Beautiful & Disgusting

by Leigh Blenkhorn

There sits a pie with a golden crust and steam billowing from the air holes cut in the top. This pie has a unique filling, however; it ’s made of human hair. On second look, it isn’t steam coming out the top either; it’s more hair. In fact there is even hair baked into the crust.

Hair Pie was created by WhiteFeather, an Atlantic Canadian artist who uses human hair to create pieces of art. The pieces she creates look like everyday objects until, upon closer examination, you realize they’re made from human hair. WhiteFeather says some observers find it captivating while others find it repulsive. “I would say a lot of it is beautiful and disgusting at the same time,” she says. “I find it’s easy to work with, but it’s just so icky.”

WhiteFeather always knew she wanted a career that would let her creativity flow. She tried studying metal sifting and graphic design but was never completely satisfied. It wasn’t until a friend took her to a textiles class that WhiteFeather discovered her true calling.

“I sort of discovered textiles by accident. I had a friend who was sneaking me into the textiles studio to hang out with her there and that’s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
She began formally studying textiles at the Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson, British Columbia. She then returned home to Fredericton to study at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. Since graduating in 2001, WhiteFeather has been teaching textiles at the college.

The idea to use human hair as art first came to WhiteFeather in a dream a few years ago. She then researched how hair was historically used in art, and put her own spin on this traditional craft. “I discovered that weaving with the hair is a Victorian practice, and it used to be quite popular,” she says. “People would have mementos made of people’s hair when they died.”

Although WhiteFeather uses objects such as cloth, bone and animal body parts, as part of her art, hair is always the main feature. “One hundred per cent of my artwork involves hair,” she says. “It's only when I make a commercial product, like a woven shawl or something, that I stick with materials like silk or cashmere. But, it's all just fibre, really.”

She has been creating hair art for more than five years. Working with human hair is quite different from using more common fibres, WhiteFeather explains. The process is time consuming with some pieces taking up to a year to create. As a result she has had to find ways to make hair do what she needs it to do to create the desired look.

 “I don't actually weave with hair much. It’s too much like Velcro to be able to easily weave it,” she says. “Hair is really stringy and doesn’t like to mould into a particular shape. I mostly spin it into yarn on my spinning wheel and then sculpt it using several different methods – waxing, crochet, stitching, knotting. Sometimes I combine many different textile methods.”

Human hair is not available at an art supply store so WhiteFeather has had to find some alternative sources for her materials. “I would say the greatest portion of hair comes from other people in the community who have just heard of my work,” she says. “Someone will get their ponytail cut off and give it to me.”

WhiteFeather says that while some of her work is inspired by events in her everyday life, most of her ideas and inspirations come to her in her sleep. “I’ll dream about fully formed concepts and I’ll actually see the finished piece in my dream. I’ll wake up and sketch it out and write about it and then I’ll make it.”

After taking a course called Symbolism and Ritual this past summer at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), she created her most recent set of work – an entire collection of voodoo dolls made from human hair and animal bone. Her other artwork includes a corset made from dreadlocks as well as pillows, braided ropes, and traditional knitted fisherman’s sweaters, all made from human hair.

The piece of work she is most proud of is a three metre by three and a half metre fishing net made entirely out of human hair. It took the hair from over 40 heads to build this net. “I had spun all of the hair on my spinning wheel and then knotted the entire thing into the big net,” she says. “It’s the biggest piece that I’ve worked on. I’ve always sort of worked small because textiles are so labour intensive.”

With pieces such as the corset, and an ironing board stained with menstrual blood, her art to date has portrayed a strong feminist message. Now, WhiteFeather is moving away from feminism with her newer creations, hoping to attract a wider audience. She believes the message behind her work constantly evolves with each new creation, and will continue to do so.

The University of New Brunswick Art Centre has held two of her shows, the feminist-themed Femiliar and the nautical-themed Clew. The centre’s art director, Marie Maltais, is a fan of WhiteFeather’s art and is impressed by the effort and planning the artist puts into her work.

“The research that goes into every piece is amazing. A tremendous background plus a lot of skill is brought to it,” says Maltais. “There are some people out there who have worked with hair in different guises. What separates her is her process and her research base. She brings to it a very skillful knowledge.”

Maltais has seen WhiteFeather’s work evolve over the years and believes this artist is just coming into her own.

“Her work is super meticulous. The craftsmanship is spectacular,” says Maltais. “She has been working with hair for a while now so she has her technique refined. She can really make you see what she wants now.”

WhiteFeather’s hair art draws different reactions from those who view it, but according to Maltais, the work always leaves a lasting impression on gallery goers.

“In some cases, especially working with human hair, people are a little bit unsettled by it,” says Maltais. “She made this really great one called “Hair Pie” and it was for an exhibition here. People were just disgusted. There is a certain element of that, kind of a repulsive but beautiful repulsive. People may have a hard time stomaching it.”

WhiteFeather identifies herself as an Atlantic Canadian and is influenced by the area’s history. Maltais, from UNB, says WhiteFeather has taken the traditions of Canada’s East Coast and twisted them to make truly unique art. “Especially in this community, it’s a small community and people tend to work fairly traditionally here,” Maltais says. “We have a long tradition of realist paintings, landscape painting, floral paintings, but she is working very much outside of what is happening in this neighbourhood here, which is great.”

Although most of her success has been in the Maritimes, WhiteFeather’s popularity is spreading across Canada, and she hopes to eventually make an impression on the world. Her ultimate goal is to exhibit internationally so she can travel and take on as many artist residencies as she can. “I think that would be a really great way to get lots of work done, get paid and meet lots and lots of people and find places that I can have more exhibitions. I like to travel and the regular nine-to-five grind kills me.”

As for now, WhiteFeather will be busy this summer with two shows planned in New Brunswick, one at the Cobalt Gallery in St. John beginning May 5, and another at the Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre Gallery in St. Andrews in August.

She was named the Emerging Artist of the Year in 2004 by the New Brunswick Arts Board and the Canada Council. She has received many awards and grants for her work in Atlantic Canada, and praise from the art community across the country. With some shows under her belt and a summer full of exhibits ahead of her, she is well on her way to establishing herself as a distinguished member of the Canadian art community.

Click to find out about Whitefeather's August '06 show at Sunbury Shores Art and Nature Centre.

© 2006 Green Banana