Long and silky; short and curly. Blond, brunette, red or grey. It’s hair and it has an important part in our perceptions of ourselves. It defines gender and visual identity, and is playing an important role lately in art -- in jewelry, drawings or in mixed media pieces.
Hair has long had a role in the work of artists and artisans. In the Victorian era, creating jewelry from hair became almost as popular as knitting or crocheting. By using one's own hair or that of a beloved family member women were able to design bracelets, chains, rings and earrings. Apart from jewelry, mourners would weave hair into decorative, memorial wall hangings. By the early 1900s using hair fell out of fashion. During the past 15 years, however, there's been a fascination among contemporary artists using skin, nail clippings, urine and hair to create various forms of art.
Fascinated with Victorian hair jewelry, artist and jewelry designer Melanie Bilenker has revived the art form. Like the Victorians who kept lockets of hair and miniature portraits painted with ground hair and pigment to secure the memory of a lost love, renders the "quiet minutes, the mundane, the domestic, the ordinary moments" from her own tresses.
Bilenker observes various daily activities such as cleaning, bathing, dressing, resting or eating. She chronicles the private moments by setting the camera's timer and goes about her business which can be anything such as eating chocolate, writing a note or enjoying a Saturday morning breakfast.
Once she has the photographed images, Bilenker creates tracings of the forms within ghem with thousands of tiny strands of her own hair – which are eventually fixed in resin. She meticulously layers several different drawings to give the appearance of depth, one as foreground, another as background. The entire process takes the course of about a week of laying hairs, mixing resin, and then allowing it to cure. Says Bilenker, "Once the hairs are set as line drawings within resin, I shape, smooth and polish the exterior. I then fabricate the jewelry findings and set them. The piece is then complete."
There's no question that incorporating hair in art can be a hairy ordeal, but that's what chandelier maker Lindsey Adelman loves about the process. Early on in her career, when Adelman had a tight budget for supplies, space, and storage, the RISD graduate turned to readily available materials like her own hair. It all started when she noticed "the beautiful color and sharpness of the line of a stray hair inadvertently caught under a piece of tape on an envelope one evening. I didn't know it would inspire 10+ year series of drawings." Creating repetitive and meticulous patterns with hair is a gratifying and calming endeavor, notes Adelman, or as she puts it, "Simple but pretty meditative."
For her hair drawings, Adelman typically plans out the patterns on the computer. Then she works with individual strands with tweezers and an X-acto knife. Each gracefully, curving wisp is placed on an adhesive surface. She uses either archival or Japanese tape, or clear labels, often tracing a template or photograph underneath. From there she assembles all the adhesive hair units on archival paper and burnishes the piece. Adelman also embroiders with hair. She ties strands of hair end-to-end around a spool. Then threads a needle and pierces through a stretched canvas. When complete, she varnishes the canvas with archival matte medium. She says, "There’s nothing very quick or "efficient" about any of this. And, truthfully, that is what I love about it."
For Portland artist Diane Jacobs, hair represents humanity and takes on a political tone. As she notes on her website, "[hair] is a rich material thick with history, genetics and societal taboos."
Jacobs shaved her head in 1993 and began saving her hair. She writes, "The daily ritual of rolling a hairball in the shower to later be used in my art is one way I weave my art and the everyday together. My creative process helps me understand the complexities, contradictions and injustices of the world we live in today."
In her various mixed media pieces, Jacobs employs hair in the form of hairballs, shorn locks, sewing thread, matting, and weaving fiber. She contextualizes her work by using puns, innuendo, and strong language as a medium to reveal both old and new ways of thinking.
Jacobs’ Hairy Times, created from shredded New York Times and Los Angeles Times papers, explores "the contradictions and controversies inherent in our current political climate." She adds, "It is a manifestation of the media's failure to ask the hard questions and hold the government accountable. The ramifications of this neglect and deceit are made evident in our apathetic and disenfranchised populace."
In her recent work Hair Talk, Jacobs explores the personal aesthetic perception of hair and asks four hair questions. The book's look was inspired by Roberta Lavadours' beautiful twine binding books, but Jacob adds a distinctive twist—the twine binding is made from human hair.
What's the allure of hair as central material? Adelman explains it best: "When you use hair, you get a sense of the person. And it is very intuitive in how I manipulate the strand; and the labor and time is dedicated to not only making the piece but it is also to that person. I am fascinated by attention and time paid to anything, especially something mundane or someone you see every day--- it transforms whatever it is."
To learn more about each artist, visit Diane Jacobs at www.dianejacobs.net; Lindsay Adelman at http://lindseyadelman.blogspot.com; Melanie Bilenker at http://www.melaniebilenker.com. To watch Lindsay Adelman discuss working with hair go to: http://lindseyadelman.blogspot.com/search/label/hair%20drawings
Contemporary art is getting hairy