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Braid Loose Pull: Our hair, ourselves

One piece in Hannah Fiske’s exhibit, “Braid Loose Pull,” which explores the cultural significance of hair. Photo by Eric Mistry.

The Smith Gallery currently houses “Braid Loose Pull,” a series of sculptures and prints by Hannah Fiske ’14, which explores the material and cultural weight hair carries. With paper, plaster and hair, Fiske crafts pieces which are startling in their juxtaposition of the surreal and the banal, and which prompt the viewer to engage with her interrogation of what hair can mean both on and off the head.

Fiske says that her preoccupation with hair has its origins in early childhood jealousies of older girls with abundant tresses. These youthful emotional responses matured into an interest in the physical properties of hair and the social implications it carries. 

“My real interest in hair just kind of stemmed from our society’s obsession with hair and the intriguing nature and roles that hair takes on in our lives, and also from the kind of sinuous materiality of hair,” Fiske said. “Hair has this strange duality in that it can connote such beauty when it’s attached to our head, and then when it falls on the ground people can get so disgusted by it, and I find that really interesting and strange.”

The pieces currently on display feature a combination of horse hair and human hair extensions, none of which originate from Fiske’s own head. On the contrary, she says, the project was partially inspired by a professor’s suggestion that she cut off her own hair to include in her work and her immediate visceral negative response.

“I was like ‘Well, that’s part of why I make this work, is [that] I can’t,’” Fiske said. “I would never want to do that. But why is that so true and why does hair hold so much power in our culture?”

Fiske is particularly interested in the capacity of hair to evade static meanings. While she acknowledges its role as a primary signifier by which people are identified, she also thinks that it is unique in its ability to be reshaped with relative ease. 

“My interest also stems from the kind of transformations that we [see in] our own hair, like an identity signifier, but also as we age,” Fiske said. “It starts out as this kind of playful, innocent thing, and then it becomes a way for us to manipulate our identity, and then also becomes this central aspect to our identity.”

The pieces on display span a range of artistic disciplines. Among them are a series of six ink-embossed prints made with polycarbonate and horse hair which hang illuminated in silhouette in front of standing lights. The show also features mounted sculptures of hair wrapped into ropes with twine, plaster sculptures made from moulds of braids that transition into actual hair and segments of hair, which loop in and out of small boxes, establishing a notable tension between the disparate textures. Fiske attributes her ability to craft a cohesive show to this wide range of mediums, which she feels enabled her to work on a single topic over a longer period of time without getting bored.

Fiske also feels that, as a fourth-year art major, expanding the boundaries of her skill set has enabled her to grow as an artist while still maintaining the focus on self-reflection that has always driven her work. For her, “Braid Loose Pull” is another way of expressing the personal subject matter she approached through portraits as a first-year.

“I started [my career at Grinnell] doing a lot more figurative work … I enjoy doing it, but it’s a bit more obsessive to me and I kind of become crazed trying to do everything perfectly when I do more figurative work,” Fiske said. “Taking sculpture was the first time I did more abstracted work, and it kind of freed me in a way to not be quite as obsessive, and to focus on concept more, rather than just trying to make an image perfected … I think my work has always been autobiographical, but [it’s] moving from figurative to more conceptual.”

One piece in Hannah Fiske’s exhibit, “Braid Loose Pull,” which explores the cultural significance of hair. Photo by Eric Mistry.
One piece in Hannah Fiske’s exhibit, “Braid Loose Pull,” which explores the cultural significance of hair. Photo by Eric Mistry.
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