Essay: Hair Stories

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

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This exhibition of new and recent work by four visual artists, three writers, and two art historians explores the personal, psychological, and mythological significance of hair.

“Hair Stories” features a mixed-installation by Diane Katsiaficas; paintings by Nancy Robinson; mixed-media sculpture by Erica Spitzer Rasmussen; a video installation by Mara Zoltners; text and readings by Paulette Bates Alden, Valerie Miner, and Mary François Rockcastle; an essay by art historian Rob Silberman; and nineteenth-century hair weavings selected and explained by art historian Michael Stoughton.

“Hair Stories” is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, an artist-run curatorial department of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which is made possible by generous support from the Jerome Foundation. Special thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society.

In the 1920’s there was a men’s hair potion called Esthetique. That historical curiosity reminds us that hair has always been intimately entwined with matters of beauty and style. Nevertheless, hair may seem an odd subject for an art exhibition. Yet hair offers a perfect focal point for considering topics of importance in contemporary art-including gender and sexuality, race and cultural differences, media images and consumerism.

That’s why a group of Twin Cities artists and writers joined together to conceive “Hair Stories” and why this is one exhibition that should have no trouble reaching an audience. Everyone has experienced bad hair days. Everyone has plenty of knowledge about hair even if they have never been to the Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri. And everyone is already familiar with numerous hair-related stories, myth, 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. We all know about the blonde beehives, Beatle mop-tops, Rastafarian dreadlocks, dyed Punk tresses, and the incredible hair extensions of today.

Michael Stoughton, University of Minnesota art history professor, provides a historical dimension for “Hair Stories” in the form of hair weavings he selected to borrow from Minnesota collections. Hair weaving was a fashionable practice from the mid-nineteenth century until just after 1900. Hair woven earrings, brooches, and even floral wreaths testify to Victorian tastes in mementos and hobbies. These objects demonstrate how hair can measure changing times and changing fashions. One era’s keepsake may become the nest era’s antique.

The four contemporary visual artists of “Hair Stories” explore the rich possibilities of hair in very different ways.

Diane Katsiaficas’s mixed-media installation Shearing draws upon the Hebrew Bible and ancient history for hair stories about mortality and immortality. In her stunning assemblage, Katsiaficas uses an actual section of a tree, video footage of a sheep shearing, and a wide range of other hair-related images and objects to create what she describes as “a private theater of metaphor and myth.” Dramatically juxtaposing materials, she gives new life to a pair of ancient hair stories. One is the tale Absalom, son of King David, caught by his hair in a tree, and killed as punishment for his vanity and rebelliousness. The other is that 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. In a fine touch, Katsiaficas includes video footage of a hand using sign language, adding yet another form of storytelling to her complex mix.

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.” The offhand remark (which he now denies) led her to forswear consumption of tomatoes for twenty years. But as an artist, she has explored-and exorcised-that personal “tomatic myth” in an impressive series of works that encompass sculpture, fiber, and wearable art, and installation. In her research, Rasmussen learned that before World War II women used X rays to remove body hair for cosmetic purposes, with horrible health consequences. The discovery led the artist to create the powerful Dirty Little Secret, a work that features a frightening hybrid of garment and cancerous body, and actual hair.

Nancy Robinson likes to describe hair as “a joke invented by God,” because it “has a way sprouting in places where it isn’t welcome and disappearing from places you’d like it to stay.” Her hair-related paintings such as The Secret Admirer IV offer shrewd psychological portraits or vignettes with an erotic edge. She understands that hair can be a matter of fashion, or a matter of fetish-and sometimes both. Her paintings often present hair as a metaphor for “hidden thoughts, secret obsessions, and persistent quirks.” In Robinson’s world, an attractive young woman sprouts a furry tail from the back of her cocktail dress, kitschy little chicks in an Easter-type basket herald The Horrible Appearance of the First Gray Hair. Like Rasmussen, who says, “Attraction and repulsion are both responses I attempt to cultivate,” Robinson flirts with what might be called “gross-out aesthetics”-images of eating hair-but manages to find just the right balance between the comic and the grotesque.

Mara Zoltner’s The Ignorant Fairy, inspired by a painting of the same title by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, is a poetic, hypnotic video installation. Earlier in her career, Zoltners engaged in some Fluxus-inspired, pranksterish artworks, including one created with hair plucked from other people’s clothing. The Ignorant Fairy, while playful, is driven above all by a fascination with the image and its unfolding in time.

Accompanied by bird songs that evoke birds as messengers or transformed lovers, the video footage reveals a partial view of a blonde woman having her hair cut. The hair falls in slow motion to the floor by her feet. Occasional tufts float against a blue sky, subtly building a sense of rhythm, repetition, and absorption. A final shot of a bird flying through the frame suggests spirituality and transcendence. But the drama remains enigmatic as it evokes a ritual with hints of martyrdom, an everyday event, or as the title suggests, an episode from an unknown fairy tale.

