Hands on

Life's work at their fingertips

Krystal Vega Hernandez sprinkles flour on a ball of dough. Photography by Neal Bruns
Aracely Vega slices slits into empanadas at Zinnia's Bakehouse. Photography by Neal Bruns
Hernandez samples her freshly baked bread. Photography by Neal Bruns
Michelle Kyrou's fingers pluck beautiful sounds from her harp. Photography by Neal Bruns
Dr. Vincent Scavo's hands are his instruments of healing. Photography by Neal Bruns
Mary Carbaugh discovered healing through massage. Photography by Neal Bruns
Alex Hall stands with her portrait of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs on display at the Fort Wayne International Airport. Photography by Neal Bruns

We’re born with an instinctive need to grab hold of whatever’s in reach, our baby fingers opening and closing around a mother’s finger, a father’s nose. We learn to use our hands as we grow, learn to hold a crayon and then a pencil, a bicycle handlebar, a dog’s leash. For many of us, the use of our hands becomes more utilitarian, a means to an end, rather than the purpose.

For these five Fort Wayne residents, their life’s work would not be possible without their hands. Their fingers are extensions of their mind’s vision in food, in healing and in creating beauty.

The Baker
Krystal Vega Hernandez began cooking as a small child, younger than she can even remember. She’d pull up a chair to stand beside her mother as she rolled out dough, stirred steaming pots and cut out cookies. Today, Hernandez co-owns Zinnia’s Bakehouse with her mother, Aracely Vega, and each day she finds herself up to her elbows in flour and yeast and sugar.

Each day except Thursdays, that is. That’s her day out of the kitchen, the day when she can sit and dream up new confections to line the shelves of her East State Boulevard shop. Macarons, meringue rosettes, challah loaves and Mexican wedding cookies –  to say nothing of the wedding cakes she crafts. Her visions (of sugar plums dancing in her head, no doubt) become reality as she kneads and stirs and adds a bit of this and a pinch of that.

“Food is art,” Hernandez said. “Baking is science.”

That science enthralls her: add too much milk and the dough becomes sticky, too little and it doesn’t hold together. She can tell by touch whether her measurements are off, if the dough is silky and smooth or too wet or too warm. Her hands guide her.

“As soon as I feel a piece of dough, I know if it’s done right,” she said.

One facet of her fingers that helps, she says, is that “I don’t have warm hands.” That’s a blessing because warm hands melt the butter she incorporates into doughs and frostings. Her techniques vary depending on what she is making. A brioche batter is very buttery and thus needs to be kept at a certain temperature. And she can barely touch a focaccia dough, so as not to dislodge the large air pockets that give the Italian bread its distinctive texture. She covers her hands in olive oil so her fingers and palms don’t stick to the dough and pull out the bubbles.

Caring for her hands, particularly at this time of year, means constant washing. Flour dries her hands out, sticking in the crevices of fingernails and cuticles. She is always guarding her hands, even to the point of taking out insurance on her hands and her mother’s hands, plus those of her decorator.

Without their hands, there would be no Zinnia’s.

That loss would be terrible for the restaurants across the region whose bread and baked goods she supplies daily. Her hands are quite literally the basis of her business, and “this is my baby,” she says. “When something affects this place, it affects me to the bone.”

The Musician
In Christian theology, when we die (if we’ve been a good sort of person), our souls will enter heaven to the accompaniment of angels strumming on harps. Michelle Kyrou gets to be that angel down here on Earth, strumming her harp at weddings, cocktail parties and other special events across Northeast Indiana.

Her harp is an extension of her hands, which she religiously moisturizes and keeps her nails trimmed to the quick, as the sound of a fingernail plucking the harp’s string does not evoke heavenly choirs. Of Greek ancestry, Kyrou is descended from the people who first thought to tie strings of gut to tortoise shells and pluck them nearly 5,000 years ago. Those early lyres developed into the harp we know today, the heavy (around 100 pounds) stringed instrument which, when strummed, makes the sounds we think of as the cadence of angels’ wings.

