ASL Hand Sculptures

St. Louis artist donates alphabetic sculptures to sign language class
Posted on 11/14/2023
Ceramic hands spelling out the ASL alphabet.

The budding American sign language class at Poplar Bluff High School is the new home to 26 full-sized sculptures stemming from a connection made years ago with an artist who honed his craft under a Missouri luminary, and seized the opportunity to showcase his life’s work.

Steve Altom of St. Louis, once known as Steve the Clay Guy, donated a complete set of ceramic hands signing the alphabet, conservatively valued at a few thousand dollars, secured for the cost of 540 pounds worth of terra cotta clay.

“I thought, ‘Here’s somebody that’s wanting to use this as a tool, something that I can contribute, and maybe in this way I can see it reaching its potential,’” Altom explained. “It might be my last opportunity to do something with this skill.”

ASL instructor Audrey Harris briefly met Altom in the early 2000s when he served as a resident artist in the St. Louis City Museum, operating the clay area of what was called Art City under the late Bob Cassilly, a nationally renowned sculptor, along with then-wife Gail Soliwoda.

At the time, Harris was seeking out art activities for her children, now grown, as part of a homeschool group – and observed a similar set of clay hands on display on the third floor of the former International Shoe building in the downtown area.

“I fell in love with them because, well, that’s my language,” said Harris, who estimates she has about 20 percent of her hearing left. “Back then you didn’t see a lot of sign language; it was kind of uncommon.”

Originally “thinking small,” like spelling out her name for a display piece, Harris held onto Altom’s business card, she recalled. With a renewed purpose for her classroom around spring of this year, Harris decided to phone the artist, and to her delight, his number remained the same.

While still living on the south side of St. Louis, Altom had been almost a decade removed from working at the City Museum. Although he did not remember Harris specifically, having entertained hundreds of visitors each day during his peak, he was motivated by imagining that students may use his creation as a reference point. “They just needed to be made, at least once,” he concluded, adding that the only other complete set in existence was for Cassilly himself.

Altom studied illustration and design at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle after beginning his higher education at Meramec. When he returned to Missouri, he joined Cassilly’s construction crew, and ultimately would be given free rein to teach ceramics to groups of children in the renovated complex.

In an effort to get his boss’ attention, reflected Altom, he made an intricate hand out of clay one day. “A great subject for students, especially poor, is yourself,” explained Altom, adding: “The hand is an easily accessible part of your body that you can hold up, without needing a mirror.”

He had a co-worker at the time, hard of hearing, who mistakenly thought the sculpture was intended to depict sign language, giving Altom the initial notion, since each practice piece could then be of use afterward. He would proceed to churn out scaled-down letters, or one-offs, for dozens of clients, but was never able to fully realize his vision of being commissioned to create sets for schools for the deaf across the country.

“You can thank Bob Cassilly,” Altom stated. “I see him as the only true patron of the arts I have ever known. He would pay people to practice [their craft] because he knew the world needed it.”

Altom went back and forth with Harris over the summer, making minor tweaks to the ceramic hands, and delivered the final product to her classroom last month. She had the perfect space for the handiwork on top of the cabinetry along the back wall of her classroom. According to the arrangement, the sculptures remain property of the school since the supplies were paid for out of the building budget.

“When Mrs. Harris approached me with the generous donation offer from the artist to make ASL alphabet clay hands, I knew this was something we needed [in order] to increase the opportunity for student learning,” PBHS Principal Dr. Valerie Ivy said. “…The positive impact Mrs. Harris is making on our students through teaching this course is amazing. Our students are using these lifelong skills at home, at work, and in the community.”

In its third year as a foreign language offering at PBHS, Harris was able to add ASL III this August, after moving solely to teaching the subject on a full-time basis last school year. While the course is not necessarily commonplace in public schools across the country, according to teaching groups Harris is associated with, she noted that ASL is the third most common language utilized in the United States.

"It's hard to teach 3D in a 2D format," Harris said, pointing out how students previously were referencing images on posters so they could practice fingerspelling the ASL alphabet. “It’s the language of the hands.”


Cutline: Ceramic hands spelling out the ASL alphabet were donated to Poplar Bluff High School on Tuesday, Oct. 24.

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