today on this Memorial Day, has her meeting with some of the nation's top military brass and mingling with soldier's families in Washington, D.C.
Five of Branson's original paintings, each with a military theme, have been commissioned to hang in the Pentagon's public gallery and museum. As she prepared for her trip to the nation's capital last week, Branson was still a bit breathless about the whole idea and the serendipitous path that brought her and her art to this point.
Her first "military" painting was "Green Ramp." It depicts a man's large hand holding the tiny hand of a girl. The man's hand was her nephew's, and the girl's hand was his daughter's.
The painting shows the two together before her nephew boarded a plane bound for Iraq. Several tours later, that nephew is planning to soon retire from the military. The image of this “goodbye” moment launched Branson into a most unexpected relationship with military members and families nationwide.
That first image hangs in her nephew's home, but it wasn't long after that Branson was besieged by requests for prints. Soon, "Green Ramp" and several new images that followed in quick succession. Her pieces were hung in military-base lobbies, commander's offices, gift shops and chapels, including several that hang at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.
That's where Branson met Cmdr. Gen. Mark Graham and his wife, Carol. Branson was invited to a cocktail party at the Graham's home shortly after Graham took over command at the mountain base. She wanted to give Carol Graham a hostess gift. She had been told that Mrs. Graham "was moved to tears" by the large reproduction of Branson's "Taps," a painting that she had donated to in the Fort Carson chapel, so she chose to gift her a most recently finished piece, “On Behalf of a Grateful Nation…”. Until she had arrived at the Graham’s home, Branson was unaware that they had lost 2 sons to the war. She had concerns that the new piece might be too personal to Carol Graham.
Immediately unsure of how Mrs. Graham would react, "and not wanting either of us to ruin our makeup if it happened the way I thought it would," Branson said, she propped the painting against a wall with the image facing inward as soon as she entered into the couple's home. She introduced herself, and explained that she had brought a gift that might not be something the couple would want to see every day in their home, but which could possibly bring meaning and comfort at some other location on post if they wished.
Mrs. Graham, gushing with praise for "Taps," wanted to see the newer work immediately. “On Behalf of a Grateful Nation…” depicts a woman's hands clutching an American flag - folded military style as all are at the end of a military funeral.
“Carol gasped. She was just beside herself, and I thought, 'Oh my God, this was a horrible mistake,'" Branson said. "But then she took me by the hand, picked up the painting and led me back to her bedroom. She showed me the quilt on her bed that had been made of both of her sons' clothing and that they sleep under every night." She threw her arms around me and said, 'If I didn't embrace this grief, it would eat me alive.'"
"She took down a beautiful, cross-stitched depiction of a church that she and her husband attended years ago in Arkansas, and she hung my piece where it was, above their bed. That moment validated everything I've been doing and trying to do with my art and brought it full circle because it reached someone who needed it most - this sweet, brave woman."
By that time, Branson had already been in touch with the Pentagon and knew her work would someday hang there, but the public gallery was still being rebuilt in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by the terrorist attacks of 2001. In the meantime, Mrs. Graham put Branson in touch with the T.A.P.S. Foundation, a national organization that provides support of all kinds to families of fallen soldiers. She was given the contact information of Mrs. Graham’s good friend and T.A.P.S. Foundation’s director, Bonnie Carroll. “Things just started taking off from there.” Branson was invited by T.A.P.S. officials to take part in the group's annual convention at the nation's capital, so her work is making its national public debut outside the Pentagon, as well.
Although she has resisted "marketing" her art since she began painting, the events of the past few months finally convinced her to establish a website where anyone who's interested can see her art and purchase it if they like it.
BransonHands.com includes her military series images as well as an assortment of other paintings. All of them depict hands that Branson couldn't resist painting as well as some commissioned pieces.
There are too many serendipitous events (Branson doesn't believe in coincidences, but rather in "little miracles") that have taken her from the afternoon when she first sketched a copy of a pair of hands her mother had painted years ago and hanging five of her own originals on the walls of the Pentagon. "It was the lightning strike way that I first received my art that started it all, and I knew then it was a path I'd have to follow," she said.
"My art has taken on a life of its own now and it's actually dragging me forward to follow it. I'm just trying to keep up and do the things the art asks me to. Every time I pay attention and do what I'm told, the lightning strikes all over again, and now this. Holy cow."
She is grateful that her military series brings comfort to people who have suffered great loss. "This opportunity in D.C. is giving me an outlet to get my art to the people who want it, need it and who understand it and that's important because it's not necessarily 'comfortable' art for the general population. It gives me a way to give something back to my community; this place where I found my art. I want to honor military families, my town and the heroes who've come from this place. Right now I'm being allowed to do that. Isn't that just amazing?"