“I can’t even get a paper cut,” Kyrou said. She doesn’t wear nail polish, so as not to distract her audience, and she keeps bottles of hand lotion in her purse, car and home. The plucking of the strings has built up calluses on the sides of her fingers, and she’s justifiably proud of them. Kyrou’s Music Studio has performed across the region, with Michelle and her brother, Chris Jr., providing stringed music for all sorts of events. (Did we mention she also plays the organ and the violin?) Her hands sing through the strings.

Kyrou began her musical career as a child at Brentwood Elementary School during a summer program where she learned to play violin. She continued playing the violin in Northrop High School’s orchestra, but the seeds of her harp-playing days were planted in eighth grade, when a harp was brought to Lakeside Middle School and the students were allowed to try it out. She was 12 years old.

“It felt awkward at first,” she said, “but it was something I knew I had to pursue. When I went home that night, I remember running to tell my mom” about the magical instrument. But it wasn’t until she was 14 that she was able to start taking harp lessons – and she began practicing two hours a day, plucking and strumming the strings and producing those heavenly sounds.

“There was something drawing me to it,” she said. “My parents got me a small folk harp” to practice on at home. She didn’t get her full-size harp until she graduated from high school.

She had inklings that she’d like to be a full-time musician or music teacher, but “I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” so she studied engineering, architecture and construction science. The lure of the lyre was too strong.

She performed so well at a harp contest in Ohio that she won her personalized stool and the following year won a matching music stand, two items she continues to use today.

Playing a harp may sound easy, but it’s hard on the lower back and on the fingers. She performs at weddings, holiday parties, Mother’s Day teas and restaurant brunches – anywhere you need background melodies, which suits her fine, as she’s a self-described “quiet person.”

She credits her parents, Chris Sr. and Helen Kyrou, with supporting her and her brother’s musical careers.

“They gave us the opportunity for music, to have an outlet,” she said. “Music is a release for me. Even when I make a mistake, it sounds” beautiful.

“I can touch people through music,” she said. “I feel I can express myself through music. That is my voice to people. God has blessed me with the gift of music.”

The surgeon
Describing himself as a “utility player,” Dr. Vincent Scavo of Lutheran Medical Group spends his days in delicate surgery on the veins and arteries of Northeast Indiana residents. His hands, large and meaty and reminiscent of the football player he was in college, do not seem like those of someone who literally holds hearts in them: the fingers of a surgeon in popular culture are long and thin like a piano player’s. But Scavo’s fingers are possessed of a singular sensitivity that allow him to seek out trouble spots and gently repair them, to bring healing to people plagued by a problematic circulatory system.

But does he take special care of them?

“Not really,” he admitted with a laugh, adding that he’s also a nail-biter.

“I don’t consciously put my hands in any place that’s dangerous,” he said.

That said, he recently stabbed himself with a screwdriver in the webbing between his thumb and forefinger during a misguided attempt to repair furniture. But the skills he uses are in his fingertips, and they are skills honed at an early age through an unlikely hobby: needlepoint.

“My mom was into crafts, and she got me to do needlepoint as a kid,” he said. “I’d stay focused for a long time, and it gave me very good eye-hand coordination.”

The eye-finger link is crucial for any surgeon, and Scavo said it takes years of training and practice to hone the relationship.

“Your eyesight is very important in giving you the information to your hands.” he said. That relationship means success or failure in the operating room. Surgery, he said, “is very precise and accurate. I have to have (complete) control of my hands and fingers. Sometime you have to imagine” the body part, understanding its shape by feel alone beneath the blood and viscera and “gristle,” as he calls the connective tissues he must work around.

To care for his hands and to reduce the chance of infection, Scavo is constantly washing them and using antibacterial lotions. He changes gloves repeatedly through the day, and he said he’s unhappy that his practice doesn’t use calcium-powdered gloves anymore, as they were kinder to his hands. But all that hand-washing with lotioned soaps keeps his skin supple, as is needed to do those tricky maneuvers inside people’s chest cavities, to keep those patients alive.

“It’s a part of who I am.”

The Massage Therapist
Once upon a time, Mary Carbaugh was an ice dancer dreaming of Olympic glory. Then an ugly accident rearranged the tendons in her knee, ending those golden dreams. Years of physical therapy followed, yet even today, if you ask nicely, she’ll demonstrate how her knee continues to fold backwards.

