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How one artist chose which names to print on stunning sculpture, 'Upon the Palms of My Hands'

by | Jun. 17, 2021

“All are Alike unto God.” For months, Kody Keller pondered over those words—the theme of the Church’s 12th International Art Competition. How would he bring that simple but profound line to life? An art professor at BYU–Idaho, Keller came up with multiple concepts but didn’t feel right moving forward with any of them.  

But then he heard Elder Dale G. Renlund quote Isaiah 49:16 in April 2021 general conference and the direction his sculpture should take finally became clear. The verse in Isaiah says, “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.”

“When I heard that, I turned to my wife and told her ‘I know exactly what to do for the international competition.’ I wish that I could take the credit for coming up with the idea, but I truly believe it was given to me,” Keller says. 

Keller took that inspiration and carefully sculpted the Savior’s pierced, outstretched hands. Each hand is roughly 16 inches long, 9 inches wide, and 7 inches tall. The hands are made of fired stoneware, the same type of clay that bowls or pots are made of in ceramic classes. 

“I wanted to make them bigger than just life-size. I wanted them to feel larger than just mortal hands,” Keller says. “I wanted people to feel something different when they approached them.”

But the size of the hands isn’t the only thing that provokes emotion. Using stamps only 1/16th of an inch tall that he borrowed from a coworker, Keller printed about 800 names across the two hands. He says the process of printing the names was “fairly tedious and time-consuming.” After spending about 15 hours sculpting the hands, he had one week per hand to get all the names in before the clay became too dry. While he was stamping one hand, Keller put the other in a bag to keep it moist. In total, he dedicated 30 hours to printing the names. Then the piece had to fire for about 48 hours, following which Keller spent five hours painting them.

The time lapse video below captures about three works of work.

And although the work was sometimes tedious, the powerful message Keller wanted to convey kept him motivated to keep printing name after name.

“I had looked at many different ways of going about including names on the hands. I was going to do one hand with my family history and the other hand with my wife's family history. I had looked at doing people that I have known throughout my life,’ Keller says. “Ultimately, I wanted the hands to be about inclusion and equality among the children of God. I looked up names around the world that were the most common in each country. I wanted to show that even though you may have the same name as 1000 other people or even one million other people, you matter to our Father in Heaven as if you were the only one. I wanted to show that Heavenly Father cares about every one of us individually no matter how common we feel.”

Keller has been in a race against time to have the sculpture ready by the competition deadline. He began his project toward the end of April and the final cut off for submission was June 1. But even with the pressure to work quickly, Keller has also had to be careful—the sculpted hands are hollow and very delicate.

“I am not used to working for such a long time on something so frail. I lost a lot of sleep after waking up from nightmares where I would see the hands falling on the floor and shattering,” Keller says. He even recalls one night when he jumped out of bed to catch the hand he’d seen falling in a nightmare.

He attributes his wife, Monica, for helping him push through and complete the project on time.

“I have an amazing wife who has been very in tune with my needs while attacking this project. She has been an amazing help and I couldn't have done it without her. I think her name deserves to be associated with this piece as much as mine,” he says.

Despite the stress and long hours, Keller has felt a deeper connection to the Savior and those around him through this project.

“I have learned that people want to see their names on the palms of the Lord. We want to know that the Atonement is working in our lives,” Keller says. “I had people message me on Facebook or text me and asked if their name was being included on the hands. When I sent them a picture of their names, they were very emotional. I had a student come by my office while I was in the middle of putting names in the hands and she asked me if I could include hers; I let her watch as I put her name in.

“This piece makes them contemplate their place and the sacrifice of the Savior for them personally. It was a very tedious process placing each name specifically and correctly in the hands, but I imagined the Savior lovingly doing the same with each of our names. This project made me understand more about His intimate knowledge of each of us.”

If Keller’s piece is selected, it can be viewed at an exhibition that will be held at the Church History Museum from March through October of 2022. Find more details about the competition and exhibition here.

You may also like: Watch: Sister missionaries perform stunning hula to the Hawaiian song ‘Halleluia’

All photos courtesy of Kody Keller.
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Emily Abel

Emily first found her love for storytelling as an editorial intern at LDS Living. She recently returned as an editor and loves that her job is to highlight the meaningful in life. Emily is a graduate of Utah State University in English. Hiking trails, dance studios, and behind the cover of a good book are some of her favorite places to be.

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