Arts Magazine: Hair Stories

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Hair-Raising Stories: What images come to mind when you think about hair?

Hair may seem an odd choice of subject for an art exhibition. However, hair is a perfect focal point for considering many important topics in contemporary society-including gender and sexuality, race and cultural differences, media images and consumerism.

A group of Twin Cities artists and writers have joined together to produce "Hair Stories," on view from July 14 through September 3, 2000 in the Minnesota Artists Gallery, under the auspices of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP). This exhibition should have no trouble reaching its audience. After all, everyone is familiar with hair-related stories, myths, and images, from the biblical Samson and Delilah to the fairy-tale Rapunzel; from the powdered wigs of the American Founding Fathers to the polished pates of Yul Brynner and Michael Jordan. Think about blonde beehives, Beatle mop-tops, Rastafarian dreadlocks, dyed Punk tresses, and the incredible hair extensions of today.

"Hair Stores" will incorporate historical art in the form of nineteenth-century woven-hair decorative art objects, selected from Minnesota collections by Michael Stoughton, University of Minnesota art history professor. Hair weaving was a fashionable practice from the mid-nineteenth century until just after its turn to the twentieth. Earrings, brooches, and even floral wreaths (commonly framed and hung in turn-of-the-century parlors) offer a fascinating guide to changing times and changing customs.

The four visual artists in this exhibition use a variety of approaches to explore the subject's rich possibilities.

Diane Katsiaficas will present a mixed-media installation that includes a section of a tree and video footage of a sheep-shearing. Her work refers to two ancient hair stories. One is the biblical tale of Absalom, son of King David, caught by his hair in a tree and killed, as punishment for his vanity and rebelliousness. The other is the tale of Berenice, an Egyptian princess who cut off her magnificent hair as a sacrifice for her husband's well-being, and then saw it transformed into a constellation honoring her devotion.

Erica Spitzer Rasmussen's father told her when she was a young girl that eating tomatoes would make her grow up "big, strong, and hairy-chested." As an artist, she has expolored-and exorcised-that "tomatic myth" in a series of works encompassing sculpture, fiber art, and installation. Her powerful "Dirty Little Secret" resulted from her discovery that before World War II, X rays were used to remove female hair for cosmetic purposes, with devastating health consequences.

Nancy Robinson likes to describe hair as "a joke invented by God," because it has "a way of sprouting in places where it isn't welcome and disappearing from places you'd like it to stay." Her paintings are at once funny and disturbing, psychological vignettes with an erotic edge that present hair as a metaphor for "hidden thoughts, secret obsessions, and persistent quirks."

Mara Zoltners' "The Ignorant Fairy" is a poetic, hypnotic video installation. Accompanied by recorded bird songs, the video footage reveals a blond woman having her hair cut, with the hair falling in slow motion to the floor by her feet. A final shot of a flying bird suggests spirituality and transcendence, but the drama remains enigmatic as it invokes a ritual with hints of martyrdom, an everyday event, or, as the title suggests, an episode from an unknown fairytale.

Paulette Bates Alden, Valerie Miner, and Mary Fran├žois Rockcastle are fiction writers whose texts will be on display in the gallery. They highlight the symbolic significance of hair stories. These memorable family stories describe grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, husbands and wives. Like the four visual artists and Professor Stoughton's hair weavers, the writers demonstrate the ability to transform hair from the raw stuff of life into compelling art.

"Hair Stories" will open with a public reception on Thursday, July 13, 2000 at 7 to 9 P.M., offering free creative hair styling by Estetica, an Aveda Concept Salon. Gallery talks by the artist and reading by the writers will be Sunday, August 27, 2000 at 3 P.M.

Rob Silberman is Associate of Art History at the University of Minnesota.

Citation: Rob Silberman, "Hair-Raising Stories: What images come to mind when you think about hair?," Arts 23, no.6 (July/August 2000): 23.