by Kate Kretz
According to the Bible, the secret of Samson's incredible strength was contained in the hair on his head. I have a similar belief in hair's power: Using it as a medium adds psychological weight and energy to my work; it is the most potent material one can use as an artist. Hair records extreme changes in your physiology — like the rings of a tree, it can be "read" to discern periods of illness, diet change, stress, or pregnancy. When I chose to start making work using grey hair, I had great reverence for the vast experience and passing of time marked by the length of each strand.
I have been using hair in my work for many years: I made art out of the long curls a lover once gifted, as he said, "I think you love my hair more than me." When I was pregnant with my daughter, I collected the hair that was growing out of my head during the time that I was carrying her, and made several works from it.
I started making embroideries with grey hair around the same time I stopped dyeing my own. I had always made art about being authentic and vulnerable, and I started to feel strange about using artificially-dyed hair. It also occurred to me that, while I was careful about the foods I ate, I was essentially putting toxic chemicals on my scalp every four weeks. I quit cold turkey, and was subsequently delighted with the results.
I wanted to make defiant works to combat beauty standards and ageism, especially addressing the way that society tries to render women invisible after we no longer look like co-eds. The text embroideries take back and claim words used to dismiss older women, as well as women who choose to ignore the contemporary demands that we abolish all body hair. The grey hair work culminated in "Une Femme D'Un Certain Âge": I wanted to create an embroidery of an ornate silver dagger, and infuse the work with as much power as possible by using the grey hair of dozens of women.
I crowd-sourced the hair via Facebook, and received envelopes from all over the country. More than one woman remarked that, as they were plucking individual hairs for me, and putting them gently into an envelope, they came to see the previously shameful strands as precious silver. While working on the embroidery over an intense period of six months, I was aware that each strand from a new woman was adding to the cumulative strength of the piece. I was delighted to see that, in the finished work, the dagger actually shines like metal when the light hits it. The collector who owns the work talks about sitting in front of it, and feeling overwhelming emotions emanating from the piece.
Our contemporary society is losing touch with ritual and physical intimacy. While decades ago, female friends might brush and braid one anothers hair without a thought, we now relate to many of our friends virtually, through social media. Everything in our lives has become hyper-sanitized. One only has to watch a few shampoo commercials to understand how we fetishize hair, yet, once a strand leaves our head, we are repulsed by it. At every lecture I give, I must explain to some mortified student (who inevitably thinks I am pulling clumps from my drain) that I harvest my hair by simply running my fingers through it after I shampoo, then I put it in a nice, clean baggie.
Hair, due to its structure, lasts longer than most parts of our body. In Catholicism and Buddhism, hair relics from the saints and Buddha are sacred. In many cultures, it serves as a way to keep an actual piece of a loved one near. Clippings from a first haircut are often put in a baby book. Many wear locks of hair inside a locket. A century ago, in their bedrooms, women had beautifully crafted containers that functioned as hair collectors. Intricately woven necklaces and bracelets (called Victorian Mourning Jewelry), were made with the hair of loved ones. It was not unusual to have an ornately-framed embroidery on the wall that used the hair from multiple generations woven together. I have had several people commission me to make works with their hair, or the hair of loved ones.
Nevertheless, I understand that hair can function as a memento mori, a reminder of death, particularly when it is grey hair, something we as women are trained to be ashamed of. I use this off-putting quality to force people to deal with their discomfort, and remind them that they are all going to be here one day. The truth is that women often find that these years can be the most fulfilling and empowering periods in our lives, when a freedom is gained by finally not caring what anyone else thinks of us. My work serves as a defiant object, reclaiming words that ageists use to try to put us in our place. It is an in-your-face testament that we will not disappear, we know the value of our experience, and we are a force to be reckoned with.
Kate Kretz is an artist whose work has been featured repeatedly in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and ArtPapers. She recently spent two solid days decorating a My Little Pony cake. Kretz is currently consumed with a new series of paintings that has, on several occasions, elicited the response, "Wow. This needs to be seen... I wish I had the balls to show it." The beginnings of the series, as well as other bodies of work, can be seen at www.katekretz.com.