All that therapy sparked a deeper understanding of how the body works and how people can heal the body by simply touching a hurt place with healing hands. These days, ice dancing is over, but Carbaugh’s passion for physical healing continues. She’s a professor of therapeutic massage at Ivy Tech Northeast, where she trains hundreds of students in the art of healing through touch.

“Other countries are way ahead” of the United States when it comes to understanding how massage can help the body, she said. “I was in Sweden when I had my first massage.”

That therapeutic massage was a revelation, she said.

“I’d always heard that ‘massage’ was a (code) word for” prostitution, but when she was on the receiving end, she realized that “we need to open our eyes” to the possibilities.

“How could something that feels so good be bad?” she wondered.

Humans are social creatures, and we evolved caring for each other through grooming and stroking. Our body’s energy flows through paths, Carbaugh said, and it sometimes gets tangled up. Massage helps untangle that energy, as the therapist feels those knots and works them out using fingers.

“It’s a very all-around, emotional thing for me,” she said. “It’s a very humbling and rewarding thing.”

Carbaugh was one of the first massage therapists in Fort Wayne, beginning work in the 1980s assisting the chiropractor Dr. Robert Planck. She’s certified in many techniques, including cranial-sacral, myofascial and sports massage, and she has written books on biomechanics. She teaches a variety of massage techniques to Ivy Tech students, who have affectionately dubbed her “Mama Duck.”

“I tell them, ‘You guys know what your hands are telling you,'” she said of her students, the ducklings. “We quit trusting our instincts. If you close your eyes, you can feel it. Your hands pick up the energy. Every living thing has energy. We tend as a society to want to see and feel. We have to teach ourselves to accept what our hands are telling us.”

“Anybody can stroke a person,” she said, but “being able to feel the difference” in the energy is a hallmark of a good massage therapist.

Key to her ability to heal is to take care of her hands and arms. She does relaxation exercises, stretching her hands up and down, guiding them through a full range of motion pattern.

Massage therapy is “hard work. You have to take time out for yourself,” she said. “You have to relax the whole body, the mind, the spirit and the soul.”

The Artist
Alex Hall likes bright colors. And she likes animals. She combines those two loves into oversized paintings of whimsical (and not-so whimsical) animals and old sneakers and frogs holding sunflowers and giraffes with their babies. And she’s making a living by using her hands to manipulate paint onto canvases that are sold across the country.

She is fond of reds, yellows and blues, and her paintings are both realistic and fanciful. They may not have seen the light of day had it not been for her brother James, who, without her knowledge, got her a showing at The Dash-In in 2013.

“I had to get everything framed,” she said, still a touch exasperated. But that show led to some sales of her artwork, which led to more shows and more sales, and soon she was exhibiting not only in Fort Wayne but in Virginia, Chicago and parts in between. Her lively style and accessible subjects are appealing to those looking to support young artists, and her reputation has grown.

Not bad for a Slavic language major who was bartending at Hall’s Deck to pay the bills.

That job at The Deck actually inspired one of her first subjects, and one that she has returned to over the past several years: Her imbibing frogs were inspired by the regulars who would sit at The Deck’s riverside patio, warming themselves in the summer sun (and with a pint or two of beer).

Painting “is a cathartic thing, because I have a lot of … humor, whimsicality and light,” she said. That energy pours forth through her hands.

“There are times I get into a groove and I paint for four days, and then there are other days I feel no desire to paint,” she said. “If I try to force myself, it’s not going to work.”

She notes with irony that she pays someone else to paint her fingernails. She’s more worried about her back and knees than her hands, as she typically sits on the floor to paint her larger works.

“My hands don’t wear out,” she said, “I do avoid power tools, though!”

Creating the colors is something she does by touch and sight, starting with the primary colors and shading them by mixing the colors on a palette or even on the canvas itself.

You’ll often find her with two or three paintbrushes in her hand and one in her mouth as she switches between colors.

“Any artist, anyone who’s ever been creative,” has a restless feeling when not creating. “It’s like a good restlessness. There’s an urge to create that’s hard to explain.”

It’s one that – for Hall – spills forth through her hands in bright and fanciful ways.

First appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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