The great classic among hair stories is no doubt O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” the tale of an impoverished but loving couple. The wife cuts her beautiful long hair to earn money to buy her husband a watch fob for Christmas; meanwhile, he sells his watch to buy her a set of hair combs. A sentimental account in which love triumphs over a cruelly ironic turn of events, it may seem far removed from the tales told by the three fiction writers of “Hair Stories.” Yet “The Gift of the Magi” demonstrates the power of hair to symbolize an individual in an almost unbearably concentrated fashion, and of haircutting as a surefire narrative element.

The literature of hair is full haircutting stories, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s spirited “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” set in an unnamed city bearing a suspicious resemblance to St. Paul, to Earnst Hemingway’s tragic “The Undefeated,” in which an aging and injured bullfighter tries to prevent a friend from cutting off his coleta, the pigtail that is the badge of his profession. (It should be noted that many powerful scenes in movies also feature haircutting, as in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose. The cinema is a treasure trove of hair stories and episodes.)

O. Henry, Fitzgerald, Hemingway-all men. It is no coincidence that the fiction writers and the visual artists in “Hair Stories” are all women. An exhibition or a literary anthology could be devoted to men’s hair, giving complete consideration to boot-camp crewcuts, beards, beatnik goatees, toupees, the metaphysics of the mustache, and the legendary status of the old-time barbershop. But for women, hair and hair rituals have a crucial role in defining personal identity and group solidarity (think Steel Magnolias). It is understandable that the three fiction writers in “Hair Stories” share some basic concerns and experiences.

Paulette Bates Alden, in her short story “Legacies,” provides an excellent example of this shared perspective when she uses hair as the tie that binds three generations of a family. The grandmother’s youthful long hair, cut off years before but retrieved from a dresser drawer as a gift to her granddaughter, suggests how hair is sometimes woven into family histories and partakes of all the tensions, intimacies, and emotions that whirl through family life. For the granddaughter, “It is strange stuff, this old young hair…like some unwanted pet for which she must now be responsible.” Through that peculiar legacy, all three generations-aptly defined in terms of their hair color as “the gray, the brown, the golden”-are deftly bound together.

Valerie Miner’s “Impermanence” beautifully captures the intensity and fragility of mother-daughter relationships, and the significance of hair in defining identity. A girl’s first permanent, coupled with her first discussion of “the birds and bees,” defines her entry into adulthood. With sly humor and deep knowledge, Miner recounts how the daughter says, “So give me the scoop,” and the mother replies, “This is a very special moment between mother and daughter, a ‘rite of passage.’” As the daughter is bedecked with curlers (“plastic antennae”) and endures the application of hair-setting chemicals, she is given the details, causing her exclaim, “There must be a better way. I mean, it’s all hairy down there and stuff,” In the end, the girl wins approval from her brother, a teenager suffering his own self-consciousness about hair. He tells his sister she looks “really pretty with curls, like someone on TV.” Nevertheless, she forswears any future home hair-styling or sex education.

Mary François Rockcastle’s novel The Time Seemed Green for Going also uses hair as the thread between a mother and a daughter. In a key scene, the main character is falling in love with the man she will marry. As he washes her hair, she remembers another, equally tender moment, when her mother washed her hair as a child. This happy memory is especially poignant because the mother abandoned the family, leaving the daughter deeply wounded. In this masterly passage, Rockcastle reminds us that hair is a physical substance invested with sensuousness as well as sexuality. The rituals of hair, and hair stories, are filled with sense memories, as when the daughter recalls “the rotating pressure of her mother’s fingertips against her scalp, the spray of warm water, the cotton towel”. And those memories often lead straight to the emotional heart of the matter, with an entire life suddenly opened up to view.

The artist and writers of “Hair Stories” offer no judgement or moral. People spend an inordinate amount of time combing, cutting, plucking, and shaving their hair, when not dousing the stuff with all manner of concoctions designed to grow it, kill it, color it, curl it, straighten it, make it lie down, or make it stand up, all in attempt to take a wild, uncontrollable product of nature and turn it into an obedient servant of nurture-with a “natural” look, of course.

With passion, intelligence, humor, and skill, the contributors to “Hair Stories” call attention to the enormous and too-often unacknowledged role hair plays in our lives. And they have reminded us of the power of hair stories. On the evidence, they have a good supply of their own “aesthetic potion” that has enabled them to transform hair from the raw stuff of life into compelling art.

Rob Silberman is associate professor of art history at the University of Minnesota.