Shortly after Brienna Duteau was born in December 2006, her mother, Carin, traced her baby’s hand onto a piece of paper, cut the outline around the edges, and saved it.
Two months later, when Valentine’s Day came around, Carin again traced Brienna’s hand and cut out the paper where it was outlined.
Amazed at how much the little hand had changed, Carin tucked the two clippings into a valentine card she gave to her husband.
This card is now on display inside a wooden frame at the Handworks Gallery of American Crafts in Acton as part of the “Expressions of Love” exhibition.
This month, owner Glenn Johnson is dedicating about half of his gallery space for “Expressions of Love,’’ a free showcase for works by artists and craftspeople of all ages and abilities.
The exhibition isn’t just about the works themselves, but also their background stories, Johnson said.
“All pieces are done for someone and they have a meaning beyond how well they were made,” said Johnson, who has been hosting the exhibition in his gallery annually for 18 years.
Every piece is accompanied by a paragraph explaining its background and meaning, written by the artist.
“You walk in there, and you read all the stories. It’s a heart-felt exhibition,” said Nancy Craemer, who has participated in the show for nearly all 18 years.
Growing up in Winchester , Johnson recalls feeling passionate about using his hands to create art.
As a child, he said, he wouldn’t settle for the ordinary Christmas wrapping for his gifts to his family. Instead, he would make papier-mache shapes of airplanes or bunnies, and put the gifts inside the shapes.
Decades later, his love for handmade pieces remains the driving force of his career, along with keeping the handcrafting tradition alive, he said.
“I love things that are handmade,” Johnson said. “They seem more meaningful to me when they have the touch of the human hand.”
Every year, Johnson welcomes any person, regardless of skill or artistic level, to submit pieces for his “Expressions of Love” exhibition.
He says it’s not the quality of the piece that makes each entry special, but rather the sentiment behind it.
“I try to make a piece each year usually about my friends, celebrating their lives, or about things that bring me joy,” said Craemer, who after the display closes gives the piece to the friend who inspired it.
Craemer, a resident of Harwich, owns Coastal Craft Gallery on Cape Cod, and said she has known Johnson since 1976. Johnson recalls a particular work from Craemer that she made for her best friend, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time.
“She made a tea pot and two mugs,” recalled Johnson, “and when the exhibit was over she sent a mug and the teapot to her friend. Every day, Nancy will call her and they would both have tea at the same time, from the same set of mugs.”
This year, the 22 submissions are no less heartwarming and inspiring.
Jill O’Reilly honors the 300th anniversary of Lexington, which she’s been calling home for over 40 years, with a bracelet inspired by the town’s stone walls.
“I can imagine farmers clearing land and building the walls 300 years ago when Lexington was founded,” reads O’Reilly’s explanation. “The textures, patina and irregular shapes of the stones are the inspiration for this series.”
Townsend resident Paula Barry submitted a wedding gown to share her appreciation for her mother, who not only sewed the dress, but has also shaped the woman Barry is today.
The youngest contributors are 6-year-old Kate Spengler and her 8-year-old sister, Leah. The Spenglers, from Pepperell, who exhibited a “Hand me down love” collage last year, have created a portrait of Muppets’ character Mokey this year. The piece pays tribute to their godmother, Helen Yetman-Bellows, who they say resembles Mokey in fashion, style, and personality.
Johnson said he began organizing the exhibition when he bought Handworks in 1995 to welcome and get to know local craftspeople and highlight their talent. From this annual show, he said, he has built lasting relationships.
“He was very welcoming about me bringing my work,” said Concord resident Cindy Reynolds, who has on display two collages to honor the family memories that her children cherish. “He brings together people from the community, which I think is really neat.”
“I love my job,” Johnson said. “This whole show is my expression of love to all the different craftspeople.”