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Driving Across America Giving Free Manicures

You know how sometimes you just want to become a certified nail technician, transform a 1968 Shasta compact trailer into a mobile nail salon, and hit the road? Artist Breanne Trammell is living the dream. Her Nails Across America project is bringing free manicures and nail art to people in cities from Elyria to Chattanooga to San Diego this summer. I caught up with her to talk about manly manicures, furry traveling companions, and junk food as artistic inspiration.

Hi Breanne! You’re about two weeks into Nails Across America. How many manicures have you given so far?

I just passed the two-week mark and I’ve given 52 manicures.

Where are you right now? What are you looking at?

I’m sitting at artist Jason Sturgill‘s desk in the Ford Building in Portland, Ore. I gave Jason, his wife Sarah, and their son Archer manicures in Portland—my first family of manicures!

I’m looking at lots of beautiful ephemera in his studio. There’s a “Tips Gladly Accepted” sign—fitting for my project—and lots of typography and colorful illustrations. He also has a great collection of art books, and CB and ham radio postcards.

You started planning this project about two years ago. What interests you about manicures and nail art?

What I love most about painting nails is seeing color come out of the bottle and onto the surface of the nail. It’s transformative, and very satisfying. Plus, it’s super fun to look at your hands to see an odd combination of colors, lines, shapes, and patterns.

In preparation for Nails Across America, you became a certified nail technician. How was nail school?

Nail school was intense! New York State requires 250 classroom hours in order to be eligible to take the written and practical board exams. The program I found was about 45 minutes away from where I live in Wassaic, N.Y., and it lasted for 16 weeks—four days a week, four hours per night. I had to study and take tests, so it was essentially going to night school in addition to my teaching and freelance responsibilities.

How are you funding the trip?

A quarter of the project was funded by Kickstarter, which helped me purchase the trailer and make repairs. Otherwise, it’s self-funded, with small donations coming in periodically through the trip website. I have been saving up from my teaching and freelance design jobs. And SpaRitual / ORLY donated a lot of my manicure supplies.

Tell me about some of the rad people who’ve come in for mobile manicures.

Most recently, the trailer was parked at Land Gallery in Portland, Ore., and most of the people who stopped in for manicures were strangers. Shanda Kimber makes beautiful small batch candy in Portland. She told me about how she met her husband, how she started her business (Rose City Sweets), and oddball road trip monuments. I was happy to hear about the World’s Largest Pencil. We shared an affinity for Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Crystal Gayle. She recommended that I read Dolly’s memoir, My Life and Other Unfinished Business. I gave Shanda frosted tips (almost like a cupcake!) and a No. 2 pencil on her ring finger.

Kriste York donated to my Kickstarter fund last summer and I gave her a manicure in Corvallis, Oregon. Her story was amazing. She had a brain tumor and several surgeries, then a stroke, learned to walk again, and is now working on a masters degree in Digital Storytelling. She prefers dark shades so I gave her Mark Rothko-inspired nails.

Giving manicures at Kulture Klub Collaborative was pretty special. KKC offers programming and resources to homeless youth in Minneapolis. I gave lots of brightly colored manicures, with hints of neon.

You’re doing all nail treatments free of charge. Why was making manicures free important to you?

I want this project to be for anyone willing to participate, regardless of economic background. After the trip is over, I’m not sure if I will continue to do nails. If I do, I want to give manicures as a public service to people looking for jobs as a way to boost their confidence.

Do people ever try to give you things in exchange when they come see you? Iced coffees? Gas money?

I do accept tips, which helps offset the cost of gas and supplies. I’ve also been given baked goods (cheese straws!), homemade bon bons and cookies, a cheeseburger and fries, balloons, and a handmade book.

What are some of the most-requested manicure themes?

Pizza and donut sprinkles have been the most requested so far.

What’s your favorite?

The No. 2 Pencil and Richard Diebenkorn variations are my favorite patterns. However, straight-up Cheeto Orange and Yves Klein’s Blue are my favorite shades to paint. Color makes me so happy!

A lot of your nail patterns and shades pay tribute to junk food—pizza, donuts, Cheetos. And junk food plays a big part in your studio art too. What about it interests you?

I grew up eating a lot of junk food, and I’ve still got a big savory-tooth, though I love big salads and vegetables and avocados are my absolute favorite. The objects and colors I’m obsessed with naturally become the things that I make work about. I love color and formalism and mixing the high with the low. So I use IKB (International Klein Blue) and Cheeto orange quite a bit.

My studio-based work mines from my personal history, popular culture, and the everyday. I like to say that my work is about stupid things that I genuinely care about: objects, observations, and inescapable memories that may seem unimportant but are significant and make us who we are.

You’re offering a few male-specific manicures: Bro Nails, the GenleMANicure, and the Working MANicure. What’s the difference between them?

Well, if I’m offering a manicure to a farmer I call it the Working MANicure. They’re all the same thing, I just change the name based on who I am talking to and what I think might get a positive response and lead to participation.

Are a lot of guys taking you up on it so far?

There have been more women by far, but I am trying to get my male numbers up so the genders are more balanced. A lot of men think that painted nails are required in order to participate, but this isn’t the case. I have a matte topcoat (ORLY’s Nails For Males), so applying color is optional.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened on your trip?

I can’t pick a favorite landscape! I loved the entire drive from the east coast to the west. Kansas, Idaho, The Spiral Jetty in Utah, the Oregon Badlands, to name a few. All of it is super beautiful and I feel lucky to have this opportunity to meet so many people as well as see these places.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen on the road?

Seeing a double rainbow in the Oregon Badlands.

You’re traveling with a very adorable corgi. What’s his name?

His name is Tiny Tim Riggins, a.k.a. Riggs, a.k.a. Number 33. He’s a good travel buddy for sure—very mellow and eager to tag along wherever I go.

A lot of people might find the idea of taking on a project like this practically or financially intimidating. What advice would you give to young people who want to make art but aren’t sure about how to make their ideas into reality?

This is the biggest project I’ve ever done, and I started on it nearly two years ago. I’ve definitely had moments of doubt along the way, and certainly on this trip (myriad car problems). My advice is to honor your ideas, tell everyone about what you want to do, and try your best to make them happen.

Sarah Todd is a writer who sometimes tweets.

Breanne Trammell is an artist living and working in Wassaic, N.Y., where she is a core member of the Wassaic Project. You can find her Nails Across America tour dates here and follow her travels on Instagram and Tumblr


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