Some artists say inspiration arises from their dreams. For T Branson, putting pastels to paper is a healing way to hold her worst dreams at bay. The Colorado resident didn’t pick up a sketch pad until she was 46 years old. Shortly after moving to Colorado from Phoenix to join her parents and two sisters, she had spent several years in the forensic investigator division with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Her qualifications include a degree in forensic science and six years as a trauma and surgical nurse - experience that had hardened her somewhat to the sight of blood and broken bodies, but not to the many faces of human destruction wrought by violence and neglect.
“There was nothing in my background that could have prepared me for that job. I had a very privileged childhood, and an even more privileged marriage. There was certainly nothing in my background that could have prepared me for the things I did; crawling under houses and dragging bodies out or examining children who had died at their parents’ hands. Looking into the empty eyes of nameless, discarded victims who had no one left who cared to know they were dead - or how, or why.”
After her parents moved to Colorado, Branson visited occasionally. “I realized when I was here, I could breathe. I could see the sky all around me. It was cleansing for me to come here. I felt safe. I felt calm. Those were the big ones. I didn’t have to feel as guarded here.” So nearly three years ago, she decided to risk it all and move.
She packed up her son and their belongings with the idea of continuing her career in forensic investigations. Both local law enforcement agencies were interested, she said, but neither had an opening. They also advised her that she’d have to become an accredited Colorado police officer before she would be considered for a future opening. She enrolled at the academy, graduated with honors and became certified only to learn that she’d have to spend two years “on the streets” as a cop before she could move to investigations.
She had no interest in carrying a gun or dealing face-to-face with criminals, she said. “I’ve seen too much of the damage people are capable of inflicting. I knew that wouldn’t be a good choice for me. I wanted a kinder life than the one I had left. Being a street cop wouldn’t offer me that.” So she took a job in the communications division of the sheriff’s department, and quickly realized that the job was not a good match for her temperament or talents, either. She quit her job with the sheriff’s office, and while looking for other work and living off savings, she began spending long hours with her mother watching her draw and paint in her studio.
“She’s just such an inspiration to me. She’s very talented, and very spiritually grounded. And no matter how old you are, you feel comfortable and safe in your parents’ home. I felt very calm and I felt something changing inside me.”
One Sunday morning at home, she recalls, “I was looking at a painting of my mom’s hanging on my wall, and I thought to myself: ‘I wish I could do something like that. I wish I could create that kind of beauty.’ And something inside me told me I could.”
The painting depicted a pair of hands.
Branson picked up a sketch pad and began etching lines and angles onto a sheet of paper. Within half an hour, she was looking at a respectable representation of a hand. She was hooked and soon became obsessed. Since then, she has drawn and created a collection of portraits - all of them involving people’s hands. Some are from photographs she has seen but most are the hands of people she knows well or who have made an impression on her throughout her life.
“I’ve always been fascinated with hands, from the time I was tiny, and I didn’t know why. But they’re the first thing I notice about people,” she said. “Hands tell stories, just like the eyes do, or the lines in a face. And there’s something about hands that moves people; that reaches everyone. They touch people in a place that doesn’t get accessed very often. My works are an attempt at memorializing working hands, common hands, overlooked hands in a lasting - and I hope in a moving - image.”
Branson’s own hands fly through the air as she describes ideas for future projects, and how this new “gift” has calmed her spirit and soothed her soul. She has come to believe, she said, that everything in her life was a prelude to this unexpected journey into a creative side she would never have discovered had she not moved to Colorado. “Living here has taught me so much. Colorado has brought me into greater gratitude,” she said.
“There’s a kindness here, a collective kindness about the people, and graciousness, that is a stark contrast to the arrogance and the insensitivity of the overcrowded places and the people I had been involved with in other places.” From gratitude came grace, and an answer to a prayer.
“This gift, this talent I didn’t know I had, was given to me like a gift wrapped up with a divine bow - just because I asked for it, because I wanted it. And I couldn’t have recognized it, I couldn’t have accepted it without this profound sense of gratitude I have found.” she said.
“I don’t know how I do what I do. Every time I sit down at my easel, I wonder if I’ll be able to do it again, because I don’t understand the ‘how’ of it that makes me very wary of the possibility of losing or abusing my ability. How could I abuse it? By not doing it at all, or if I started doing it just for profit.”
The fear of abusing her talent, or losing its magic in the process of sharing it with others to make a living, was behind her reluctance to speak with a reporter - and to accept early invitations to show her work. Her first tentative “yes” came when she was invited to hang “Green Ramp” at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The print shows the hand of a soldier holding the tiny hand of a little girl, peeking out from a pink sleeve. They are the hands of her nephew and his daughter. She had numerous requests for reproductions after that showing.
“I really don’t know what’s next. I don’t have a ‘next,’ ” she said. “What I do know is that I believe I was given this gift in order to teach people, to inspire people. If I can help anyone - just one person - to reach down inside for what they already have waiting within them and then act on it, that will be my greatest reward.”