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Nails Across America with Breanne Trammell

A few weeks ago, multimedia artist Breanne Trammell invited me inside her 1968 Shasta Compact trailer for a manicure. Trammell, a New York state-certified nail technician, selected a brilliant teal for my nails, with the exception of one nail on each hand. These two nails were custom painted to resemble slices of pizza: red tomato sauce peeking out from under white blobs of mozzarella cheese, topped with green chili peppers, finished with a gold, sparkly crust. Within thirty minutes, I had received an artisanal manicure and a letter-pressed certificate of authenticity. I was the tenth completed manicure on Trammell’s quest to reach 500 people as part of her experiential art project called Nails Across America.

Writer Jacquelyn Gleisner post-manicure. Photo: Jacquelyn Gleisner.

As Trammell did my nails, she told me that she felt called to give manicures while visiting a friend in Seattle last year. Trammell had had a somewhat awkward manicure encounter at a discount salon. She explained that manicures are, by nature, intimate–except when they’re not. Failing to strike up a conversation with the nail technician who held and massaged her hands, Trammell wondered how she would fare as a manicurist. The idea stuck and Trammell enrolled in a sixteen-week program at TW Nail Career School in Fishkill, New York. As a nail school student, she developed an oeuvre of designer nails, referencing both high culture art history (International Klein Blue) and low culture junk food (Cheeto Orange).

Trammell’s trailer waiting in the parking lot of Donna’s Diner. Photo: Mikel Durlam

After Trammell raised funds online to buy her Canned Ham trailer, Nails Across America launched at an opening reception hosted by Mixed Greens Gallery in New York. The following morning, May 31, Trammell, with her beloved Corgi, Tiny Tim Riggins, embarked on a two-month cross-country tour. Since then, Trammell has been doling out free manicures from the back of her trailer, creating a network of meaningful experiences.

Manicure above Breanne Trammell’s dog, Tiny Tim Riggins. Photo: Mikel Durlam.

For Trammell, a manicure is a platform for social exchange. Her Kickstarter page states that the driving thrust of her road trip is to “connect to a broad audience through the act of performing manicures.” She offers a free service in exchange for conversation. Trammell is interested in collecting stories and hearing about the lives of anyone willing to walk into her trailer, even men. BroNails—consisting of cuticle care, filing, buffing, and a matte top coat of polish—was crafted to attract a male audience.

Manifest Destiny letterpressed certificates. Photo: Mikel Durlam.

Trammell’s mission for Nails Across America crystallized when she read “Donna’s Diner,” the first installment of a five-part New York Times feature called “This Land,” about Donna Dove, 57, and her diner in Elyria, Ohio. For over a decade, Dove has kept her business afloat in spite of significant financial adversity because she believes that a home-cooked meal can make life peachier, if only for a little while. Donna’s Diner is a staple of Elyria, bringing the community together over coffee and food. A friend tweeted the article when Trammell was going through a period of self-doubt and Donna’s story reignited Trammell’s commitment to her project. It also inspired a special stop in Elyria, Ohio last month.

The first Sunday in June, Trammell parked her trailer outside Donna’s Diner and waited for Dove to arrive. She left a note on the door, offering a free manicure. Although Dove was pressed for time, she gave Trammell a tour of her restaurant and allowed her to paint the thumbnail on her right hand. Trammell gave a full manicure to Dove’s granddaughter Sarah.

Nails Across America recently made its way to the West Coast where Trammell stopped at print shops, community centers, galleries, and alternative art spaces. When her car broke down in California, she borrowed a car and made house calls, determined to reach her goal before next month. At the time of this writing, Trammell has completed 101 manicures, which have been dutifully logged on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. Nails Across America demonstrates that there are many ways to network, many ways to connect, but farther between are the opportunities to feel connected.

Breanne Trammell with Donna and Sarah Dove. Photo: Mikel Durlam.

Breanne Trammell received her MFA in Printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Since 2011, she has been a core member of the Wassaic Project in upstate New York. The final destination for Nails Across America will be the Wassaic Project Art and Music Festival in August.

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