Arthritic, gnarled and deformed— the hands of Traverse City‘s Carol Tompkins-Parker have seen a lifetime of pain, but also of perseverance and beauty. They inspired her new book, “Creative Hands,” which showcases Carol’s drawings of our region’s residents doing what they love.

This article first appeared in Traverse, Northern Michigan's magazine. Find this article and more when you explore our digital issue library. Looking to have Traverse Magazine delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Traverse City artist and author Carol Tompkins-Parker is an expert in defying expectations. The recipient of 38 surgeries to date—“most of them orthopedic,” she says—she’s seen a total of 18 doctors and counting. And against all odds, she’s still here.

But, not without a few battle scars—most notably, her set of very distinctive hands. And those hands have their own story to tell. Ever a frail and skinny kid, “and in pain,” Carol says, she’s been collecting clinicians since she was 12. But what was originally written off as growing pains was actually juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Compounded by lupus the following year, her physicians weren’t sure she’d see 21. “I’m still skinny and sick and frail,” she says, “but I’m 66 now, so I’ve proven [them] wrong.”

Carol has refused to let her health slow her down, instead choosing to see the beauty of her hands—and the hands of others. And she has no plans of slowing down; in fact, she’s just checked “author” off the list. Formally released in September, Carol’s debut book, “Creative Hands,” was born the moment Anne Stanton, Mission Point Press’s editorial director, first set eyes on her delicate drawings. “She said that there was nothing else like them out there,” Carol explains, “and that [they] would make a really unique book.” The rest, of course, is bound in hardcover.

Artist sitting with drawings

Photo by Dave Weidner

A glossy coffee-table collection, “Creative Hands” combines Carol’s artwork with the photography of cre- ative partner John Robert Williams, to feature the region’s most accom- plished makers, along with the single tool that ties them—their hands.

Her carefully-selected subjects range from the hands of local bassist Glenn Wolff with his bow; to fire chief Jim Tuller holding his helmet; to those of her friend Laura Kirby, complete with a pair of gardening shears. “I’d like to think that my book is an introduction to some of the people that are special to the region,” Carol says.

Comprising 30 subjects in its pages, the text took more than a year to compile. “Each portrait takes a good five days of drawing,” says Carol, a process made even more painstaking by the boundaries of her body. “There were times I thought it would never get done.” But as in all other aspects of her life, her singular soldier-on mindset won. To get her through her darkest ordeals, Carol often credits a “very warped sense of humor,” or on occasion, “a hearty stout!” But what others see as strong, for Carol is just standard. “I’m not the kind of person who feels sorry for herself,” she says.

Drawing by local Northern Michigan artist

Photo by Dave Weidner

And she never has. An artist from a young age, Carol is a proud alumna of NMC, where she earned her associate’s in drawing and printmaking before pursuing a path in education. “My goal was to get a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts, and then an MFA to teach,” she says. That is until she discovered art education. “I started college in 1974 at Wayne State University in Detroit,” she says—a credential that took a decade to finish due to her health issues— “and I taught art at Detroit East Catholic High School until my health got the better of me.”

Her health has always taken precedence, and it still does, Carol says. However, her focus, now and always, is on the potential; and there is always potential in art. Carol’s definition of art, however, is wholly individual. “You don’t have to be a dancer, or a ceramicist or a bassist to be an artist,” she says. “Beer-making is an art; being the fire chief is an art. There are various ways to be creative.”

For Carol, being creative is often as simple as putting pencil to paper. “Everyone has a talent,” she says “Everybody is unique.”

“Creative Hands” is available for purchase at Horizon Books in Traverse City and online at Amazon. A percentage of each book sale is being donated to the Lupus Foundation of America.

Anna Faller is a Michigan-based freelance writer and interviewer. She is a University of Michigan graduate and has contributed to publications throughout the region. She can be reached at annacfaller@gmail.com.

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner